As protests go, last week’s Operation Gridlock was one of the larger gatherings to descend on Lansing in recent years. Not since the 2012 Right to Work (for Less) rally drew 10,000 protesters and counterprotesters to the State Capitol grounds has an issue mobilized so many Michigan citizens to descend en masse on the home of their state government. The aptly named anti-Whitmer, pro-Trump rally largely succeeded in its stated objective to tie up traffic in the capital city for most of the day as a protest against personal restrictions and business closures mandated by the governor’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” executive orders.
Local officials clearly weren’t expecting the deluge of vehicles that converged on the capital city from every point on the compass and were seemingly unprepared to handle the mess. City of Lansing public safety officials quickly issued a series of defensive-sounding statements highlighting the unprecedented nature of the event and promising to do better if it happens again. We won’t belabor the obvious lack of contingency planning on the part of state and local law enforcement agencies and hope they will have a more tactical, coordinated approach going forward. Experience can be a cruel teacher, but we’re confident that important lessons were learned.
We’re also grateful that no one died as a result of apparent difficulties in accessing Sparrow Health System’s main campus on Michigan Avenue. We don’t think blocking ingress and egress to the hospital was an explicit objective of the protesters, but Facebook blew up with posts alleging that protest-related vehicles were blocking the entrance to the hospital. Online photos depicted an ambulance apparently caught in a traffic jam. It goes without saying that any delay is unacceptable — mere minutes can be the difference between life and death. While a Sparrow spokesman issued a firm denial that the cavalcade of cars had done anything more than cause minor delays in the hospital’s shift change, the nurse’s union issued a contradictory claim that ambulances were indeed impeded. Wherever the truth lies, Sparrow can also shoulder some blame for failing to plan for the worst. We recommend it work more closely with Lansing public safety and traffic control staff to ensure unfettered access to the hospital no matter what happens in the future.
We stand firmly on the side of the constitutional right of all citizens to air grievances in public, even when we vehemently disagree with their agenda. We can also tolerate mild forms of civil disobedience when it is justified to make a valid point. But we cannot countenance actions that recklessly endanger the lives of others. In this case, the blatant violations of Governor Whitmer’s social distancing edicts by dozens of gun-toting protesters clearly crossed the line and should have drawn a more aggressive response from the Michigan State Police and Lansing police.
We understand the reticence of our first responders to put their own health at risk by engaging protesters, but it is part and parcel of the hazards they face every day to keep us all safe. If a similar event is staged again, officers should be directed to enforce the law and issue misdemeanor citations. We were encouraged by Mayor Andy Schor’s post-fiasco statement vowing more aggressive enforcement if more social distancing-averse protesters make another appearance. At the request of state officials, Facebook also wisely stopped allowing the use of its platform to organize and promote similar rallies across the country.
It will surprise no one that last week’s fiasco was a production of the DeVos-funded Michigan Conservative Coalition, Michigan Freedom Fund and affiliated right-wing groups that apparently can’t resist the opportunity to make political hay during the worst health and economic crisis in modern U.S. history. Sadly, encouraging the faithful to endanger their own lives appears to be part of the Trump reelection strategy. Not surprisingly, Trump himself heaped praise on the protesters, calling them “my people” and stupidly encouraging them to continue risking their lives to highlight whatever nonsensical point they are trying to make.
As with any large-scale protest, this soiree attracted an eclectic amalgam of participants, from camouflage-clad, gun-toting man-children waving around their military-style firearms for no apparent reason, to frustrated landscapers and other small business owners worried about their ability to survive the COVID economic cataclysm, to flag-waving Trumpeteers for whom our pathetic excuse of a president can do no wrong. COVID deniers rank right up there with climate change deniers in their utter obliviousness to science and data. It’s ironic that some of them may end up dying from COVID-19 as a result of their participation in Operation Give Me COVID. Of course, the most disconcerting upshot of this fiasco is the distinct possibility that some of the participants will take their new coronavirus infections back to wherever they call home and possibly infect still more people, including their own loved ones. We would make a snide comment about Darwin Award winners, but we sincerely feel sorry for the rank stupidity that may well cost one or more of them their life.
There are abundant lessons to be learned during any crisis. Let’s hope last week’s debacle was a teachable moment both for local officials as a primer in how not to handle gridlocked traffic, and for those who attended the rally as a reminder that it is sometimes better to keep your mouth shut than to open it and remove all doubt that you are, indeed, an idiot.