Since the coronavirus emerged, the most visible clashes over the stay-at-home orders meant to combat the virus’ spread have played out at state capitols, with armed men trying to rush the Michigan state house or protesters clashing with California Highway Patrol officers in Sacramento.
But last Saturday, the front lines of coronavirus culture wars began moving away from the epicenters of government and closer towards actual Main Street.
Last weekend, the Bad “S” Icehouse in the small Gulf Coast town of Oyster Creek, Texas, became the scene of one such confrontation after owner Shauntae Johnston was set to reopen in defiance of Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) executive order closing bars. Facing the possibility that sheriff’s deputies would shut Johnston down, gun owners from across the state headed to her establishment, several of them armed with rifles and sporting Hawaiian shirts along with their rifles—a symbol of the anti-government “Boogaloo” movement, which advocates for a second civil war.
“If the police are calling in reinforcements, then I’m calling in reinforcements,” C.J. Grisham, the president of Open Carry Texas and a strident Texas gun right activist, said in a video urging his followers to “outnumber the police” at the bar. Grisham himself didn’t attend the protest.
David Amad, the vice-president of Open Carry Texas, went further in another video, comparing the county sheriff to a villain from “Robin Hood.”
“We need all the firepower we can get, because apparently we have a sheriff down there who thinks he’s the sheriff of Nottingham,” Amad said.
There was eventually no serious confrontation between the deputies and Johnston’s supporters, after Johnston backed down on plans to hold a concert. But the rally still appeared to portend a dangerous new trend: armed protesters showing up at businesses operating in the face of social distancing orders, daring law enforcement officials to shut them down.
A similar scene played out elsewhere in Texas on Monday, but with more serious consequences for the armed protesters. Wielding rifles described by law enforcement as AR-15 style, supporters of West Odessa bar Big Daddy Zane’s surrounded the business, promising to protect it from sheriff’s deputies looking to enforce Abbott’s order.
But Ector County Sheriff’s deputies responded with firearms of their own. In footage that later went viral, sheriff’s deputies—backed up by an armored vehicle with a gunner on its roof—approached the protesters while aiming guns at them. Bar owner Gabrielle Ellison was arrested for violating the order, along with six protesters charged with possessing firearms on a licensed property.
The deputies’ response to the protesters was widely criticized in conservative circles as overreach, and the sheriff’s department has been deluged with threats in the aftermath.
Other armed protesters showed up to “protect” Dallas’ Salon A La Mode, where owner Shelley Luther became a hero on the right for operating her business in the face of social distancing restrictions. Luther briefly faced a jail term for refusing to open, after refusing a judge’s offering to face only a fine if she apologized and agreed to abide by the order. Abbott ordered her release on Thursday.
The vast majority of public polling shows wide support for governments to continue aggressive social distancing efforts to combat Covid-19. And, accordingly, the protests of stay at home orders at various state capitals have been modestly attended, and not always by people committed to the cause. The demonstrations have become staging grounds for anti-vaccine advocates, small government activists, and hardcore gun supporters, according to Howard Graves, a senior research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project.
“That’s a really cynical way of them using anti-lockdown protests as a way to put forth their views, their anti-government beliefs, particularly around guns,” Graves said. “I’m not really convinced that these folks really necessarily care about quarantine or local businesses.”
Some of those protesters include supporters of the “boogaloo,” self-described “boog boys” who share a culture of elaborate anti-government memes. The term “boogaloo” is a play on the movie Breakin 2’: Electric Boogaloo, with the idea that the protesters are hoping for “Civil War 2: Electric Boogaloo.”
Despite the novelty of their memes and Hawaiian shirts, however, Graves said the armed “boogaloo” protesters purporting to defend businesses are repeating much of the same rhetoric used by earlier anti-government groups and militias.
“It fits pretty well with their past calls for violent insurrection,” Graves said.