St. Paul, MN – In opposition to the state of Minnesota’s Stay At Home order, over five hundred people protested in front of the Governor’s Residence on Friday, April 17. The protest, called ‘Liberate Minnesota‘, was one in a slew of recent right-wing protests across the country calling for an end to business shutdowns caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Disclaimer: the viewpoints in the above video do not represent those of Unicorn Riot. Some of the opinions represented are contrary to evidence produced by the scientific community.
Unicorn Riot was live on the ground during two hours of the rally at the Governor’s mansion. We interviewed four of the main organizers of the protest and dozens of attendees who ranged from small business owners to anti-vaccine and 5G conspiracy proponents, a member of the Proud Boys hate group, and a handful of counter-protesters. In this report we take a deep dive into the pre-existing networks that generated this rally and similar ones around the country.
Most of the anti-quarantine, pro-Trump crowd intermingled freely on St. Paul’s Summit Avenue without masks, disregarding social distancing recommendations meant to curb transmission of COVID-19. Dozens of cars, trucks, and motorcycles circled the block repeatedly while revving their engines and honking their horns.
The protest was festive in atmosphere and featured many U.S.A. and Trump 2020 flags. Protesters held signs, most with statements revolving around the views that their jobs and their freedom are “essential” and demands to re-open the state and the economy.
The protest featured a few local politicians including Minnesota Libertarian Party Chairman Chris Holbrook, former 2nd District Congressman Jason Lewis (who is challenging U.S. Senator Tina Smith in November), and State Representative Jeremy Munson (R-Lake Crystal). Munson is part of the New House Republican Caucus, a faction of the Republican Party. Munson has been a vocal opponent to Gov Walz’s Stay At Home executive order and posted a Facebook picture posing with one of the rally organizers, Don Huizenga.
Elements of more hardcore right-wing organizations were in attendance, including several III Percenter Militia members, Oathkeepers, and a man who professed to be a member of the far-right ‘western chauvinist’ Proud Boys, who have been active in these cross-country actions. But most of the crowd was a mix of capitalists looking to get back to work.
Who’s Behind the Wave of Right-Wing Protests?
These cross-country protests have raised many questions as to who is funding and backing them. One of the first large protests on April 15, Operation Gridlock, took place in Lansing, Michigan. The organizers are linked to the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, Betsy DeVos, through far-right political action groups funded by her family that promoted the protest.
Copied from Michigan, rallies in different states used similar description language in their Facebook groups, which are the main organizing platform for these protests.
A Facebook group titled ReOpen Minnesota was created on April 14 and has over 22,900 members as of April 21. The original name of the group was Minnesotans Against Excessive Quarantine. They use similar language in their description to that of the group Pennsylvanians Against Excessive Quarantine, a Facebook page also created on April 14 which currently has over 70,000 members.
In the Facebook description of ReOpen Minnesota, a link to ReOpenMN.com brings the viewer to the website of right-wing gun advocacy group, Minnesota Gun Rights. A link in the description of the ReOpen Pennsylvania Facebook group asks people to go to ReOpenPA.com, which brings you to the Pennsylvania Firearms Association website. The Pennsylvania site lists Minnesota Gun Rights as an affiliate, among many similar groups with like symbols.
Over a dozen of the affiliated and ReOpen sites are run by the notorious Dorr family, who’ve been called out as scammers and grifters, swindling fundraising money from conservative political causes. The Dorr family has created at least five websites for states in this new wave of ReOpen protests; Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio, New York, and Pennsylvania.
In 2015, a politically bipartisan group of 16 Second Amendment advocates shunned the Dorr family’s Minnesota Gun Rights group for predatory practices.
In Minnesota, mainstream conservatives have sought to sideline parts of this broader alignment. The Republican Party of Minnesota (RPM) and the official House and Senate Republican caucuses went further and made a website called MNScammersExposed, with a page dedicated to Minnesota Gun Rights, calling them scammers. The site calls out the Dorr brothers directly, saying “Scamming is a family affair for brothers Ben Dorr, Chris Dorr and Aaron Dorr“.
In a thread of tweets posted by social media researcher Erin Gallagher about the Dorr family connection to the anti-quarantine protests (or grifting efforts), Gallagher links to a Facebook video (below) that shows the Dorr brothers in videos representing their gun owner clubs with similar names across several different states.
Also organizing the Minnesota protest was Action 4 Liberty, a conservative political group that grew from the Tea Party movement. Longtime follower of Minnesota’s political landscape, blogger Sally Jo Sorensen at Bluestem Prairie, notes that Action 4 Liberty, who are close with the Dorr brothers, attacked Minnesota’s Republican Senate as “FAKERS” on a Facebook post from MN GOP that had a livestream of the Liberate Minnesota protest.
Liberate Minnesota – Two of the Facebook Organizers
The Facebook event page for Liberate Minnesota had five organizers listed; Michele Even, Marni Hockenberg, Don Huizenga, Randy Quick, and Doug Malsom. During the protest, Unicorn Riot spoke with all of the organizers but Huizenga, and asked them what brought them to help organize the action.
Background information on two of these figureheads illustrates their ideals and related networks. Republican activists Marni Hockenberg and Michelle Even are known for their conservative activism. Hockenberg and Even got national attention for helping lead the grassroots protests to reinstate reciting the Pledge of Allegiance during St. Louis Park City Council meetings after it had been eliminated from the meetings a month prior. The situation garnered a few supportive tweets from President Trump, as did the Liberate Minnesota protest.
Hockenberg is also the State Director of the Minnesota Chapter of The Freedom Speaks Coalition, a 501(c)(3) based in Florida dedicated to preserving “America’s core values, principles, and proud history“. Founded by former Florida lawmaker Bev Kilmer, Freedom Speaks Coalition recently ran a day long conference on how to “protect our kids from the dangers of the LGBT ideology.”
Both banned for life from Twitter, Hockenberg and pro-Trump fraudster Laura Loomer are close friends. Loomer worked with Project Veritas on video stings aimed at liberal organizations, and seeks to marginalize Muslims from public life. She is now running for a U.S. House seat in Florida’s 21st Congressional District. Her press releases are run on syndication sites and got an extra boost from President Trump a couple days ago when he retweeted a post in favor of her candidacy for the second time in five months.
Michelle Even formed MAGAsota, a pro-Trump federal PAC late last year. Similar to Minnesota Gun Rights, MAGAsota has ruffled the establishment Republicans’ feathers, and MNScammersExposed also has a page dedicated to MAGAsota, saying they are scammers “diverting valuable volunteer time to an effort that will have a marginal effect on the actual election.”
Even got a primetime interview on Fox News after the Liberate Minnesota protest and wore a MAGAsota top. She’s also connected to the Dorr family and is an admin, along with Ben Dorr, of the Wisconsinites Against Excessive Quarantine Facebook group, which has over 103,000 members as of April 21.
In February 2019, Hockenberg and Even teamed up to pressure politicians to stop a Muslim Day celebration at the State Capitol because they said the keynote speaker, Jaylani Hussein, was from a terrorist organization. Hussein is the Executive Director of Minnesota’s chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-MN), an active non-profit Islamic advocacy group. Hockenberg falsely claims CAIR is connected to the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, who are labeled terrorist organizations by the U.S.
Hockenberg has continued her pursuit of Hussein. She organized a protest in the Fall of 2019 which prompted the cancellation of a scheduled panel discussion on dismantling hate in St. Cloud. The discussion was to have included CAIR-MN’s Hussein, FBI agents, the ACLU, the police chief and others.
Liberate Minnesota – Viewpoints & Concerns
Though this protest and the ones across the country have been pro-Trump rallies directed against Democratic governors, the attendees and organizers we spoke to at Liberate Minnesota shared concerns about how quarantine shutdowns may impact their lives. Many also spoke about their fears of government overreach as a result of responses to the pandemic.
Some protesters questioned the authorities’ motives and even the morals of modern medicine and scientists. In the past, medical institutions have carried out harmful biological experiments against vulnerable populations. French doctors recently discussed possibly testing coronavirus vaccines on Africans, which could echo a long history of unethical and racist medical experimentation.
Many attendees expressed a desire for things to go back to “normal” and a fear of being unable pay their bills and losing their businesses if the shutdown persists, others thought the virus was a hoax. An attendee wearing a mask expressed how his grandma was in the hospital and though unrelated to COVID-19, his family is not allowed to see her, and he wanted that changed.
One family we spoke with said that although they believed the pandemic was real, they wanted to get back to work. They added that one of the family members had a wedding planned for May 23 that they didn’t plan on rescheduling and it was hard to get the proper paperwork because government buildings were shut down.
We interviewed a family of protesters at #LiberateMinnesota.
They said they believed the pandemic was real (the mother revealing that one of her daughters works at Abbott), and though they felt the original 2-week #StayAtHome order was appropriate, they want the order lifted. pic.twitter.com/p6bfdacLLy
— Unicorn Riot (@UR_Ninja) April 20, 2020
Co-organizer of the protest, Marni Hockenberg, told Unicorn Riot that her small business is suffering from the shutdown and she doesn’t qualify for a small business loan and she now has “nothing to really count on” in terms of income. She said it should be each person’s choice to get back to work or not, saying “Freedom is essential and fear is a choice.”
“We’re just fed up with the tyranny of our Governor and we want to get back to work.” — Marni Hockenberg, Liberate Minnesota co-organizer
Hockenberg said she doesn’t like the shut down measures of the pandemic and felt they were efforts to get the people “used to government handouts […] they’re just really feeding us Socialism.” Before the Stay At Home orders were given in March, Hockenberg said the economy was doing great and then the “hammer and sickle dropped” when the executive order went into effect.
Hockenberg questioned the United Nations’ Agenda 2030 Immunization plan, “you know, with Agenda 2030 and then you got Bill Gates and [Anthony] Fauci and [Deborah] Birx all in on it and this whole nefarious agenda.”
Co-organizer Michelle Even said the protest was for the Minnesotans who want to go back to work to have a platform to tell their legislators and the governor that it was time to re-open the state:
“There’s people out here, their lives are being destroyed by this shutdown but that’s never covered in the media.” —Michelle Even, Liberate Minnesota Co-organizer
Even said she thinks people who are compromised, with health issues, or at-risk should be quarantined, “but the rest of us should be out there working.” She said its “bull crap” to try to mandate how businesses should be run and Governor Walz “needs to end the shutdown now and people need to go back to work […] There’s people that have saved all their lives for retirement and that is disappearing; people have worked all their lives to build a business and that’s being taken away from them and that has to stop.”
Co-organizer Doug Malsom told Unicorn Riot that this shutdown is creating a “black market” because the “economy is organic, it’s everybody here” and that Walz has no levers to stop it. Malson said the economy should open back up right now and not wait until May 4, as other lawmakers have agreed. Malson feared the White House’s three-phase plan is faulty because new tests will alter the case rate, preventing states from moving forward to the next phase.
“My understanding is that we have to have less cases for 14 straight days to go to the next phase, but we’re going to increase our testing up to 5,000 tests a day. There’s no way we’re going to have lower [cases] if we’re increasing the amount of tests we’re doing.” – Doug Malsom, Liberate Minnesota Co-organizer
When asked about the risks to the protest and opening up the economy, Malson said, “absolutely there’s risks” but said if you have underlying conditions, stay home, and the rest should “live free, not scared.”
3 Percenter militia member and co-organizer of the protest, Randy Quick, called the Stay At Home order “draconian” and said he was worried about the precedent set by the measures that could allow for the state to suspend constitutional rights.
“I think the governor’s measures are draconian, they’re unconstitutional and they’re illegal and they’re immoral. I think more people are going to die from his measures than are going to die from the virus itself.” — Randy Quick, Liberate Minnesota Co-organizer
Counter-protesters Speak Out Against Rally
A handful of counter-protesters showed up. In contrast to the anti-quarantine crowd, each one of them we saw was wearing a mask and standing mostly on the outskirts of the protest. One of the counter-protesters wearing a blue bandana said he had numerous good conversations with the ‘End the Shutdown’ crowd. He also had direct counter to what Quick had said, saying that Minnesota had low death “because we’ve done a great job” of following the Stay At Home order.
He compared Minnesota’s lower rates of infection to the higher rates in Iowa and South Dakota, neither of which has a Stay At Home order.
He said that this pandemic is causing an economic depression and that instead of the government bailing out corporations and airlines, that it “needs to get money to the people” and have them stay at home and not force anymore stress on the frontline healthcare workers. He added that the U.S. needs universal healthcare. He said that while Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is pushing for an expansion of private medical coverage, millions of people just lost their healthcare from this pandemic and cannot afford private healthcare options.
“Capitalism is not more important than people’s lives.” — Blue Bandanna Counter-protester
The blue bandana counter-protester said he felt this protest came from “Trump saying let’s open the economy back up” and called that line of thinking irresponsible, pointing to the massive Smithfield Foods meat processing plant in South Dakota that has over 600 positive cases of coronavirus as examples of why things should not reopen prematurely.
Other counter-protesters pointed to the discrepancy between the police response to this event and a protest over police killings and brutality. Local independent photojournalist KingDemetrius Pendleton said the double standard is because of “white privilege” and it was “totally preposterous“, “flapdoodle“, and “unacceptable“.
One of the counter-protesters agreed the shutdown is devastating and mentioned that the most impacted people are the ones without “adequate healthcare in the first place“.
He shared with us that he was fearful about the Black community being on the receiving end of many negative effects from this shutdown, as many who are laid off were “living check-to-check” and the government hasn’t given “wrap-around services” for those who most need it.
“The governor shut down all the businesses right, he put a freeze on evictions, but as soon as he lifts that, imagine what eviction court’s gonna look like for Black people.” — Black Bandana Counter-protester
What Comes Next?
During Governor Walz’ daily briefing on April 17, the same day of the protest, Mary Turner, an ICU nurse at North Memorial Hospital, made an emotional plea to those in Minnesota. Turner spoke about the length of time those infected are spending in ICU and to take precautions and “realize just how real and devastating” the coronavirus is to people, healthcare workers, and the hospitals.
In Kentucky, where they had a week of protests against the shutdown, a record high was set in new cases of infected individuals. As of April 21, Minnesota has seen 160 reported deaths and 237 in the hospital and 117 currently in the Intensive Care Unit. Time will tell if any of the upcoming numbers will be as a result of these gatherings that are disregarding physical distancing.
As protests continue across the country, mostly in Democratic Party-governed states, another rally to end the shutdown is planned at Minnesota’s governor’s residence on Saturday, April 25.
Jenn Schreiter contributed video and photos to this report.
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