Last week, a photo of bug-eyed protesters in Trump hats picketing outside the Ohio Statehouse went viral. The demonstration was one of dozens around the nation seemingly put together by ordinary people who were fed up and begging their state governments to lift stay-at-home orders and reopen businesses.
As it turns out, the protests haven't exactly been a true grassroots uprising. Gun-rights groups, anti-vaxxers, and far-right militia movements have used Facebook and other social networks to spread misinformation and mobilize followers for in-person and drive-thru demonstrations.
Now, one of those protests is headed to Miami. According to a promotional image circulating on social media, simultaneous demonstrations are in the works for this weekend in Orlando and Tallahassee as well.
"Stand for freedom & against the Democrat driven unconstitutional lockdown," the digital flyer reads. "We must reopen Florida & rebuild our economy!"
One of the only clues about who's behind the protest comes from a line at the bottom, which links to 1776.shop. The e-commerce site, which sells #HimToo T-shirts and a Roger Stone-branded drink tumbler, is run by Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio of Miami.
Tarrio tells New Times he didn't mention the Proud Boys in promotional materials because he thinks his affiliation is irrelevant.
"[Most] people aren't in the know, for one, of who the Proud Boys are," Tarrio says. "I don't think people care right now whoever put this together. I think a lot of people are eager to get out and work."
Tarrio says a local coalition of small-business owners, which he declined to name, plans to attend the demonstration. Although he agrees with phased plans from President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to reopen the country and the state for business, Tarrio says small-business owners should protest the economic fallout from the pandemic.
"A lot of small businesses are hurting. We're also seeing that a big portion of this money coming from the SBA [Small Business Administration] is hogged up by corporations that really don't need it," he says.
In Miami-Dade, large gatherings have been banned, and groups of fewer than ten people are required to practice social distancing. In a press conference yesterday, Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez insinuated that police might intervene if protesters broke those rules.
"It's illegal to gather more than ten people in one place, and so... if you have a gathering of 200 people, that's inherently against the order," the mayor said. (Tarrio says protesters will "do the six-foot thing, masks, the whole nine.")
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Over the past week, the Proud Boys have been spotted at anti-lockdown protests in Michigan and Ohio. In one instance, members in a truck helped block the entrance to a hospital in Lansing:
The Michigan Proud Boys organized a blockade of the intersection at a green light outside Sparrow Hospital.— Chad Loder (@chadloder) April 15, 2020
A doctor came out of the hospital to plead with them to let the ambulances through. pic.twitter.com/B1wXOSMEsR
Tarrio himself will have a hard time spreading his message to the masses. Because of his quite public association with the Proud Boys, a far-right group whose members appeared at the white supremacist-led Unite the Right rally in 2017, he has been de-platformed from a number of online sites, including Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Chase Bank and the credit-card-processing system Square have banned 1776.shop from using their services.
In November, Tarrio announced he would run for Congress in Florida's 27th District, challenging incumbent Donna Shalala, a Democrat. So far, his opponents have left him in their fundraising dust: As of March 31, Tarrio had raised $8,158 to Shalala's $1.9 million. Maria Elvira Salazar, the more mainstream Republican candidate in the race, had raised $1.1 million.