Debate over reopening US plays out online and in the streets
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Washington (AFP) –
When his business was hit by a coronavirus lockdown, Josh Ellis saw a threat to his livelihood and a breach of the US Constitution. So he went on Facebook and called for protests.
The appeal "went viral instantly," said the 40-year-old, who set up a Facebook page called American Revolution 2.0 in early April.
The organization is now a driving force behind demonstrations against stay-at-home orders and compulsory closures of non-essential businesses -- and online planning is a central part of the campaign.
Ellis -- who is coordinating with various "reopen" groups, as well as militias and gun and religious rights advocates -- is in the middle of an issue dividing the United States: how can the economy reopen, and when can people return to work?
The debate reflects broader divisions in American politics that have only deepened this year, with the presidential election on the horizon.
The nation's coronavirus death toll is now approaching 100,000, but with more and more states loosening their restrictions in recent days, pressure appears to be paying off.
New demonstrations that Ellis said are set for Monday will be the result of online collaboration, as were dozens of protests on May 1 that were coordinated by American Revolution 2.0.
- 'Treason' -
"Facebook is handy but it's not, by far, our only means," the Illinois resident told AFP of his efforts, with Twitter, Telegram, and the American Revolution 2.0 website also playing a role.
Facebook groups advocating reopening, some of which have been shut down by the social network, have sprung up around the US.
While some consider protests -- which have involved armed demonstrators in states including Michigan -- as the way to pressure officials to change their stance, others have used Facebook to talk about a less confrontational exit from lockdown.
Ellis, though, is not changing course.
He wants restrictions lifted "immediately," telling of how roughly half his business -- home remodeling and working as a handyman -- was deemed non-essential.
He says his father-in-law's restaurant was "basically shut down," and his stepfather-in-law's work as a dentist stopped completely.
Ellis describes the measures as "extreme constitutional violations" that are tantamount to "treason."
He said he was recently given control of the My Militia website, which advertises itself as "An American Patriot Network" and is listed under "Our Friends and Affiliates" on American Revolution 2.0's site.
It's "kinda like the Google search of local militias," according to Ellis, who sees a role for them to play in ensuring the coronavirus restrictions end.
It "gives us more of the people who are going to show up and do something."
- Exchanging ideas -
Misinformation about the novel coronavirus and the COVID-19 disease it causes has circulated widely on Facebook and spread in some "reopen" groups, adding to mistrust about a public health emergency that remains more virulent in the US than any other country.
The viral "Plandemic" video -- which features a discredited researcher and makes various false or misleading claims -- is one example. It has been shared in multiple "reopen" groups and extensively elsewhere on Facebook.
While other protest movements in the US and elsewhere have previously used the internet to organize, the fact that social distancing guidelines have been in place posed a specific challenge for social media sites.
"Events that defy (a) government's guidance on social distancing aren't allowed on Facebook," said a spokesman for the company, while Twitter said it is working to remove coronavirus-related content urging action that could cause harm.
Cory Hedgepeth, a founder of REOPEN AMERICA, a Facebook group with more than 30,000 members, is taking a distinctly different approach to Ellis.
"We wanted to give people, liberals and conservatives, suffering from job and/or financial loss a place to share their thoughts," the 44-year-old Pennsylvania resident, who works in copywriting and digital marketing, told AFP, noting that the group is not organizing protests.
While REOPEN AMERICA relies on Facebook to help "raise awareness for American worker hardships," Hedgepeth also lamented its "troubling" dominant position in social media.
"We serve as a platform that allows people to exchange ideas and concepts," Hedgepeth said, but "we support those who protest safely and with good intentions."
- Divisive debate -
The divisions over reopening remain sharp, including within the US government.
President Donald Trump has urged people to "LIBERATE" Michigan, Virginia and Minnesota, but his top infectious disease expert, Anthony Fauci, has been more cautious, warning of an uncontrollable new outbreak if the reopening process happens too quickly.
This could lead to "suffering and death that could be avoided," and "could even set you back on the road to trying to get economic recovery," Fauci told US lawmakers this month.
For Darrell West, author of "Divided Politics, Divided Nation: Hyperconflict in the Trump Era," the reopening dispute reflects broader fissures.
"Our polarization has built up over several decades," he told AFP, arguing that the protests come from "a rather small group... unhappy with their loss of personal liberty."
"People see COVID through their own partisan lens," West said. "Since Trump attacks experts, it is hard for them to trust scientific expertise."
Ellis dismissed fears that reopening could lead to unnecessary deaths as essentially saying that "Americans are stupid and incapable" of safeguarding their own health.
"We have to adapt as an American society to the conditions," he said. "Shelter-in-place orders have actually just stunted that by months."
© 2020 AFP