An Oregon Rally Against Staying Home Risks Conservatives’ Health to Benefit President Trump

“Sounds like civil war time and we’re not talking football,” one Timber Unity commenter wrote April 19.

SHAKE IT OFF: Patriot Prayer protesters in Battle Ground, Wash., one year ago. (Justin Katigbak)

The event: ReOpen Oregon, a May 2 rally at the state Capitol in Salem.

It's expected to mirror an April 19 protest in Olympia, Wash., where thousands crowded the Capitol's steps, sans masks, in open defiance of stay-home orders to slow the spread of COVID-19.

What protesters want: For Oregon Gov. Kate Brown to lift social distancing mandates and reopen businesses statewide. "Gov. Brown has unconstitutionally restricted our freedom of assembly, infringed upon our right to freely worship, and closed access to public lands," the event description says. "For these reasons and more, let us gather as one people."

Who's organizing it: A group called Oregon Uniting for Liberty is behind the state's May 2 event. The group was created just two weeks ago, on April 8, according to its Facebook page, but the closed group has already yielded 1,300 members. The key organizer appears to be Yvonne Griffith, who provides scant personal information on her public-facing Facebook page, but who often shares posts in support of the Republican walkout and the anti-vaxxer movement. On April 9, Griffith asked her followers if any of them wanted to conduct a citizen's arrest of Gov. Brown. (Griffith did not respond to a request for comment.)

Oregon Uniting for Liberty has been endorsed by a new political operation, ReOpen America, which was founded last month by Suzzanne Monk, a Washington, D.C.-based Trump supporter. The same group has backed a handful of nearly identical "ReOpen" protests nationwide in states like Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania.

What police say: Captain Timothy Fox, spokesman for the Oregon State Police, tells WW it's possible for police to arrest or issue a Class C misdemeanor to people gathered in large crowds, but not likely: "Police action is extremely undesirable," Fox wrote, "and we hope to educate citizens if congregating in violation of the Governor's Order."

Why it matters: The protests may seem familiar, even wearyingly predictable, to Oregonians who've watched right-wing groups use Portland for political theater—and brawls—intended to energize President Trump's base. Indeed, longtime Patriot Prayer organizer Joey Gibson attended the Olympia rally last weekend.

Watchdogs of political extremism see similarities and differences. What alarms Eric Ward, director of the Western States Center, is that ReOpen America formed a federal political action committee April 15. Ward says the PAC is significant because it indicates the group is seeking to select and support candidates for elected office.

Unlike the protests on the streets of Portland over the past three years, Ward says, these new protest groups appear to be a part of a coordinated political campaign. "This looks different," Ward says, "because we can actually see top political operatives and supporters stepping forward in the evolution of these protests very early on."

Some Oregon conservatives are receptive. Steve Pedery, director of environmental nonprofit Oregon Wild, says commenters are agitating for defiance of stay-home orders on the Facebook page of Timber Unity—the coalition of truckers and loggers who opposed a cap on carbon emissions. "Sounds like civil war time and we're not talking football," one Timber Unity commenter wrote April 19. (A spokeswoman for Timber Unity said the group's board has not taken a position on the May 2 rally.)

If some of this sounds like a call for a violent uprising, that's no accident, says Randy Blazak, a Portland consultant who studies extremist movements. "There's a much darker element of this: to push for their boogaloo, which is the second American Revolution."

Ward says the cynicism displayed by President Trump and his allies is staggering—because the rallies risk the health of participants to aid the political fortunes of the White House.

"I've never witnessed political leadership be so willing to sacrifice its base like this," Ward says. "Folks are willing to put their own political base in caskets in order to try to maintain polling."

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