Susan J. Demas: Michigan gets a true movement for freedom — and it’s not about haircuts

June 15, 2020 7:04 am

Lansing police brutality protest, May 31, 2020 | Anna Liz Nichols

The arguments against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s emergency orders to fight a pandemic that’s killed almost 5,800 in Michigan were always fundamentally unserious, spread through inaccurate right-wing scare memes about seeds and baby seats being barred from stores.

That culminated with the right deciding that the perfect symbol for their cause was Karl Manke, the “Freedom Barber” who illegally reopened his Owosso shop, because everyone knows “Joe the Plumber” won the 2008 election for John McCain over that egghead Barack Obama (he did not).

Manke got some extra special “protection” from heavily armed militiamen (something that didn’t happen to make it into certain glowing coverage). That was appropriate, since they showed up to the extremist Lansing protests, too, both inside and outside the Capitol, blending in with the Confederate flags, swastikas and signs calling for Whitmer’s murder quite well. (The self-proclaimed civility police tellingly stayed silent).

Silver-tongued corporate lobbyists and Republicans argued this wasn’t about something as trivial as haircuts during a plague. Oh no, it was a full-on fight for capitalistic freedom! Sure, 117,000 Americans have died of COVID-19 — more than the World War I death toll — but what about their stock portfolios?

As Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick put it, “There are more important things than living. And that’s saving this country for my children and my grandchildren and saving this country for all of us.”

But while some Republicans are going for the full “Die for the economy” play, others still insist their constant whining during a time of mass death just about good old-fashioned freedom.

Lucky for them, there is now a mass movement dedicated to freedom that has been building for decades and now spread to every corner of the country — and dwarfs the right-wing Astroturf protests during COVID-19 lockdowns. It’s about the freedom of Black people to walk down the street, shop in stores and sleep in their cars without police officers brutally murdering them with few — often no — repercussions.

It’s about the unkept promise of our country that all men — and yes, women — are created equal. It’s about the unfinished revolution after the Civil War that first birthed Radical Reconstruction and then was violently undone in the Redemption and Jim Crow. It’s about the fact that the fundamental civil and voting rights finally won in the 1950s and 1960s weren’t the end of the struggle, but a new beginning — especially as we’ve seen how easily they can be rolled back.

And it’s a movement that has sparked solidarity with white people starting to acknowledge their privilege and others who have had their freedoms chipped away at and snuffed out during the Trump era, from LGBTQ people to immigrants to women. That’s inspired people in more than 2,000 cities across the country — including dozens in Michigan — to rise up and demand real structural change.

Black Lives Matter is the ultimate freedom movement.

So where are the Republicans? Aren’t they supposed to be all about that, from the Tea Party to MAGA? U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), notably the only Republican senator who voted for Trump’s removal, marched last weekend, carrying on the civil rights legacy of his father, former Michigan Gov. George Romney.

But the cavalry never came. It’s been three weeks of protests. There’s been plenty of time. This movement isn’t going away. And yet Republicans have been content to fall behind Trump, who sent in the National Guard to crack down on D.C. demonstrators (at a cost of $21 million a day) and tear-gassed his own citizens for a church photo op. Suddenly those cheering the Freedom Barber for breaking the law are back to screaming about “LAW & ORDER!” as the president keeps tweeting.

State-sanctioned violence is about cracking down on freedom, not expanding it, just to put a fine point on this.

So again, where are Republicans?

Let’s recall that the GOP-led Michigan Senate refused to take any action against Sen. Dale Zorn (R-Ida) for wearing a Confederate flag mask and House Democrats’ letter asking the chamber to condemn right-wing protesters’ “expressions of racist and anti-Semitic symbology” was roundly ignored.

What all this has shown, in stark relief, is that when most of the right talks about fighting for freedom, they’re talking about guys like Manke and the angry white folks who swarmed the Capitol with automatic-style rifles and “Tyrant Bitch” anti-Whitmer signs.

They don’t care about the freedom of women to make our own health care decisions. They don’t care about the freedom of LGBTQs not to be fired just for loving who they do. They don’t care about immigrant kids having their freedom obliterated while being locked in cages.

And they sure as hell don’t care about the freedom of African Americans like George Floyd who died after a cop pushed his knee on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds while he pleaded, “I can’t breathe” like dozens of others before him.

The mostly small right-wing protests at the Capitol were fundamentally about rallying behind Trump and bleating about the inconveniences we’ve had to deal with during a pandemic, masquerading an uprising against oppression. With Black Lives Matter, all the pretense and artifice of those efforts has been stripped away.

If you really want to fight oppression, you can join with millions in Black Lives Matter protests. Otherwise, your cries for freedom don’t just ring hollow. We now know exactly who you believe deserves it — and who doesn’t.

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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 23-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on C-SPAN, MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQ people, the state budget, the economy and more. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 100 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive.