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Protest to “Reopen Wisconsin” could bring thousands to the Capitol square next Friday


A protest against Governor Tony Evers’ “Safer at Home” order could bring thousands of people to the Capitol Square on Friday in what organizers hope is a “really great, huge turn out of calm, logical, reasonable people who stand for freedom” — whether or not they actually get a permit.

Organizers said the “Freedom Rally to #Reopen Wisconsin” would include “speakers and testimonies from small business owners, moms and dads, personal stories.” At least one state legislator had committed to speak, but organizers declined to say who.

Organizer Adrianne Melby of Burlington said in an interview Thursday that the protest is not affiliated with similar events that took place in Minnesota and Michigan this week, nor is it funded by any national or state political groups.

She said one outside group did offer financial assistance, but organizers “politely declined.”

“We wanted to keep it grassroots,” she said. 

Co-organizer Madison Elmer, Melby’s sister-in-law, said it was a “special interest group” and no one involved in the group was from Wisconsin. 

“We declined their monetary help because we didn’t want to end up being pawns,” Elmer said. 

What was initially intended to be a small gathering on the last day of the governor’s original “Safer at Home” order, which shuttered non-essential businesses and prohibited gatherings of any size outside of the home, quickly gained steam on social media this week after Evers extended the order until May 26.

“It just blew up. It started going crazy,” Elmer said.

As of Friday evening, nearly 14,000 people had responded to a Facebook event promoting the rally — 2,700 people said they would attend and another 11,000 said they were interested.

At least some of that interest might be driven by another Facebook group, “Wisconsinites Against Excessive Quarantine.” That group, established Wednesday, already has more than 80,000 members. Four of the seven administrators are from Minnesota, and the other three do not list their location in their public profiles. In addition to memes with anti-quarantine and pro-libertarian messages, the group contains some rhetoric about armed insurrection.

Members of that group have promoted the rally, but Elmer said the Reopen Wisconsin organizers are not affiliated with the Wisconsinites Against Excessive Quarantine, and the latter has nothing to do with planning the event, despite media reports to the contrary.

Meanwhile, Stephen Moore, a fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said in a YouTube video that he was working with a Wisconsin group to stage a drive-in protest similar to the one in Michigan earlier this week. He also claimed to have a Wisconsin donor set to pay the bail and fines for anyone arrested or ticketed for violating the “Safer at Home” order. 

It’s not clear whether Moore intended to reference the Reopen Wisconsin event, but Elmer and Melby maintain that no out-of-state groups are involved in planning their rally.

They do hope their event is positive and peaceful.

Melby said revolutionary rhetoric of the sort found occasionally in the Wisconsinites Against Excessive Quarantine Facebook group “goes against absolutely what we’re trying. That’s what we’re trying not to do.”

“We are really driving home that we want to work with people and be peaceful and respectful,” Elmer said. “This is coming from a place of kindness. And we want to work together.”

Elmer acknowledged that well-known gun rights activist Thomas Leager, who also runs the libertarian website “Freeman Report,” is involved in the planning as well.

Elmer said the organizers do support the Second Amendment, but anyone who decides to come armed on Friday will “need to follow Wisconsin laws with their guns.”

The protest will take place at the corner of Pinckney and Mifflin, as the Capitol Building itself is closed.

Neither Elmer nor Melby said they planned to take extraordinary measures to protect themselves in the crowd.

“I guess I can’t be guaranteed that I’m not going to get sick,” Melby said. “Speaking for myself, I will absolutely respect anybody’s desire or want to have a distance, social distance, between myself and them. Personally I’m generally not a touchy feely type of person anyway. I reserve my bubble for my family and people that I feel safe with. So we’re already going to be careful, but I think that there are some things that are important enough to take a stand on that you can’t let fear override that.”

“We’re really driving home … everybody is responsible for their own health and their safety,” Elmer said. “If they don’t feel comfortable, please stay home. If you’re worried about getting sick, or you are sick, please stay home. If you want to wear a mask you can. You’re free to wear gloves. If you feel that people are to close please ask them to move away or you can move away.”

A Public Health Madison and Dane County representative said in an email that it’s not realistic to expect a large crowd to follow state guidelines.

“Orders are in place for the safety of our community and gathering to protest them puts everyone’s health in danger,” PHMDC communications supervisor Sarah Mattes wrote. “While people may intend to stay six feet apart, maintaining that distance in reality will be difficult.”

Evers said he wasn’t frustrated at the urge to protest.

“First Amendment rights are really pretty cool,” he said in a media briefing Thursday when asked about the protest. “There’s a lot of sacrifice we’re asking … in order to save lives. Some people may not get the message and focus on what’s being taken away.”

Elmer said she had applied for a permit but that it had not yet been approved.

In an email to Madison365, Department of Administration representative Molly Vidal confirmed the permit has neither been approved nor denied at this point.

Permits requesting utilization of the Capitol grounds … are analyzed on a case-by-case basis,” she wrote. “DOA will deny permit requests for events that violate the ‘Safer at Home’ order.  DOA will also exercise its authority to deny a permit if the event poses a hazard to the safety of the public.”

Either way, the rally will go on, Elmer vowed.

We will rally no matter what, if it gets approved or denied,” she said.

Both Capitol Police and the City of Madison Police Department expressed that they would prefer voluntary compliance with the “Safer and Home” order and do not want to make arrests.

“Treating us like disobedient teenagers”

Both Elmer and Melby understand the coronavirus is a real threat to many people, but they disagree with the way government at all levels has handled it.

“I think the government, the whole government, our federal government, our local government, they are only taking the physical aspect of this into account,” Melby said. “And nobody is taking consideration of the other side of this. How people are doing on the other side. How we’re suffering on the other side. They aren’t working with psychologists. They’re not working with economists on this. They’re not working with the Moms and Dads. They’re not even asking us what we want. They’re deciding for us.”

“I think it would be better as a stay-at-home suggestion,” rather than an order, Elmer said. “Use common sense.”

But what is common sense, in this case?

“Common sense isn’t to totally avoid people and become a recluse and stand 6 feet away from somebody because you’re scared of getting sick,” Elmer said. “To me it’s not anyway.”

“I get the feeling the Governor is treating us like disobedient teenagers and grounding everybody rather than giving a set list of recommendations, really,” Melby said. “Then just saying, ‘We understand that there are people who might be more susceptible to the coronavirus, or who might have underlying health conditions, and you might want to consider A, B and C to make sure that you stay healthy,’ without having to just broadly shut down the entire state.”

Elmer said she wasn’t sure whether or not everyone could be trusted to follow such recommendations, though.

“We have to put a lot of trust in people every day,” she said. “Whether we’re driving in our car or sending them to school. I don’t personally view viruses and sicknesses and colds like this is a big deal though. I know some people do, and their concerns are valid.

Melby and Elmer say it boils down to personal responsibility.

“I have a healthy body. I take care of myself. I am responsible for my health and the health of my family. I don’t trust the government to make the best decisions for individuals,” Elmer said. “They treat us as a one size fits all.”

But it’s also about not really trusting the government more broadly — nor the information presented about the virus.

“The numbers don’t add up,” Elmer said. “I think a lot of people have a lot of distrust in our government because they’re not just being transparent.”

But Elmer also said she wouldn’t believe the coronavirus requires this level of social distancing, no matter who told her.

“No matter. That would be so hard for me to believe,” she said. “This came out of nowhere. It’s like we have uprooted our whole lives for this. So that would take some serious digging and like some serious question asking.”

Both Elmer and Melby said it’s sad that the response to the virus has become political.  

“I think that it should not be a partisan issue,” Melby said, adding that she would sitll protest if it were former Republican governor Scott Walker who’d issued the “Safer at Home” order. “I believe that there are enough people on both sides who are being affected, both sides of the partisan issue, to make it a bi-partisan issue.”

“Nobody’s working together to meet in the middle and help each other,” Elmer said. “Like, ‘hey let’s help each other on both sides of this. Let’s work together and make this good for everybody on both sides.’”