By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org
Gov. Ron DeSantis is answering President Donald Trump’s call to boost economic recovery from the coronavirus by reopening most of Florida faster than public health experts want.
Even so, last month saw small but high-profile rallies in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, Tampa and Fort Myers, all based on the same complaint: Jobs, services and entertainment aren’t springing back quickly enough.
Standing shoulder-to-shoulder and mask-free, protesters in Orlando were pictured hoisting signs that read, “Respect Our Rights,” “Tyranny is when you restrict the movement of healthy people,” “Plandemic” and “Trump 2020.” Some blocked roads with motorcycle or car caravans.
The demonstrators might not have known they’d been organized by far-right activists whose views may be more extreme than theirs. Outside agitators are manipulating Floridians during a health crisis to serve their own ends, researchers and media say.
The extremists are astroturfing, which means they’re hiding their support in order to claim widespread, grassroots backing. Through websites and Facebook groups, gun-rights crusaders and other ultra-conservatives are nurturing the nascent reopen-Florida movement to promote various political and financial agendas.
“Right-wing funders are involved in these protests,” said Cassie Miller, a senior research analyst for the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). “My concern is that they’re taking advantage of this moment.”
A lot of pent-up political energy is redirected into the anti-lockdown protests, Miller said. The pro-gun and reopen forces ally themselves against “the same political equation. They see this as government tyranny. It’s all government overstepping in their minds. They’re out there to stand up against that perceived tyranny.”
Miller singled out as “political opportunists” the Proud Boys, the far-right group noted for supporting Trump ally and convicted felon Roger Stone, among other things. Vice Media co-founder Gavin McInnes started the all-male Proud Boys in New York in 2016; now it has chapters throughout the U.S.
“The Proud Boys saw how much media attention these rallies were getting and they wanted to get in on it,” Miller said. “They know how to create a spectacle to draw attention to themselves.”
A ‘proto-fascist’ for Congress?
The group’s current leader, Enrique Tarrio, attended the 2017 Charlottesville, VA, Unite the Right white supremacist and neo-Nazi rally that took the life of counter-protester Heather Heyer.
Tarrio helped organize last month’s reopen rally in Miami. “For him this is part of campaigning,” Miller said. He’s running for Congress against U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala (D-Miami).
Tarrio said about the rallies, “This is where the battle for the 2020 election starts,” according to an April 27 report by the SPLC, a nonprofit, public interest advocacy group based in Montgomery, AL.
The report links reopen rallies to the Proud Boys’ political ambitions. “They are the perfect platform for the proto-fascist group to make the case that the will of a small minority of Americans – the hyper-individualistic ‘patriots’ who attend these rallies – should supersede democratic processes, and that individual desires should trump the collective public good,” it says.
“The protests also provide other benefits: the chance to launch their ideas into wider right-wing circles, further cement their status as core members of the Trump coalition, build relationships with local politicians and gain attention from outlets like Fox News,” according to the SPLC.
Plus, they’re money-makers. Promotional posters for the Miami event directed supporters to the Proud Boys’ online 1776.shop, where they can buy stuff like an Infowars battlehorn ($200), a Proud Boys rally bomber jacket ($70) and a T-shirt that says, “Roger Stone – Gagged but not forgotten” ($33).
The SPLC is defending itself against the Proud Boys in Alabama federal court. Former leader McInnis’s lawsuit claims the center defamed him by listing the Proud Boys as a hate group when it’s really “a pro-Western fraternal organization for men who refuse to apologize for creating the modern world.”
Nobody does guns like the Dorrs
But the SPLC didn’t tag the Proud Boys with seeding the national reopen movement. That distinction reportedly belongs to the Dorr brothers of Iowa: Aaron, Ben, Chris and Matt. Before the pandemic they tried to corner the market on pro-gun advocacy, even denouncing the Republican Party as soft on gun rights.
The Republican Party of Minnesota called the Dorrs “scam artists” who are “actively just building their own brand and raising money,” Germany’s DW Magazine reported. The SPLC report says the Dorrs take in hundreds of thousands annually by operating pro-gun and anti-abortion groups.
To sidestep lobbying rules, the Dorrs have said they’re merely serving the public good. Chris Dorr, board chairman of Ohio Gun Owners, claimed it was doing “pro-gun grassroots mobilization,” according to the Washington Post.
The Dorrs see themselves as competitors of the National Rifle Association. When they went after the NRA’s Florida lobbyist Marion Hammer, she responded the Dorrs are not “real Floridians,” according to the Florida Gun Rights website. The Dorrs operate Florida Gun Rights, a 2015 story on the Ammoland website says.
Seizing an opportunity to expand their reach to the reopen protests, the Dorrs secretly registered hundreds of customized state reopen domain names just before the Florida reopen protests in April, cyber researchers found.
Websites such as ReOpenPA typically redirect visitors to gun rights organizations that cheerlead for reopen demonstrations. Some websites are called [Fill in state name] Against Excessive Quarantine; others use the word liberate.
Astroturfing strikes a Florida liberal
Michael Murphy, a Sebastian, FL small-business owner, watched the reopen sites multiply and read about the Dorrs with growing alarm. He took on thousands of dollars in credit card debt to buy up a bunch of domains so that no one else could, he said in an interview with Florida Bulldog.
After an initial flurry of state reopen purchases, Krebs on Security looked at how they were registered in batches, compared their coding, and concluded that Murphy was behind at least some of them. The report raised such a ruckus that Murphy regretted his generosity.
“I got death threats. They were posting my address and phone number, they were breaking into Facebook pages. They thought I was some right-wing gun nut trying to reopen America,” he said.
Finally DW Magazine wrote sympathetically about Murphy, described astroturfing, and focused on the Dorrs’ involvement with anti-lockdown sites.
Murphy was grateful, but noted, “Nobody really knows what the real story is.” Outspokenly liberal in his views — gun control is good, the pandemic is badly mishandled — he found that “for every 98 liberals who were attacking me, there were two right-wingers who were attacking me.”
“I was surprised that the liberals were so rabid about it,” Murphy said. “It took me off-guard, it really did.” He told the Florida Times-Union he wished he could sell the reopen domains and he hoped TV’s John Oliver of “Last Week Tonight” would take an interest and perhaps buy them.
“Nobody’s bothered me for a while,” Murphy said last week. “We’re still trying to get on John Oliver.”