Rally to Re-open Oregon Amid COVID-19 Lockdown Draws Fringe Alt-Right Groups and Families

Listen to the audio version of this story, originally aired in XRAY’s daily podcast The Local.

The rain this Saturday did not deter hundreds of people from convening at the Oregon State Capitol in Salem. Many said they were there in support of reopening the state from COVID-19 lockdown. Despite participation by several families with children, the event also drew a contingent of alt right groups and fringe militia groups such as the Three Percenters and Patriot Prayer. A few attendees came strapped with semi-automatic weapons.

The re-open protest in Salem followed a pattern of similar events held across the country in the past few weeks from New Hampshire to Texas to California. In addition to alt-right groups, big-pocketed conservative organizations including FreedomWorks have promoted re-open events.

Many attending Saturday’s rally in Salem framed Oregon’s lockdown – intended to slow the spread of COVID-19 – as a battle for liberty in the face of government tyranny. Some believe media-inspired fear of the virus has propelled lockdown rules shuttering businesses and outdoor spaces, decisions many at the rally considered examples of excessive government control.

Matt Kennedy, a real estate seller in Marion County said he didn’t think the impact of COVID-19 was enough to warrant the state’s response. “It’s a valid infectious agent and disease, but it’s unprecedented the level of shutdown and isolation that’s being implemented. It’s unprecedented and unwarranted.”

Kennedy said he is concerned about the state lockdown’s impact on the economic situation for people who are less fortunate. “I’m very comfortable, not everybody is,” he said.

Kennedy stood under an umbrella with a friend carrying a sign that declared, “Being outside IS my health.” He said he wished taking a hike alone would not be treated the same as a sporting event drawing thousands of people.

“You’d think policies would have been made that would have identified the differences in risk and allow things of lower risk, lower contact and better health be put as a priority.”
– Matt Kennedy, a real estate seller in Marion County who attended the rally

“You’d think policies would have been made that would have identified the differences in risk and allow things of lower risk, lower contact and better health be put as a priority,” said Kennedy.

All Oregon state parks will remain closed indefinitely, according to the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department.

A Threatening Undercurrent

Joey Gibson of Patriot Prayer, a polarizing group whose member threatened Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler last year, spoke at the event. Some say the group has latched on to the re-open movement in an effort to legitimize its extremist rhetoric couched in patriotism.

A Re-open rally goer with a gun in Salem on May 2, 2020 (photo credit: Kate Kaye)

There were a few attendees dressed in camouflage carrying semi-automatic weapons. Some wore patches indicating association with the Three Percenters, a fringe militia group. Despite the threat of violence, there was little presence from law enforcement. There was at least one state trooper vehicle parked near the capitol building.

Some argue the presence of mainstream attendees only gave cover to a violent and racist anti-government movement that helped promote the rally. They say their ultimate goal is to spark a second American Revolution, referred to as boogaloo.

That more-mainstream participation included moms and dads with kids, small business owners and others who are frustrated with the state shutdown for a variety of reasons.

Kim Shellman is a self-described home-school mom from Banks with close-cropped short hair. She wore a button-down shirt to the rally. She said she wasn’t sure about attending, because, as she put it, she was worried she’d get herself “into trouble.”

However, she said she decided to join the rally because, “This is a really important time in our country right now.”

Shellman said she is worried about our society’s reliance on government which she said can lead to excessive state control. “What we really need right now is liberty to get out of this crisis,” she said. “We need more freedom and not more government crackdown.”

“We need more freedom and not more government crackdown.”
– Kim Shellman, a home-school mom who attended the rally

Along with the wide majority of rally goers, Shellman did not wear a protective mask. Few if any participants kept any semblance of social distance.

Against Vaccines and Faulty Numbers

Frustration about the health of the economy among Salem participants was palpable. And worry about the economy was often coupled with other concerns.

Some at the rally, for instance, represented the so-called anti-vaxxer movement. Strong in the Pacific Northwest, supporters are against government enforcement of vaccinations. Robyn Hudgik said she would prefer that people use their own natural immunity to ward off COVID-19, rather than any potential vaccine. A viable vaccine could be several months if not years away.

Hudgik, a hairdresser from Tualatin, said she wants an end to the lockdown so she can get back to work. “I just want to do my job,” she said. “I just want to be able to pay the bills.”

Melissa Jones hides behind her rally signs at the Re-open rally in Salem on May 2, 2020 (photo credit: Kate Kaye)

A former restaurant owner from Corvallis, Melissa Jones hoisted a sign that declared, “Stop manipulating the numbers.” She said she was skeptical of what she called manipulated and inconsistent numbers quantifying COVID-19 related cases and deaths.

She added, “I think that atrophying our workforce by paying them to stay home is doing nobody any good.”

Another rally attendee named Anna who declined to give her last name wore a hunting-style bright orange hoodie adorned with birds. She leaned against the pickup truck she traveled in from Beaverton. A cloth sign draped on the back read, “Let us Out – we are the great outdoors.”

Her fellow traveler who gave his name only as Brian brought a Gadsden “Don’t Tread on Me” flag, a common libertarian symbol seen often at conservative and more fringe events. He said he was worried about the lockdown’s impact on friends and their ability to earn a living.

Anna, an unemployed welder, lamented the fact that because of the state lockdown she’s not building floats for one of Portland’s most beloved springtime events.

Anna, left, and Brian prepare for the Re-open rally in Salem on May 2, 2020 (photo credit: Kate Kaye)

“My favorite thing to do is build the floats for the Grand Floral Parade,” she said. “And they’re not even doing that this year; everything’s turning into an online thing. I’ve got kids that love to go out and experience that – a new one that doesn’t even get to experience that.”

Instead, this June, Anna and her kids will have to resort to making a porch display or shoe box float for the Portland Rose Festival’s socially-distanced version of the traditional event, the Facebook Live Grand Petite Parade.