Chris Chappell received a hug from a friend wearing a firefighter’s uniform. Chappell said he’s recovering from Lyme disease, but isn’t worried about contracting COVID-19. (photo by Jordan Green)

Two nurses — who identified themselves only as “Cynthia J.” and “Jen” and said they work for an area healthcare provider — stood with arms folded in blue scrubs and facemasks staring down a parade of vehicles festooned with windshield-paint messages of “Liberty,” “Inform, don’t infringe,” “Are the tests reliable?” and “Don’t ignore the deaths of despair.”

“If you saw your father or your son breathing their last breath — we’re the ones there holding their hands,” Cynthia J. said. “If you had a family member who was sick with COVID-19, you’d think more about how your actions affected the whole.”

Across the street, Stephen Wagner called out sarcastically: “Appreciate you nurses coming out to support us,” throwing in a caustic aside about financial challenges hospitals have faced by as they’ve canceled elective surgeries to free up beds and protective gear for COVID-19 patients.

Dressed in a matching American-flag porkpie hat and sleeveless shirt, Wagner blasted classic rock from his late-model black pickup at the Reopen NC rally in downtown Raleigh on Tuesday. Wagner, who brought his 14- and 15-year-old children to the rally, is the president of the Johnston County chapter of the young organization.

John Fogarty’s gruff voice summoned the apocalypse as the late ’60s Creedence Clearwater Revival anthem rang across Jones Street.

I hope you got your things together/ I hope you are quite prepared to die/ Looks like we’re in for nasty weather/ One eye is taken for an eye.

Wagner described his playlist, which he dubbed “Protest Jam,” as “90 percent ’60s music, 10 percent Rage Against the Machine.”

“Too many people died for our freedoms for us to give them up for germs and lack of toilet paper,” he said.

He had another pithy declaration: “It’s normal for humans to get sick. Of the sick ones, the weak ones die. That’s just life.”

Tuesday’s Reopen NC protest — the second in what organizers say will be a weekly standing date — drew about 1,200, one organizer said. The protesters marched around downtown, and then convened on the sidewalk and in a parking lot near the General Assembly for a festive gathering that resembled a tailgate party. The gathering included families with children and at least one pregnant mother-to-be, and conspicuously violated a six-foot distancing rule mandated in a letter from Gov. Roy Cooper’s general counsel.

The rally attracted a host of far-right politicians, including US Rep. Dan Bishop, a Republican whose district includes a portion of suburban Charlotte, and Mark Robinson, the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor.

“I knew that I had to come here to lend my voice in support of Reopen NC to remind the governor that our rights don’t exist because of his benevolence,” said Bishop, who sponsored the anti-transgender HB 2 law as a state legislator in 2016, and invested in Gab, a social-media platform that has been a haven for white supremacists, in 2017. “The First Amendment is not under a stay-home order, and it secures to these people who are protesting today, and in fact to all of us — it secures to us, the right to gather and petition government.”

While less conspicuous, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, who is challenging Democrat Cooper in this year’s gubernatorial contest, has also leant his support to Reopen NC.

While the primary cause in the protest leaders’ messaging is lifting restrictions so that North Carolinians can go back to work and revive their livelihoods, multiple strands of a broad-based conservative agenda are clearly evident in the range of grievances articulated by participants and supporters, including anti-abortion sentiment, restrictions on voting and libertarianism.

Eliana Smith of Charlotte carried a handwritten sign on Tuesday declaring “Abortions and liquor stores are not essential,” while her son’s sign read, “I want to go to church,” highlighting a Christian-right grievance against restrictions on in-person worship gatherings.

Anti-abortion protesters who have continued clinic protests in defiance of stay-at-home orders resulting in arrests in Greensboro and Charlotte have been a conspicuous presence during the two Reopen NC protests.

Surveying the crowd at the first Reopen NC rally on April 14, Steve Noble, a Christian talk-radio host based in Wake Forest, told followers on his Facebook Live stream that he spotted a woman who he described as “a pro-life advocate, sidewalk counselor.”

“You can’t just shut down the American way of life for a virus, as serious as it is,” Noble said. “Because that is tyranny, is what is happening.”

Noble, whose anti-LGBTQ stance is advertised in an anecdote in his official bio explaining that he got the idea to start his radio show while “fighting the [Raleigh] city council on a homosexual agenda kind of issue,” argued that the six-foot distancing rule is unenforceable because he said there’s no way to apply it consistently.

“And the only time they’ve enforced it has been a couple times in the last few weeks here in North Carolina when they arrested us pro-lifers, some friends of mine, some pastors,” he said. “And so, they’re targeting pastors and people of faith. Who does that? Well, that would be the über-liberal mayor of Greensboro and the über-liberal city council and mayor of Charlotte targeting Christians and pro-lifers. Is that the point of the law: to give them a club to bludgeon the people that they hate the most?”

Reopen NC activists have also jumped into the fight over access to the polls, at the same time as they’re mobilizing supporters to oppose the state stay-at-home order. On Monday, the state Board of Election held a hearing to receive input on a rule change giving the executive director more flexibility to accommodate voters under pandemic conditions.

The rule change gives the state Board of Elections the latitude to avoid a situation such as what occurred during Wisconsin’s April 7 primary, when the Republican-controlled legislature forced voters to risk exposure to COVID-19 by voting in person.

Audrey Whitlock, one of three administrators of the private Reopen NC Facebook page, reported on Monday that members called in to the state Board of Elections meeting to voice disapproval of the proposed rule change, celebrating that “approx. 37 freedom fighters called in opposing the government’s attempt to take away in-person voting and #reopennc was mentioned 3 times,” compared to “only 13 [people who] called in to support mail-in ballots.”

“Please drop us some love before the rally and just know that we are doing this for you!” Whitlock concluded.

Organizers were also feeling emboldened on Monday after meeting with Forest, the Republican lieutenant governor and gubernatorial candidate.

“He’s such a humble guy,” said Ashley Smith, one of the admins, in a Facebook Live stream on Monday. “He was just so encouraging of our cause. And you know, he assured us of the things that he has been doing, and just where his heart is at on this issue, was just so encouraging to us about — he said, ‘You guys don’t know how much power is behind your movement and the influence that this collective voice is having in Raleigh, and over the governing officials.

“So that was just so encouraging to my heart,” Smith continued in the private Facebook Live stream. “That was exactly what I needed to hear today. It was just so good. It was so good to be encouraged by him that we’re doing the right things. The pressure is on, and they’re feeling the heat. So, let’s keep that and keep — double down, double down!”

Forest recently issued a cautious call to lifting the state stay-at-home order, while challenging his rival Gov. Cooper to provide more clarity on how and when the state will go back to work. In the past, Forest has appeared at events with the Christian hardliners who oppose abortion access and LGBTQ rights — activists who align with the Christian right contingent of the Reopen NC movement.

Cooper responded to the protests during a briefing on Tuesday saying, “Now, I know that many people are frustrated, restless, anxious and eager to get back to work and school. I also know that many people want to make sure that their families are as safe as possible from this virus. I and my Coronavirus Task Force, which is made up of business, health, education and other leaders, are getting input from around the state as we prepare the plans to ease restrictions, protect the public health and get our economy moving forward. Let’s keep looking out for each other. And right now, staying at home is saving lives.”

Data on coronavirus cases indicates that aggressive social-distancing measures have succeeded at slowing the spread of the disease. And some experts have argued that the best approach is to keep the rate of infection as low as possible before restoring economic activity so that authorities can respond to flare-ups with targeted measures and testing

While acknowledging the support from Republican politicians, Smith — who owns a business with her husband in Burke County that provides point-of-sale technology to restaurants — insisted during an interview on Tuesday, while insisting that Reopen NC is a “broad-based freedom movement” drawing support from “people across the political divide.”

While the push to lift restrictions on travel and gathering is re-centering business owners in American society by asserting that every job is essential, the virus continues to carve a destructive path that disproportionately harms African-Americans, the elderly, and those with low-paying jobs in healthcare, childcare, warehousing and retail.

The latest numbers released by the state Department of Health and Human Services indicate that African Americans comprise 39 percent of laboratory-confirmed cases of COVID-19 cases in North Carolina where the race of the patient is known, and 37 percent of the deaths. In contrast, African Americans make up only about 22 percent of the overall population of North Carolina.

And while 39 percent of the confirmed cases of COVID-19 in North Carolina are people ages 25-49, 85 percent of the deaths from the disease are people age 65 and older.

Reviewing deaths in New York nursing homes, NPR found that facilities where residents have died of COVID-19 “were more likely to be made up people of color — black, Latinx.”

Responding to a question about the disproportionate burden of the virus, Smith made an argument for individual responsibility over collective solidarity.

“Everyone has a responsibility for protecting their own health,” she said.

“Under our Constitution, you don’t have a guarantee to be free from a virus,” she said. “We have a constitutional right to worship. We have a Constitutional right to free speech. And we have a Constitutional right to work and earn a livelihood.”

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