Andy Lyons was sitting at his kitchen table chatting on Facebook with his 29-year-old son about their frustrations with Gov. Eric Holcomb’s stay-at-home order when his son challenged him to do something about it.
Just like that, the idea for the protest that drew about 300 people to the governor’s residence Saturday was born.
“I said ‘this is ridiculous,” Lyons recalls. ‘We need to protest.’ He said, ‘you won’t do it.’ I created the Facebook group on the spot and sent him an invite.”
While polling shows most Americans support the need to stay at home, Lyons tapped into increasing unrest seen throughout the country as governors shutter businesses and ask folks to stay at home to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Thousands have been protesting in states throughout the country, with some of the biggest protests happening in the Midwest. Some of the protests have partisan implications, or appear to be backed by interest groups. But others, including the one in Indiana, appear to be grass-roots efforts. With Facebook and Twitter as tools, organizing a protest is just a few clicks away.
One protest in Kentucky was organized by a woman with a beef against the governor. One in Michigan was put together by a conservative group with connections that stretch into the White House. Others in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and New York have ties to a Minnesota-based nonprofit that thinks the NRA is too liberal on gun control.
Perhaps none started quite as organically as the one in Indiana — at the kitchen table.
Lyons has newfound fame in local conservative circles for his tough stance, which tapped into some Hoosiers’ Libertarian leanings to keep government out of their lives.
“I don’t see anything added to the Bill of Rights,” Lyons said, “that those are there except when there’s a bad virus.”
The 52-year-old high school teacher in the city of Marion, Indiana, has since been in touch with other folks who want to hold rallies at the Statehouse, though nothing is set in stone yet. The bottom line is he’s not planning to go away.
Holcomb, for his part, didn’t sound like someone who appreciated the large gathering.
“You know, this occurred in Marion County, where about a third of our positive cases have been reported and about a third of our total state deaths have been reported,” Holcomb said earlier this week at his daily briefing. “So, it’s an environment that appears to be almost a perfect Petri dish for how this can spread.
“And I underline can. I don’t know if it will. I hope it won’t.”
Some rallies grab the political spotlight
Unlike in Indiana, at least at this point, other protests have clear political undertones.
In Michigan, the pandemic has deepened a feud between President Donald Trump and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who’s name is now being floated as a potential vice presidential running mate for presumptive nominee Joe Biden.
Whitmer and Trump have been trading barbs for weeks now. He’s called her “Gretchen ‘Half’ Whitmer” on Twitter and referred to her as “the woman in Michigan.” She’s said the president’s inconsistent messaging on coronavirus is putting Americans in “greater danger.”
On April 15, thousands of protesters gridlocked traffic in Lansing, with some chanting the Trumpian refrain “lock her up” about the governor. Others toted military-style rifles. In Michigan, unlike in Indiana, the governor closed gun stores.
Whitmer criticized Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos for her involvement in funding the Michigan Freedom Fund, a local group that helped plan the demonstrations in Lansing. DeVos, who is from Michigan, has denied being involved with the protests themselves through a family spokesperson.
“I think it’s really inappropriate for a sitting member of the United States President’s cabinet to be waging political attacks on any governor, but obviously on me here at home,” Whitmer said, according to the Detroit Free Press. “I think that they should disavow it and encourage people to stay at home and be safe.”
In Kentucky, about 100 people rallied against Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear April 15 at one of his news briefings. They were organized by a Kentuckian who had earlier promoted the unproven theory that the Democrat defeated Republican Matt Bevin last November amid widespread voter fraud and election hacking.
Beshear narrowly defeated Bevin, a Republican whose actions as governor often drew derision from within his own party, but who tied himself to Trump and famously refused to concede for a week.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican, also has criticized Beshear with rhetoric for the stay-at-home order.
“Usually in a totalitarian state they first shut down dissent, then they shut down religion,” Paul wrote on Twitter. ”Gov. Beshear did it backwards, but still the same result.”
Beshear has since ordered protests to be done as drive-ins to limit human contact.
“My job isn’t to make the popular decision,” he said of his stay-at-home order, “but the right decision and the decision that saves peoples’ lives.”
Other protest have been less than organic.
Influence peddlers weigh in, too
The Minnesota-based Dorr brothers, who’ve made a name for themselves as pro-gun activists, are behind Facebook groups against restrictions in Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Their organization raised roughly $1 million to fight for Second Amendment rights from 2014-2018, according to tax documents. They have accused the NRA of being soft and some Republicans of being too weak on gun control.
They’re anti-quarantine groups are easy to find on Facebook due to similar sounding names. “Wisconsinites Against Excessive Quarantine” has more than 100,000 members. “Pennsylvanians Against Excessive Quarantine” has more than 70,000 members.
Get the idea?
There was a Facebook group called “Indiana Citizens Against Excessive Quarantine” — briefly.
It was created April 15, according to its group profile. The name was changed to just “Indiana Citizens” on April 20.
It’s unclear whether it’s a spin off or directly related to the Dorr brothers, but the majority of posts criticize the stay-at-home order. The man who created the group, according to that profile, is a South Bend artist who did not return messages for comment.
“Our mission is to set a nationwide example by proving the people of Indiana are resilient, courageous, intelligent, and our liberty is valuable,” reads the group’s description.
The group has a little more than 400 members and hasn’t promoted any events going forward.
Holcomb admonishes protesters
Unlike in Michigan, Holcomb tries to paint himself as in lockstep with Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, his predecessor as governor.
Holcomb often points out at his daily briefings that he’s on phone calls with Trump or Pence. And he swats away questions about whether he’s on the same page with the president, noting Trump himself has urged people to stay at home through May 1.
Holcomb, along with the governors of six other Midwestern states, is talking to area businesses about how to begin reopening the economy sometime in May.
“We’re shifting from essential to non-essential to how you do business, when you do business,” he said at a recent briefing. “It’s a long list of factors we’ll contemplate and crunch when we roll out that next executive order.”
Through Tuesday, Indiana reported more than 600 people had died from COVID-19 with more than 12,000 testing positive.
Hoosiers protest at the governor’s residence
If the protest in Indiana seemed calmer than those in other states, that was the intent, the organizers say.
Lyons and other conservatives who helped him promote the rally wanted to make sure it had a thoughtful, or at least more peaceful, tone.
Some of that has to do with the folks who helped promote it.
Elizabeth Marie Fiscus, an attorney and real estate agent who’s friends with Lyons, saw the Facebook group, jumped on board and reached out to folks who’ve helped her protest things like the state smoking ban, or high property taxes, in the past.
“We didn’t want any trolls to come in,” she said. “We didn’t want open carry. We told folks to be pleasant to law enforcement. We worked with law enforcement to make sure it was peaceful.”
That being said, Fiscus doesn’t think the governor should be able to pick winners and losers in regard to what’s opened and closed. She thinks it’s on people and businesses to decide what precautions to take, if any.
She says she has an underlying health condition, asthma that has led to pneumonia in the past, that makes her more vulnerable to the coronavirus. But she won’t wear a mask to the protest, because she thinks it puts her breathing more at risk. She contends the virus is not as deadly as health officials are making it out to be, a common refrain among the protesters.
“I have friends and relatives who are losing their livelihoods because of this,” Fiscus said.
Andrew Horning, a libertarian who’s run for governor and senator, and knows Lyons and Fiscus, had misgivings about going to the event for fear of the coronavirus, but decided to anyway.
He’s glad he did.
He’s afraid of contracting the virus. But he’s more afraid of the government taking more power. Despite opinions to the contrary from legal scholars, Horning said he can’t find anything in the state constitution authorizing the governor to act as unilaterally as he has during the pandemic.
“If you violate the speeding limit if you go 80 in a 55, you’re going to get in trouble,” Horning said. “But when someone takes over a country or a state or violates the constitution, there aren’t any repercussions.”
Still, he wore a face mask, tried to social distance and didn’t stay for the whole event. He wishes others had chosen to be more careful as well. For him, choice is the key.
“I am aware that what happened Saturday is an ideal environment for spreading disease,” he said.
He says the General Assembly can suspend laws, but notes it hasn’t been asked to do so. Only one legislator, Noblesville Sen. Victoria Spartz, has formally called for a special session, penning a letter to the governor.
“Given the length of time they have now been in effect,” wrote Spartz, who is running for Congress to replace Susan Brooks in the 5th District, “I believe that the Indiana Constitution and public interest require the legislature to resume its Constitutional role in the process.”
Senate President Rodric Bray, who like Spartz is a Republican, and the Governor’s Office told IndyStar there are no plans to call a special session at this time.
“The House and Senate have been working closely with the governor,” Bray said, “to adapt to the challenges COVID-19 has presented. Those efforts have included both how to keep Hoosiers safe and slow the spread of the virus, as well as how to reopen the state for business with as much speed as prudence allows.”
Tapping into a wider network
Robert Hall, leader of the Indiana Conservative Alliance and Grassroots Conservatives, saw the Facebook group and widely emailed out details to his contacts to build support.
Hall, 70, is retired after a career in manufacturing.
“This is tyranny and it’s never happened in our country,” Hall said. “The cure is going to be worse than the disease.”
He, too, thinks the virus is being overblown. He pointed out that the news site Real Clear Politics says 827 Hoosiers a year die from flu and pneumonia in Indiana, more than have died so far from coronavirus.
That, to him and others, seems to be in contrast to the numbers given by the state of Indiana. Such discrepancies are part of what’s driving confusion, according to interviews by IndyStar.
The problem is the data used by Real Clear Politics includes pneumonia cases. State officials say about 130 people die a year from the flu in Indiana. Pneumonia is a more widespread issue.
More than 600 have died since March from COVID-19, state officials point out, and that’s with unprecedented social restrictions in place.
Lyons trusts people more than the government
Lyons plans to keep protesting. He’s been in touch with other folks who might hold protests, though nothing was scheduled as of Tuesday afternoon.
He’s been trying to leave the house every day for small trips, whether it’s the grocery store or to grab a root beer at McDonald’s. He often posts short videos on his Facebook page of the visits, which leads to robust discussion among people who support and oppose the stay-at-home orders.
That criticism is what led to the discussion with his son and his decision to start the Facebook protest group.
He thinks businesses should be left to their own to decide whether to open and what safety measures to follow. He thinks the ones that choose to be the safest will do the best with customers, calling that capitalism.
“I personally don’t wear a mask or gloves but I have no problem with people making those decisions for themselves. I think that’s the fundamental question. Who do I trust more to make those decisions? I certainly trust individuals far more than the government.”
Contact IndyStar reporter Chris Sikich at Chris.Sikich@indystar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @ChrisSikich.