On this May Day in Chicago, the city that gave birth to International Workers’ Day, residents were subjected to insult rather than celebration. Instead of people participating in the typical events to highlight the history and lessons from the struggle for the eight-hour day, this city became an unwilling witness to a gathering of ignorance and hatred.
To confront that gathering I was a part of a small counter-protest organized by the Illinois Nurses Association (INA). Nurses have been coming out to publicly disagree with these calls to restart the economy in other cities with Reopen America events, too. Our goal was to put forward a different narrative. Nurses are empathetic to the pain that people are feeling, be it physical, psychological, or economic—we see it in our patients’ eyes every day. The solution is not to Reopen America, but to put the resources we know exist toward fighting this pandemic as well as providing actual relief to the millions who desperately need it.
The gathering in Chicago followed similar events in cities across the country. Groups of people have been coming together to demand lifting of public health measures. They are protesting the shutting down of nonessential businesses that have been instituted to slow the spread of COVID-19. This grouping is a conglomeration of antivaccination activists, small business owners, conspiracy theorists, and MAGA types. The facebook group Re-open Illinois organized two rallies in Illinois, one in the capital, Springfield, and a second in front of the State of Illinois building in downtown Chicago.
Beyond the general demand on governor J.B. Pritzker to allow for the reopening of businesses, the messaging was heterogeneous. Signs at the two protests covered a wide range: “God gave me an immune system, it works great, no forced vaccinations”; “church is essential”; a play on the abortion rights slogan “my body, my choice” with a mask crossed out; “give me liberty or give me death”; along with various and sundry Trump paraphernalia. Inexplicably, despite signs calling COVID-19 a hoax, a number of the participants wore masks or protested from their cars.
Multiple aspiring politicians addressed the crowds. In Springfield, libertarian candidate for the 2018 governor’s race Grayson “Kash” Jackson addressed the crowd. He started with a detailed description of his personal legal issues revolving around his ex-wife and children, and ended by advising people to sit down with their own children that night and read both the bible and the US Constitution—side by side.
In Chicago they attempted to demonstrate bipartisanship when failed Democratic primary candidate for the 1st District Illinois Senate Froy Jiminez addressed the crowd. He opened his twenty minutes of comments, through a mask, stating his credentials as a history teacher in Chicago Public Schools. His grasp of history proved tenuous, though, as he said, “I would be remiss if I did not recall today as the day that we remember May Day. In honor of the people here in Chicago at the Haymarket Square that sacrificed their lives, along with police officers that were part of that event.” He then asked for a moment of silence. But police were not simply “part of” the events in the Haymarket Affair, they were there to stop workers from protesting. The role of the police was to support the interests of the Chicago bosses. In the days leading up to May 4, 1886, many workers were shot and killed by cops. This was definitely not part of the message the rally organizers intended to broadcast.
Two state representatives have supported the protests by filing lawsuits against Pritzker’s stay-at-home order. The first lawsuit only applied to representative Darren Bailey, a Republican from Xenia, population 390. A local judge upheld that lawsuit, allowing Bailey a temporary injunction to disregard orders to stay at home. Representative John Cabello, a Republican from Machesney Park, has filed a lawsuit that would apply to all residents of Illinois. He told reporters that we “need to get back to our normal American way of life,” and that “anybody who wants to abide by the recommendations can.” Cabello has also criticized Pritzker’s release of 1,300 prisoners from Illinois jails, where the virus has dug deep roots.
The implications of reopening the economy would be a lengthening of the pandemic and even more death. In the week leading up to May Day one hundred and fifty Illinoisans died every day, and some projections indicate the state being at its peak. The idea that now is the time to reopen is reckless callousness. The communities that have already been hit hardest would be in for further damage. As we know from the current grim statistics, African Amerians in Chicago have been disproportionately dying from COVID-19. A premature reopening of businesses and schools would provide more vectors for this fast spreading and deadly virus, especially in underserved communities.
Within Reopen Illinois lurk far-right and white nationalist politics. Protesters at the Springfield and Chicago rallies toted anti-Semitic signs. In Springfield, one participant held a sign stating “Heil Pritzker,” with a hand-drawn swastika. In Chicago, someone presented a sign that read “Arbeit macht frei, JB,” which translated from German means “work sets you free.” This same slogan was used to give false hope in Nazi death camp at Auschwitz where the fascists inflicted genocidal mass murder against Jewish people. That Pritzker himself is of Jewish descent makes these racist displays even more horrifying.
How rally participants feel confident to openly broadcast this hate is unnerving, and attempting to understand their thought process is an impossible exercise. Are they seriously comparing a stay at home order with living under fascism or being murdered in a concentration camp? Or are they looking to connect with other fascist compatriots? With the prevalence of MAGA hats and Trump/Pence 2020 signs and the connections between the president and the far right, the insinuation that Pritzker is somehow the fascist is a disturbing cognitive dissonance. In response to the 2017 “Unite the Right” rallies and counter-protest, Trump said there were “very fine people on both sides.” The car attack in Charlottesville that injured nineteen and murdered Heather Heyer, along with the strength of anti-Nazi counter-protests that followed, seemed to have pushed the far right somewhat out of the public spotlight until now.
The individual with the Auschwitz sign approached those of us who were counter-protesting the event. When asked if she knew the meaning of that sign and if she was a Nazi, she responded, “No, I have Jewish friends,” as if those were magic words absolving her of any wrongdoing. She was among the dozens of others who greeted nurses with disdain and suspicion. Our personal space was invaded, we were called actors, and were told to “go back to work if you’re so worried about the fake pandemic.” None aimed their venom at the person holding the sign with a Nazi slogan, but deliberately chose to intimidate and harass nurses.
It’s important to not only oppose these crowds with scientific reasoning, but also promote positive solutions. Most people do not agree with the reopen message, but in the absence of real relief, these right-wing forces may draw more support. We must both present an alternative at the same time that we challenge the pernicious hate of the Nazis and white nationalists attempting to exploit this crisis.
The INA belongs to the Right to Recovery campaign, a coalition of labor and community organizations committed to obtaining relief for those impacted by COVID-19. The needs of people who are suffering economically because of the shutdown must be fully recognized. Millions have lost their jobs, lost access to health insurance, are unable to pay rent, and are struggling to put food on the table. Every day nurses hear more stories about how the stimulus check, if our patients even received it yet, is insufficient, how applications for unemployment have gone unanswered, how people are waiting in hours-long food lines—and we haven’t even hit rock bottom yet.
The multiple failures of capitalism are on full display. The terrain of despair cannot be left to the literally dead-end solutions put forward by Re-open Illinois. We can’t simply ignore their ideas because they seem fringe at the moment. History has seen the far right not just grow in a period of severe economic depression, but take state power. The events in Michigan in which armed far-right militia members stormed into the state capitol should be a warning. Humanity can never step down the path of turning fear and desperation into racist hate and death, as we know where that path leads.