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'Operation Gridlock': Convoy in Michigan's capital protests stay-at-home orders

Protesters caused a traffic jam around the capitol building in Lansing.

For three decades, Meshawn Maddock and her family have run A-1 Bail Bonds in Milford, Michigan. But just a few days ago, she said she was forced to lay off her last three employees due to courts being shuttered and jails being emptied to blunt the spread of coronavirus in the hard-hit state.

Instead of staying in her house, adhering to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's stay-at-home orders, Maddock drove 60 miles from her residence to Lansing, the state capital, to join a convoy of motorists Wednesday afternoon protesting the governor's pandemic directive and calling on state leaders to allow small businesses to reopen so employees can get back to work.

"Nobody is denying that this is a crisis, a worldwide crisis, but we've also all learned to be safer. Everybody has learned a lesson in hand-washing, face touching and social distancing. And so many businesses and hobbies, and just everyday things, have been restricted by our governor," Maddock told ABC News.

The protest kicked off at noon in downtown Lansing with what appeared to be a huge number of participants in vehicles honking horns, waving American flags and circling the capitol building.

Dubbed "Operation Gridlock," and organized by groups including the Michigan Conservative Coalition, the demonstration jammed the streets around the capitol building. Many of the protesters, including some wearing red "Make America Great Again" hats and T-shirts supporting President Donald Trump, also displayed signs reading "Impeach Whitmer" and "My Freedom is Essential."

While organizers asked demonstrators to stay in their cars, many lined the sidewalk outside the capitol building, some wearing protective masks but many apparently defying social distancing recommendations of remaining 6 feet apart.

A group of men identifying themselves as members of the Michigan Liberty Militia walked up and down the sidewalk outside the capitol building carrying rifles.

"We're here to make sure everybody has the right to assemble peacefully," one of the armed men, Phil Odinson, told ABC Detroit affiliate WXYZ.

"It's not about not being safe -- we want to be safe -- but I don't think that we need the Constitution suspended in order to be safe," a protester, who only gave his name as Eric and described himself as an out-of-work contractor, told WXYZ. "It's a personal responsibility regardless. My point is that we don't need it imposed upon us. The American people are smart enough to be able to make these decisions themselves."

Whitmer has imposed some of the strictest stay-at-home orders in the nation, including limiting the number of customers in essential stores to four for every 1,000 square feet; prohibiting employers from making employees come to work unless they are "necessary to sustain or protect life or to conduct minimum basic operations"; suggesting people limit the number of household members who are running errands; and banning all public and private gatherings outside homes.

During her public coronavirus briefing on Wednesday afternoon, Whitmer said she was "disappointed" to see people congregating and not wearing masks at the demonstration.

"I saw someone handing out candy to little kids barehanded," she said. "We know that this rally endangered people. This kind of activity will put more people at risk, and, sadly, it could prolong the amount of time we have to live in this posture."

Maddock, a member of the Michigan Conservative Coalition who helped organize the protest, said Whitmer has gone too far by banning motorboats; prohibiting travel to in-state vacation residences; forcing stores to close areas dedicated to carpeting and furniture; and declaring plant nurseries and garden centers non-essential businesses and landscapers non-essential workers. Whitmer also has warned of fines up to $1,000 for violating social distancing rules.

"We were hoping, in the beginning, because people were so fed up and so frustrated with our [state] administration, that we would get a few hundred cars down there, but instead we're going to have thousands," Maddock said on Tuesday. "Our local government can't even run our unemployment website right now. They can't solve this crisis, and they're only perpetuating it. So we just really wanted to give people a way to be heard, and right now we have no way for our voices to be heard."

Maddock said she hopes Whitmer gets the message from her constituents that "bankrupting the state is not going to cure this virus."

On the group's Facebook page announcing "Operation Gridlock," more than 4,000 people as of Wednesday morning had said they'd planned to attend, while another 17,000 expressed interest.

"We are telling people to stay in their vehicles," Maddock said, referring to social distancing rules. "I can't see any reason why we would have any issue with the authorities. We're exercising our First Amendment right to peacefully protest."

During a daily briefing on the pandemic this week, Whitmer said she didn't plan to try to stop the demonstration.

She added that the extraordinary measures she and other governors are taking are intended to "make sure that we avoid a second wave at all cost."

"That would be devastating for our economy," Whitmer said. "Not one of us wants to go through this again, not in a month, not in the fall. ... And I want you to have your freedom. I want to have mine, too. We will get to a place where we can be with our friends and family again. It's OK to be frustrated, it's OK to be angry. If it makes you feel better to direct it at me, that's OK, too. I've got thick skin. And I'm always going to defend your right to free speech."

''So I just ask that those who are protesting these orders, do so in a safe manner so that you don't get sick and you don't subject our first responders to risk either," she added. ''This is a tough enough situation. Let's not make it harder on one another."

Michigan confirmed the state's first case of coronavirus, or COVID-19, on March 11. As of Wednesday afternoon, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, more than 1,900 had died among more than 28,000 positive cases.

Whitmer said she needs to see solid and consistent data showing the epidemic is abating, that a plan for widespread testing is in place and that hospitals are stocked with what they need to fight the virus before she even considers reopening state's economy.

"So we're going to make decisions based on science and having a real strategic phase-in of our economy when it is safe and feasible to do so," Whitmer said.

She suggested that some of the anxiety state residents are feeling is being caused by false rumors about her stay-at-home orders.

"Nothing in the stay-at-home order prohibits buying car seats for your children. There's no prohibition on that," Whitmer said. "You can buy bug spray, you can buy American flags. I have not banned homeschooling. These are a few of the falsehoods that have been disseminated on social media that I wanted to clear up."

Maddock, also the chair of the 11th District Congressional District Republican Committee in Michigan and co-founder of Michigan Trump Republicans, told ABC News that the demonstration had nothing to do with the politics of the first-term Democratic governor, who last week appeared on Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden's newly launched podcast, fueling speculation she's on his shortlist for a running mate.

"This is not partisan. Jobs are not partisan. Workers are not partisan. This is just a frustrated expression of people," said Maddock, whose husband is a Republican member of the state Legislature. "We're watching our businesses burn down, and they're claiming that this is a stunt because we care about these things. We expect our government to act with reason instead of emotion, and our government is failing us. Elected officials need to step up and start acting reasonably."

Maddock said she has had two friends who contracted coronavirus and died and knows others who have been infected. She said she's not insisting on opening the economy full tilt all at once.

"I think that people are a lot smarter than our government gives us credit for, and I think that people have common sense. When I get on a motorcycle, I put a helmet on, not because the government tells me to wear a helmet. The same thing with the seatbelt in the car," Maddock said. "I understand safety, and I know how to take care of my own family."

Four Michigan residents filed a federal lawsuit against Whitmer on Tuesday, alleging the stay-at-home orders violate their Constitutional rights to due process under the Fifth and 14th Amendments. The suit claims the governor's extended stay-at-home order unfairly infringes on their rights "to associate with friends and family and utilize their private property."

"We believe what the governor has done with her orders is over-broad and overreaching -- taking a sledgehammer to an ant," attorney David Helm, who filed the lawsuit in the Eastern District of Michigan on behalf of the residents, told WXYZ.

One of the plaintiffs is the owner of a landscaping company who had to lay off 15 workers because his business was deemed nonessential.

"That amounts to a taking by the government of private property, which is authorized under the Constitution, but when done so, they need to be justly compensated for it," Helm said.

Other Michigan residents who stayed away from the capitol building slammed the protest.

"Families are losing loved ones every day to COVID-19 across Michigan, but some extreme political groups want to endanger lives by defying common-sense orders and advocating forcing kids to go back to school during a pandemic," said Ralph Arellano of Flint, a retired teacher and president of a group called Protect Our Public Schools. "These protests insult the people risking their lives to keep hospitals and essential services running."

The Michigan protest came a day after a similar but smaller demonstration was held in Raleigh, North Carolina. About 100 protestors gathered outside the North Carolina General Assembly to bash Gov. Roy Cooper's stay-at-home order, calling it an unconstitutional overreach and complaining that it's killing small businesses.

"I cry every day. I'm doing the best I can. I need to reopen," out-of-work hairstylist Julie Barham, one of the participants in the protest dubbed "ReopenNC," told ABC Durham station WTVD. "Everybody gets to make their own choice. If you're scared, stay home. I'm not scared, and I don't want to stay home. I'm a free American and we have to start acting like it."