Michigan Lockdown Protesters at DC Riot Are in Denial About Its Cause

You may remember some of these organizers from the anti-COVID-lockdown “Operation Gridlock” protests in Michigan in 2020.

Published Jan. 17, 2021

Michael Null (L) takes part in the American Patriot Rally, organized by Michigan United for Liberty, to demand the reopening of businesses on the steps of the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, Michigan, on April 30, 2020. Other men are unidentified. - Thirteen men, including members of two right-wing militias, have been arrested for plotting to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer and "instigate a civil war", Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel announced on October 8, 2020. The Nulls were charged for their alleged roles in the plot to kidnap Whitmer, according to the FBI. The brothers are charged with providing support for terroristic acts and felony weapons charges. (Photo by JEFF KOWALSKY / AFP) (Photo by JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images) (JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images)
Image courtesy of JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images

In May 2020, Snopes published an in-depth investigation into the digital origins of the anti-COVID-lockdown political movement, which began in earnest in Michigan a month prior. That story combined a sometimes second-by-second chronology of Facebook users who promoted lockdown-protest events, coupled with other open source information, to identify a small clique of zealous pro-Trump activists who were driving both the promotion and coverage of the movement and its talking points. "What is clear," we reported then, "is that the movement has already expanded well beyond one particular issue, and those issues are becoming dangerously divorced from reality."

Eight months later, Snopes now reports that several people identified in May had aggressively promoted, and later attended, the Jan. 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol riot that ended in five deaths and disrupted congressional certification of Electoral College votes for President-elect Joe Biden. Some spoke at rallies in Washington, D.C., before the siege of the Capitol, and hobnobbed with MAGA celebrities in a VIP section. Some rushed the Capitol steps. Still others organized large bus loads of activists from Michigan to D.C. Despite the nearly identical trajectory of both the Michigan lockdown protests (which culminated in armed extremists disrupting a legislative session) and the Capitol riot (which culminated in armed extremists disrupting Congress), these individuals refuse to consider the possibility their activism could have played any role in the violence.

Instead, some have leaped head first into their next baseless and dangerously divisive cause: that left-wing saboteurs — not Trump supporters — are responsible for the Capitol melee.

Meshawn Maddock and the MCC

The first significant protest against the lockdown measures issued by state governments in response to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic was a protest around the Michigan State Capitol on April 15, 2020. Dubbed "Operation Gridlock," participants were urged to remain in their cars and create a traffic jam around the building. This event would be the seed that inspired countless copycat events in both Michigan and across the country that over time attracted increasingly radical elements.

The primary organization behind Operation Gridlock was the Michigan Conservative Coalition (MCC). Meshawn Maddock, a former MCC board member and national advisory board member for Women for Trump, told the journalism nonprofit Michigan Bridge in October 2020 that she was proud of her work organizing the event. Maddock, whose husband, State Rep. Matt Maddock, co-founded the MCC, accurately argued that it inspired countless other events around the country, including the event two weeks later that saw a mob enter the Michigan Capitol armed with guns and Confederate flags.

At the time, Maddock conceded that she was disappointed people did not follow her orders to stay in their car and that militias began showing up at these and other events. “Of course the militia is disappointing to me, the Confederate flag — look, they’re just idiots,” Maddock said of these more radical elements. In other words, Maddock — who helped organize and promote  "over 19 buses" from Michigan to D.C. for the Capitol protests — knew the potential for these events to bring out extremist and militant factions. That fact, however, did not temper her rhetoric going into Jan 6.

"As a leader for Republicans in Michigan, I’m going to stand shoulder to shoulder with Americans that know voter fraud is real," she told the Detroit Free Press ahead of the Jan. 6 demonstrations. "Now is not the time for summer soldiers and sunshine Patriots, now is the time for brave men to do the right thing.”

Following the Capitol riot, Maddock issued a statement in which she condemned "the violence and the breaching of the capitol in the strongest possible terms," arguing that the rally "was supposed to be a peaceful event." Maddock, who did not respond to our request for comment, is currently running unopposed to be chair of the Michigan Republican Party.

Rob Cortis and the Trump Unity Bridge

Another Michigan native, Rob Cortis, was prominently featured in our May 2020 reporting as someone who promoted and attended several Michigan anti-lockdown events. In addition to the Michigan Capitol protests, he attended a demonstration outside Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's home dubbed "Operation Queen's Castle." Since Trump's 2016 campaign, Cortis has toured the country with a parade-style float he calls the "Trump Unity Bridge." Part of a sometimes massive caravan of itinerant Trump supporters, he has been photographed with virtually every popular MAGA figure on the internet over the past four years.

Cortis and other members of the "Trump Unity Bridge Team" appear to have differing views on why they went to D.C. on Jan. 6. En route, team member Jason Bright told Facebook live viewers they were going because "President Trump has called us out to Washington DC on January 6th," and that "We're declaring war."

"If we need to have another Revolutionary War, if we need to have another Civil War, you know, to reset this button in this country …" he said without finishing the thought.  In an interview with a local Fox affiliate in Detroit after the riots, Cortis said that he hoped the day's actions were an "accident and nothing of intention" — a far cry from the "war" Bright spoke of on the trip to D.C. Cortis did not respond to our request for comment.

In a subsequent, largely nonsensical Facebook live interview from Jan. 7 that has since been deleted or made private, Cortis described Jan. 6 as "a great day in American history." He described the violence as unfortunate but a minor part of the day, placing blame on the media for missing the bigger, positive message of the day. "There's not 75 million people supporting Trump. It's hundreds of millions of people supporting Trump, maybe billions, around the world. They're supporting Trump. It's the agenda of American freedom and the dream of hope and happiness for each and every one of us."

As if settling into a talking point, Cortis attempted to explain how the actions of the Trump "patriots" differed from "Black Lives Matter and Antifa." The difference, he explained, is that Antifa and BLM "went and smashed the windows, the barriers. Then they went in and stole all the things, burned and looted." These are all things, it bears mentioning, that Capitol rioters did on Jan. 6. This sort of cognitive dissonance appears to be driving a number of Michigan activists to embrace the notion that it would be impossible for Trump supporters, especially those dedicated to "unity," to have inspired such an event.

Londa Gatt and Bikers for Trump

Londa Gatt, a Michigan activist who is the "midwest regional supervisor" for "Bikers for Trump," exemplifies someone who pushed Maddock's Operation Gridlock concept in a more extreme direction but who now, like Cortis, largely rejects the possibility that people on her side could be responsible. In our May 2020 story, Gatt was one of the most significant sharers of Michigan lockdown-protest events on Facebook, especially the later events held under the banner "American Patriot Rally" that would come to include not only parade-style floats but armed militias, too.

Following the original Operation Gridlock event in April, Gatt — according to a since-deleted Facebook post — was part of a group that formed what it called the American Patriot Council (APC). Though originally created to support anti-lockdown protests, the group expanded to oppose "antifa" and Black Lives Matter and embrace false claims of voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election. The group called for the arrest of Whitmer, and individuals caught in a plot to kidnap her were photographed at the group's American Patriot Rally in late April. Kidnapping politicians had been a purported goal of some D.C. rioters as well, and some participants entered the Capitol with zip-tie restraints.

Gatt helped promote a chartered bus trip from Michigan to D.C. Based on photos uploaded to a Facebook profile she operates, Gatt had VIP access to the Jan. 6 "Save America March," where Trump encouraged his followers to march to the Capitol. While there, she was photographed with “Stop the [Election] Steal” national organizer and self-described insurrection planner Ali Alexander. Her VIP access came through her affiliation with Bikers for Trump, she told us.

(Londa Gatt and Stop the Steal National Organizer Ali Alexander)

Via Facebook messenger, Gatt told Snopes that after Trump's speech, she watched the growing crowd from the top Capitol steps, leaving when people started entering the Capitol. She told us that she strongly opposed the actions of those who went inside. "No one should've [gone] inside. That isn't right. I don't care if you're a Republican or Democrat. It was wrong." In the immediate aftermath of the riots, she blamed antifa for the incursion. "Antifa pulling their BS again," Gatt wrote on Twitter on Jan. 7. "Trump supporters wouldn't storm the capitol."

For the most part, her evidence for that claim is the general view that a Trump supporter would not damage property or hurt people. "Overall, yes, I feel it was antifa because that's how they roll," she told us, stopping short of categorically rejecting the possibility of pro-Trump elements. "No one could say 100% either way, right?"

She also told us that she had heard from a friend also in attendance that there were "some individuals'' at the massive crowd "that looked like Trump supporters but they weren't." While one activist arrested in connection with the riots has potential but disputed links to left-wing causes, most of those arrested have publicly expressed pro-Trump views. The pro-Trump Proud Boys played a role in promoting the idea of invading the Capitol prior to the riots, later investigations have revealed.

Gatt is now preemptively sowing the seeds of doubt for any future violence that could be blamed on Trump supporters. In a Jan. 11 Facebook post, Gatt alleged that "the radical left is desperately trying to destroy our credibility & the President's." Speaking of reported calls for future violence at Capitol buildings prior to Biden's inauguration, she predicted that opponents of Trump would be "bringing their AR rifles to the Capitol buildings across the US … trying to make us look bad." This argument smacks of projection, however. Gatt herself has organized or participated in several past rallies in which Trump supporters, sometimes armed with AK-47s, entered the Michigan State Capitol. Armed demonstrations at capitols have been a recurring tactic repeatedly championed by Gatt and employed almost exclusively by Trump supporters.

As dubious as claims are that anti-Trump forces drove the Capitol riots, it is evidently becoming an increasingly popular rationalization for the events of Jan. 6 among those in this close-knit group of activists.

Peters and "Stop The Steal Michigan"

For Trump supporters looking to buy into the false explanation that the riots were caused by politically motivated imposters, the meandering assertions of Genevieve Peters appear to have provided some Michigan activists with comfort. Peters, who gained international infamy for recording herself refusing to wear a face mask at Trader Joe’s in May 2020, came up in our research of the Michigan lockdown story but was not included in the final piece. A one-time Michigan resident who appears to be close with several anti-lockdown activists including Gatt, she organized or participated in several copycat lockdown protests in Southern California, in which she implored activists to "storm" beaches that had been closed due to COVID-19 public health measures.

In a video she streamed to Facebook live as she was walking home from the Capitol after the Jan. 6 D.C. riot, she bragged that the day was "an amazing show of force" describing how "we kept pushing forward" and got "right up in the mix." She reminded her viewers that "we had completely controlled the entire Capitol." A day later, Peters appeared to have shifted her view to categorically reject the possibility that Trump supporters like herself had anything to do with the mob or with storming the Capitol. On a chartered bus trip back to Michigan filled with "Stop the Steal Michigan" supporters that Peters appears to have helped organize, she rallied fellow passengers behind the notion that antifa was to blame. Peters did not respond to our request for comment.

One woman Peters interviewed on Facebook claimed, without evidence, that "Antifa rolled up in a big van and they jumped out and they already had the barricades set up." They had, she argued, been tricked by these antifa imposters, who the pro-Trump protesters naively followed into the melee thinking they were fellow law-abiding patriots. Another woman argued that the protests were peaceful, and that the events inside the Capitol were "theatrics" invented by enemies of Trump. "Preach, preach!" Peters said in response.

Like Cortis' attempt to separate the actions of Trump supporters from actions they usually ascribe to their political foes, this argument is problematic. It comes from someone who, just weeks earlier, live-streamed herself at an armed protest over election fraud outside of Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson's house in an act decried by local politicians as "mob-like behavior" that was "an affront to basic morality and decency.” No evidence exists to support the notion that left-wing agitators hijacked the day's events. Thousands of videos accidentally made public by the social platform Parler and the lengthy, pro-Trump political resumes of many of those arrested at the Capitol demonstrate the falsity of the claim.

A New Cause

It takes a great deal of motivated reasoning to argue, while literally on a bus that is taking Trump supporters to D.C. from out of state, that busloads of antifa were to blame for the riots. The problem, as both this and our May 2020 report demonstrated, is they have more than enough motivation — as a cohesive group of zealous believers who have hopped from one Trump issue to the next — to convince each other of whatever they want. Many other politicians or activists identified in our May investigation, including Mike Detmer and Cindi Holland, did not go to D.C., but continued their activism at the Michigan State Capitol. They now blame antifa, as well.

The Facebook profiles of these increasingly isolated Trump supporters are a mix of posts with misinformation disclaimers, posts about how "big tech" and fact-checkers are censoring their views, and posts advertising their new usernames on an alternate social media platform such as MeWe or Parler — the latter went offline after Amazon web services refused to host it following the Capitol riot. Such an echo chamber may be why Michigan party officials like Maddock are unable to consider their own culpability for rhetoric that inspired violence, and it goes a long way to explain the more fervent activists’ ability to eschew reality.

It might be easy to discount their views as fringe, but if there's one takeaway from our reports on the Michigan activist scene it is this: Zealous activists like those in Michigan are not going away, and their delusions remain dangerous.

Alex Kasprak is an investigative journalist and science writer reporting on scientific misinformation, online fraud, and financial crime.

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