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Fact check: Did the protests against Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer feature 'nooses and swastikas'?

Technically true, but misleading

Jeff Kowalsky/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) has instituted some of the harshest and arguably least constitutional stay-at-home orders in the country in response to the coronavirus pandemic, and as such has been the target of some eminently predictable protests.

Whitmer, for her part, has largely dismissed the protests and the protesters with divisive and dismissive rhetoric, which she ratcheted up a notch during a television interview Sunday, when she claimed that the protests "depicted some of the worst racism and most awful parts of U.S. history" and that they specifically included people displaying "confederate flags, nooses and swastikas."

Many in the media have uncritically repeated Whitmer's claim about the protesters without verifying whether they are true or not.

After reviewing hundreds of pictures of the protesters that were posted on social media, and by media photography services like Getty Images, as well as news accounts from other media outlets repeating Whitmer's claim, it appears that Gov. Whitmer's claim is partially true, but misleading.

We were able to locate exactly two protesters who displayed swastikas on their signs while protesting. However, as you will see, no reasonable person would conclude that these people were displaying the swastika as a symbol of white supremacy. Rather, they were obviously using the swastika in an admittedly over-the-top criticism of the harshness of Whitmer's policies.

The first one is not even technically a swastika, although it is certainly trying to be:

AFP via Getty Images

It should be noted that this picture was NOT taken at the April 30 rally that was the subject of Gov. Whitmer's Sunday remarks, but rather at the April 15 protests that occurred on the steps of the state capitol. However, in the interest of being as fair as possible to Gov. Whitmer, and including all of the protests against her orders that have occurred, the above photograph should be noted.

The other sign featuring a swastika appears to be the only instance of a swastika being displayed at the April 30 protests. And, as you can see, no reasonable person could interpret the sign as being pro-Nazi or pro-Swastika:


JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images

Thus, the claim that swastikas have been on display at the protests against Whitmer is true; however, the claim that the swastikas were used as an expression of racism or white supremacy is clearly false. These protesters were not comparing Whitmer to Hitler because they are huge fans of Hitler and therefore also huge fans of Whitmer. Rather, they are comparing her to Hitler because, in their mind, that is the worst comparison that could be made. If anything, that is an expression opposing racism rather than supporting it.

As far as the claim regarding "nooses," we were not able to find any pictures taken by any of the many media photographers who covered the event that depicted a noose.

Neither, for that matter, were any of the other media outlets that repeated Whitmer's claims. Several of them included as featured images with their story the above photograph of the individual with the Whitmer-as-Hitler poster, and others included pictures of a confederate flag in the audience. See, for example, the Chicago Tribune, MSN, The Guardian, and NBC News.

Some users on social media claim, however, that a noose was in fact present.

However, further examination (from another apparently liberal twitter user) clearly demonstrates that the noose in question was not displayed as a symbol of racism but as a symbol against tyranny, as the person to whose truck the noose was attached was carrying a sign that read, "Tyrants get the rope."

This is not a display intended to threaten black people with lynching; if anyone is being threatened, it is the white governor of Michigan.

Comparing Whitmer to Hitler, and suggesting that she is a tyrant deserving of "the rope" might well be criticized as over-the-top and/or unacceptable rhetoric. Neither of these displays, however, has any obvious racist intent. Nor would such displays even make sense within the context of a protest about stay-at-home orders, which have nothing to do with race or racism.

In conclusion, it is literally true that there was at least one swastika and at least one noose on display at the anti-Whitmer protests last Thursday. It is, however, false (or at the very least misleading) to claim that they were displayed as symbols of racism.

Gov. Whitmer's office did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

One last thing…
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