Updated: May 21
Sometimes, hearing thoughts from someone you disagree with can be disheartening. Frustrating. Maddening even. At the same time, listening to someone you disagree with can be a critical window into understanding and communicating with them. I’m a democrat. A liberal, I suppose, but I watch Fox News and follow associated pundits on Twitter for this exact reason. Because communicating effectively with anyone starts with understanding their language and identifying any knowledge gaps.
In the rapidly evolving world of coronavirus data, the medical and scientific communities do our best to disseminate evidence-based COVID information. But, as the nightly news can tell you, our efforts can be met with shouts and rebellion from a not-so-trivial amount of disheartened, frustrated, and maddened citizens. People who are so fed up that many have taken to crowding into restaurants or protesting. Although it’s easy to guess some of the reasons underlying the disconnect between our recommendations and this behavior, I wanted to gain a deeper understanding of it. Because, again, how can we possibly communicate with protestors when we have not truly listened to them? Brandon Harris is the founder of Freedom Movement USA (FMUSA), an organization he says is “based on upholding the constitution and keeping people free in our country”. He is also the organizer of the shutdown protests in Illinois and 17 other states. To gain some enlightenment about the driving force behind the protests, I called him up for a chat. To be clear, our interview represented neither my endorsement of Brandon and his causes nor his endorsement of me and mine. It was also not a debate nor an opportunity for “gotcha” moments. It was simply an opportunity for “us” to learn about “them”.
Here are 5 things I learned about the shutdown protestors based on our discussion:
1. They want to be heard.
According to Harris, the primary motivation for the protests is “to get the government to listen”. He says of Illinois' Governor J.B Pritzker that what protestors want is for him to “pick up the phone and call, we’re pretty reasonable, we’re pretty educated, and we just want to work together”. If given the opportunity to sit and speak with Governor Pritzker Harris would ask him about “his 5-stage plan [for reopening Illinois], why it’s set up the way it is and what the data behind it is, what his statistician has come up with”. Regarding his protestors, he admits “we’ve got some crazies that are just out there to make a scene” including some folks who believe the contact tracing recommended by medical experts has an ulterior motive: to microchip people. But the majority are “happy people who just want their businesses back” or those that “are feeling oppressed, like their rights are being taken”. He notes that the protests are mostly driven by fear including fear of losing income, homes, or jobs and says that some even fear “the government is trying to take over” because “we are living in volatile times”. Above all, “they don’t want a 5-stage government plan that shuts down their businesses for 18-24 months”. However, he did recognize that reopening would involve special social distancing restrictions with which his protestors agree. Harris broke down the proportions of causes within the protestor crowds as follows:
2. He denounces Nazi and white supremacy ideologies.
At a recent “Open Illinois Now” protest in Chicago, a woman made headlines around the globe for her protest sign declaring “arbeit macht frei”, which translates to “work makes you free”. It was the slogan that hung over the entrance to Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp. Harris says he did not know this individual and, on Twitter, openly denounced the ideology that her sign referenced. In his view, she “was making points that nobody [at the protest] agreed with”. He went as far as suggesting that she may have been an actor who was paid to be there for the express purpose of drowning out the protest’s actual message: to re-open Illinois. He went on to highlight that he is half Native-American and that he makes a point of having a diverse cast of speakers at his protests including Jewish, Hispanic, and democratic individuals.
3. The majority are personally experiencing economic hardship due to the shutdowns
This was not necessarily surprising since 24-hour news cycles and stories from friends and family have made it clear that the shutdowns have delivered a devastating blow to small businesses and the economy. But each time a personal story is told it does tend to bring the hurt to life. Many of the protestors, Mr. Harris included, are small business owners who are struggling to make ends meet. Because of the shutdowns his consulting companies have come to a complete standstill due to downstream effects from the businesses that require his services. He laments that “it really sucks when you lose everything when you’ve built it from nothing”. FMUSA Northern Illinois leader Robert Tracy, has taken a hit too. As a landlord he has excused all rent payments that were due during the shutdown, in spite of still being required to pay property taxes on his units. He says it’s not easy but it was “the Christian thing to do”.
4. They do not think that the coronavirus is a hoax, but they think the response is overblown
“Here in Joliet, I’ve got Symphony [nursing facility] a block away. I know for a fact that this is not a joke, it’s not a hoax. We had more people die in that one nursing home…than anywhere.” He added that he has family that works there as further supporting evidence for him that coronavirus exists. He is also aware that when some social distancing guidelines have been relaxed historically it has caused a second surge in cases. He believes that coronavirus is real, dangerous, and very contagious, but adds that “social distancing has worked to a point here and it’s saving lives…I think there is a large difference between social distancing and forcefully controlling the people…yes there is a fear to be had, we need to be safe, but at the same time we cannot destroy our economy and set ourselves back four years…because of fear”.
5. They don’t believe our data…and this is largely where the communication breakdown occurs
One of the most important questions I had planned for Mr. Harris during our call was: what resources do you use to stay up-to-date on COVID numbers in Illinois and across the country? The answer surprised me: “We’re looking at all the different numbers but none of them are factual”. So, Harris says he has compiled a team of doctors and statisticians to run the numbers themselves. The team is said to get their data from “HGEMI” though Harris admitted he could not confirm if that was the exact name of the resource his team uses. Here are some examples of their findings, which Harris shared with me (but for which there is no scientific basis in the current literature):
A) "20% of all people nationally that have been tested have been proven to have the virus”.
B) “It’s been proven in some states now that every death’s a corona death…It’s been proven that a guy has a heart attack but if he contaminated himself with COVID a week ago and he was going through COVID it’s a COVID death”.
C) “The CDC numbers were just proven to be false last week…We don’t have a recovery rate. We don’t know who’s recovering”.
Harris says he is “irritated” by fluctuating federal data and recommendations. “We’re shut down for 3 months and then it’s gonna be 18 and next week it’s gonna be 21 years and we may never have a cure…a lot of less-educated people are hanging on those words and they’re tired of the mixed and confused messages…they’d rather see facts”. He went on to express frustration that the doctors who are being relied on for critical evidence-based information right now “are not looking at all the facts…the numbers aren’t accurate. I don’t think that anything we’re seeing is factual. I think it’s a bunch of jammed together data”. When asked for his thoughts on how to gather reliable data he described his ideal study as “a single hospital, you break that single hospital down based on their demographics, and that single hospital sees 10,000 patients, how many will come back from that one single hospital...that could be considered factual data, we can work off of that…but not with everybody just cramming data into the system”. He added that without autopsies we cannot determine COVID as the cause of death. As physicians, we know that the majority of the time the cause of death is, in fact, determined without autopsy, but how would someone like Mr. Harris be expected to know this?
Harris stated that he has an overall trust in science. However, his use of the word "proven" when referring to his own data while denying the validity of the data put forth by the medical and scientific communities revealed an important area where we can improve communications. The types of studies Mr. Harris and the protestors want to see do, in fact, exist! There are countless hospitals doing studies and analyzing their data by demographics. However, I suspect there is a lack of knowledge among the protestors about their existence and location. This could represent one important knowledge gap to fill for the general public. Perhaps when our messaging is oversimplified it only adds to the confusion. And perhaps the public would feel reassured by hearing a 1-2 line summary of the studies that change the expert's recommendations. Additionally, it couldn't hurt to start directing the public to resources for reliable information and real COVID-related study findings from actual hospitals:
I think we all feel Harris' frustration with the rapid influx of data and resulting changes in recommendations. But Dr. Jeremy Faust, Instructor in Emergency Medicine at Harvard's Brigham and Women's Hospital, addressed this nicely on Twitter recently with this comment:
Ultimately, I felt that I achieved the goals I set for my interview with Harris resulting in two major takeaways: First, there are some massive knowledge gaps that need to be addressed when communicating to the public or directly with the protestors. Fear, frustration, and confusion are driving both the protests and much of the reckless behavior we are beginning to see. But much of that fear, frustration, and confusion stems from these knowledge gaps. Second, it isn’t wrong to empathize with the tragedy occurring on the opposing side of any argument. If both sides are willing to listen, there are ways we can each help each other. And I hope that, if anyone reads this article, they use it as intended. It is not meant to ridicule anyone. It is not meant as SJW propaganda. And it certainly does not want to play any part in call-out culture. It is simply meant to provide a sprinkle of insight to facilitate meaningful, effective communication during these dangerous and divisive times.
Click here to hear my entire interview with Brandon Harris***
***Mr. Harris consented to this interview, to making the phone call available to the public, and to having the interview be the basis for this article.