Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker responded on Saturday to critics who displayed signs with swastikas or other Nazi references at Friday’s protests against his stay-at-home order in downtown Chicago and Springfield.
“The people who were protesting — there were quite a number of people who seem to have been carrying signs filled with hate,” said Pritzker, who is Jewish. “There were people carrying signs with swastikas on them.”
After citing his experiences helping build the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie and working with survivors of the Nazi-perpetrated genocide, the first-term Democratic governor said, “The meaning of that swastika is apparently unknown to the people who are carrying it, or if it is known, it is a demonstration of the hate that is among us.”
But Pritzker added that the protests at the state’s Thompson Center in Chicago and the Illinois State Capitol drew only “a few hundred demonstrators.”
The protesters at the “Re-open Illinois” events targeted the governor’s decisions to shut down all businesses except those deemed essential and limit gatherings to no more than 10 people since March. The original order was extended through May, although some of the restrictions have been relaxed this month.
Although polls show deep support for the stay-at-home orders, it was some of the messages at the protests that drew broad, even international condemnation. At one point, the hashtag #IllinoisNazis was trending nationally on Twitter.
And the official Twitter account of the museum at the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland criticized one protester who held up a sign with the phrase “Arbeit macht frei, JB,” according to a photo posted by a counter-demonstrator. That message, which is German for “work sets you free,” is the same slogan the Nazis wrote above the entrance to the death camp.
“It’s painful to see this symbol instrumentalized & used again to spread hate,” wrote the @AuschwitzMemorial on Twitter. “It’s a symptom of moral & intellectual degeneration.”
“Arbeit macht frei” was a false, cynical illusion the SS gave to prisoners of #Auschwitz. Those words became one of the icons of human hatred. It’s painful to see this symbol instrumentalized & used again to spread hate. It’s a symptom of moral & intellectual degeneration. https://t.co/ZRxja8x6eS— Auschwitz Memorial (@AuschwitzMuseum) May 2, 2020
Pritzker and his aides say the shutdown has helped prevent more deaths in the state in the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and they said most people in Illinois have respected the orders.
But some protesters — including a downstate lawmaker who has challenged the governor’s orders in court — say the measures taken to fight the pandemic stripped people of their liberty and have caused undue economic harm, with hundreds of thousands of newly jobless workers filing for unemployment in the past couple months.
Pritzker’s comments on the protests came as his administration announced that 105 people had died of the coronavirus in the past 24 hours. The total number of people who have died with confirmed cases of COVID-19 is 2,559.
“We’re doing the right thing protecting each other during this extraordinary crisis,” the governor said. “I am so grateful to live in a state with those millions of people.”
At the protest in Chicago on Friday, one person displayed a sign that read, “HEY, PRITZKER!!! HITLER CALLED. HE WANTS HIS POLICE STATE BACK!!!”
A replica of The General Lee — a car from the old TV show The Dukes of Hazard that displays the Confederate flag — circled the Thompson Center during the rally.
Photos taken by reporters at the event in Springfield included shots of a woman holding a “Heil Pritzker” sign decorated with a swastika and a man who had drawn a Hitler mustache on a picture of Pritzker. That man’s sign read, “The only reason to wear a mask is to show obedience to tyranny.”
Many protesters did not wear masks or follow federal social-distancing guidelines suggesting people stay six feet apart.
“I’m very hopeful that nobody gets sick as a result of showing up at a protest and not wearing a mask and not adhering to social distancing more,” Pritzker said.
The governor’s top aides had stronger words for the protesters who displayed the Nazi symbol.
Pritzker chief of staff Anne Caprara and the governor’s spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh both re-tweeted the post with the photo of the “Arbeit macht frei, JB” sign at the Chicago rally.
“These words are above the gates of Auschwitz and are directed at our Jewish governor,” Abudayyeh wrote. “You can disagree with policies, but this blatant display of bigotry and hatred should have no home in any movement.”
Caprara said the woman who held the sign could visit the Illinois Holocaust Museum, where she would learn the phrase on the sign “adorned Nazi death camps.”
The man who said he took the photo and posted it was Dennis Kosuth, a Chicago Public Schools nurse who also works part-time at a Cook County hospital. Wearing two masks, he went with nurses’ union members to the Thompson Center on Friday to engage in a counter-demonstration.
“I didn’t want to engage with anybody there, or take pictures, but when I saw that sign, it floored me,” he told WBEZ on Saturday. “I couldn’t believe in this day and age, knowing what we know about history, that someone would write that – in German, no less – and write ‘JB’ on it.”
Kosuth said he and another nurse spoke to the woman but she did not identify herself or say where she was from. He said she told him she did not mean the sign to show sympathy for Nazis and that she has Jewish friends.
Some of the “Re-open Illinois” protesters had approached other nurses and told them they were actors, Kosuth said. And after the photo went viral on Twitter, he said, some alleged falsely that he had doctored it.
He said he did not try to change the minds of the demonstrators and was partly motivated to attend after a former colleague died of COVID-19 a couple days ago.
“I couldn’t believe he was gone, and then I see these people have this rally downtown and trying to open up Illinois,” Kosuth said.
He said comparing the stay-at-home order to totalitarianism “was insulting to those who have actually experienced that before.”
Dan Mihalopoulos is a reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team.