RALEIGH — During the first week of April 2020, a movement called ReOpenNC launched its first protest in Raleigh against Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s COVID-19 executive orders.
ReOpenNC began as a Facebook group that characterized itself as a “grassroots action group working towards a mutual goal to Reopen NC by no later than May 1, 2020.”
A year later, the lockdown order is gone and many restrictions have been lifted, but the statewide mask mandate for school children remains.
Formed on April 7, ReOpenNC’s membership started with a few dozen but quickly climbed to nearly 87,000 at its peak in 2020.
Today, the Facebook page is no longer named ReOpenNC, but has now rebranded as “Impeach Roy Cooper.” The movement’s leader, Ashley Smith, has also gone missing.
Sources within the group tell North State Journal that Smith stepped away from the group in early January of this year, frustrated with a lack of action by group members and by lawmakers.
During the initial ReOpenNC protests, Cooper was criticized for his inconsistent treatment of ReOpen protests versus Black Lives Matter and Antifa protests after the death of George Floyd, which resulted in millions of dollars of damage due to rioting, arson and property damage.
That first protest turned into a weekly string of events that spanned over a month. Hundreds of North Carolinians showed up to protest in front of the General Assembly and the governor’s mansion. Over a bullhorn, attendees shared stories of financial ruin, isolation and other negative effects of the lockdown.
During the second week of April, the Raleigh Police Department tweeted that “The protestors are in violation of the Governor’s Executive Order and have been asked to leave.” When questioned about what part of the governor’s order had been violated, Raleigh Police issued a tweet, which subsequently went viral, claiming “protesting is not an essential activity.”
Lawmakers responded, demanding clarification from the governor as to whether his orders barred the constitutionally protected First Amendment rights of the protesters. Cooper’s office issued a statement indicating that the protesters could not be arrested.
Lawmakers, as well as political candidates, were also seen on the ground at the protests. Congressman Dan Bishop made an appearance as well as then-candidate for Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson.
The largest crowd appeared on the third week of protests, which started with around 150 to 200 people but then grew as more people arrived. There was also a larger police presence as a sea of signs held by protesters chanting “Cooper is not our king” flooded onto West Jones Street, headed towards the executive mansion.
Kristin Elizabeth, one of the original co-founders, left the group at the end of April following the arrest of another co-founder, Smith. In departing, Elizabeth said Smith had gone off and “acted on her own.”
Two other female members of ReOpenNC were also arrested. The women had been arrested for attempting to protest on the sidewalk closest to the gates of the governor’s executive mansion and were ultimately charged with violating Cooper’s “Executive Order 117.”
By the fourth week, ReOpenNC was met with counter-protesters for the first time, outfitted in surgical attire and lab coats. A person affiliated with the counter-protesters admitted to North State Journal that only half of their group actually worked in healthcare.
Before the start of the fifth week of planned protests, Cooper announced the state’s reopening would happen in phases. The governor said he would move the state into “Phase 1” — a modified version of the statewide lockdown order that allowed certain essential businesses to operate at 50% capacity, some parks to open and outdoor-only religious worship services.
Protests continued on a semi-regular basis, but with less frequency and nearly ceased entirely over the summer months in 2020.
In June, as the governor was moving the state into “Phase 2,” Smith made the announcement that the group would be shifting priorities. ReOpenNC would shift into its own “Phase 2” by assisting businesses negatively impacted by the governor’s closure orders.
By July, Smith and ReOpenNC openly called for the impeachment of Cooper, despite there being no mechanism in North Carolina statutes for recalling elected officials. The group launched a petition campaign and presented the signatures to House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Kings Mountain).
The support of local businesses would later be tested in December, when a Wendell-area business owner was cited for not following the governor’s mask mandate order with appropriate signage.
Not long after the activities in Wendell, Smith and other prominent members of ReOpenNC began to step away from the group, culminating in the dissolution of the group by early January 2021.