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Protester says he’s misunderstood

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SMITHFIELD — Rather than hate him, Stephen Wagner wants people to recognize he’s standing up for their rights.

Wagner has drawn social media fire since a newspaper photographer captured him carrying an empty rocket launcher while ordering food in a downtown Raleigh sandwich shop.

Wagner says he and other protesters were in Raleigh that day to draw attention not to themselves but to Gov. Roy Cooper’s stay-at-home order, which he calls an assault on his freedoms, including the right to worship.

“The state now says you can’t go to church or (dictates) how you can go to church,” Wagner said by phone. “I’m no constitutional scholar, but I’m pretty sure that’s not how that works.”

The now-viral photo of Wagner has led to hilarious memes, with some featuring a sandwich replacing the rocket launcher. “We’re actually thinking of hijacking the term (Meal Team Six) that they were trying to put on us because it’s hilarious,” he said.

Wagner is angry that people see him and other armed protestors as racist gun nuts who intend to sow fear and discord. “It’s kind of pissing me off that we’re being labeled ... like that when we’re completely against that,” he said.

Wagner said he and his fellow Reopen NC members would welcome people of color willing to defend their rights, including their Second Amendment right to bear arms. “We’ve already got Republicans and Democrats, ex-law enforcement, men and women, ex-Marines and ex-Army,” he said. “We’ve already got a bunch of different walks of life: gay folks, straight folks. If we could just get some colorful folks in there, that would put the kibosh on this narrative they’re trying to push on us.”

Liberals tend to paint anyone they disagree with as neo-Nazis or white supremacists, Wagner said. “We’re definitely not, and if I heard anybody saying racist (things), I’d put them in check,” he said.

Instead, Wagner said he and his fellow protesters are simply defending freedom against government tyranny. “I’m over here walking around peacefully for all of us — for your great-grandkids, their great-grandkids, my great-grandkids, everybody’s great-grandkids,” he said.

“They’re not ours to give away, and they’re certainly not the government’s to take,” Wagner said of constitutional rights. “They belong to future generations.”

Wagner said he wanted the governor to know that people are ignoring the executive order that closed tattoo parlors, nail salons and barbershops. “I’m still getting haircuts, and my wife is still getting her nails done,” he said. “Later today, I’m going to get a ... tattoo.

“I don’t give a damn what the government thinks about it or what the governor says I’m allowed to do. It’s my body and my choice, and I’ve got people who want to do their craft.”

Other North Carolinians can stay home if they like, Wagner said. “I don’t particularly care if anybody ever ... climbs out of their hole,” he said. “They can stay in their house, order Uber Eats, and huff Lysol from now on, but they shouldn’t tell other people we can’t do, what we need to do. It should be an individual choice. If you want to wear a mask, go wear one. If you don’t, don’t.”

Wagner hopes the national attention the recent protest garnered will prompt others to defend their rights. “I’m just glad people are waking up to the fact that the Second Amendment is still alive and well,” he said.

As for the rocket launcher, “I didn’t have an officer come ask me if it was live or not because everyone knows you can’t get (weapons) like that,” Wagner said.

Whether it’s coronavirus, flu or something else, viruses will always sicken some people and kill others, Wagner said. “As long as there have been humans, some of us have gotten sick from something; the weak ones have died,” he said. “That’s 100 percent normal.”

What’s not normal “is trampling on our rights to deal with a medical problem, which is what they’re doing right now.” Wagner said. “It just seems (the government) is using a freaking jackhammer to remove a splinter.”

Wagner is adamant he will not wear a mask and is boycotting businesses that require him to do so. “People are like, ‘Well, if it saves only one life, then isn’t it worth doing it?’ ” he said. “No. I don’t care if there was dead bodies piled up on the sidewalk ... it’s not worth giving away any of our constitutional rights over it.”

More is at stake than the health of people alive today, Wagner said. “There is no amount of people dying in this generation that will affect our great-grandkids,” he said. “But if we give up even one constitutional right in this generation, it will most definitely negatively affect our great-grandkids. No one can dispute that.”

His social media haters have gotten him all wrong, Wagner said. “I’m not the book the cover portrays,” he said. “It was always liberty before safety. The government has been put in place to ensure our constitutional rights are upheld, not to ensure our safety; that’s on us.”