Civil rights leaders rip Lansing protest for ‘racist undertones’

Urge Whitmer to go slow on reopening state 

By: - April 20, 2020 11:13 am

Conservative protest at Michigan’s Capitol against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, April 15, 2020 | Anna Liz Nichols

The Rev. Charles Williams II, National Action Network’s Michigan chair and pastor of Historic King Solomon Baptist Church in Detroit, said that last week’s “Operation Gridlock” rally in Lansing was President Trump-inspired and had “racist undertones.” 

“I think that this is the same dog-whistle and cat-calling that Donald Trump and others have used all along,” Williams told the Advance on Monday. “Using a racist and white supremacist base of people to promote conservative values has been [Trump’s] M.O. from the very beginning. The undertone of all of this was racism and white supremacy.”   

The Rev. Wendell Anthony, Detroit NAACP branch president, believes that Michigan is not ready to reverse or relax a state government-directed stay-home order to stop the spread of COVID-19. Anthony also blasted those who organized a protest rally in Lansing last week.

“We must not be seduced by the political sirens working for their re-election,” said Anthony, who has led the civil rights organization’s largest branch since 1993.  

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From 90 miles away, the seasoned activist watched video images of the Michigan Conservative Coalition (MCC) sponsored-protest, which attracted more than 3,000 people, according to state police estimates. MCC, which was founded by state Rep. Matt Maddock (R-Milford), a big Trump supporter, and his wife, Meshawn Maddock, chair of the 11th District GOP and a member of the national organization “Women for Trump.” The group actively partners with some of the state’s most conservative political organizations.

“Michigan Conservative Coalition, and its associated activities like Michigan Trump Republicans, Battle Cry, Women for Trump and more, helped create a large network of grassroots leaders, volunteers and patriots spread across Michigan,” its website says.

The rally, organizers said prior to the demonstration, was designed to push back against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s set of executive orders on COVID-19, which has now killed more than 2,300 in Michigan. 

Instead, said Anthony, the effort turned into a reelection rally for President Donald Trump, complete bigoted white nationalist props.

“The real issue is not blocking the streets so traffic cannot drive through or shutting down a hospital that the sick are unable to get to,” Anthony said. “Pulling political stunts such as surrounding the Capitol with cars and trucks, carrying handguns, rifles AR 14.5 or 15, wearing MAGA [Make America Great Again] hats, waving both the American and Confederate flags, and carrying Trump signs for president doesn’t seem like opening the government up. It is more like shutting the government down.”

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During an MSNBC interview last week, Whitmer said, “This small group that came together without masks on, passing out candy with bare hands to children, who were congregating together, brandishing their weapons, having posters of being anti-choice — this was a political rally. It was a political rally that is going to endanger people’s lives because this is precisely how COVID-19 spreads.”

On Friday, Trump appeared to endorse the protest by tweeting, “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” He did the same thing for Minnesota and Virginia, which both have Democratic governors. Forty-three states have stay-home orders.

Mary McCord, former acting U.S. assistant attorney general for national security from 2016 to 2017, wrote in a Washington Post column that he “incited insurrection Friday against the duly elected governors of the states of Michigan, Minnesota and Virginia” and noted that’s illegal.

Anthony, an African-American Detroit resident, has participated and helped to lead protest rallies centering on policy for 50 years in the Motor City, in Lansing and on Capitol Hill. He has fought for voting rights for Blacks and Browns; argued for funding equity among Michigan school districts, both urban and rural; and rallied against apartheid, the wretched racial discriminatory societal system in South Africa. 

When it comes to COVID-19, Anthony believes that the public health crisis is the issue, not 2020 general election politicking and sloganeering.

“We must listen to the wisdom of the scientists and health care providers working for our protection,” Anthony said.

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As of Sunday, Michigan has 31,424 confirmed COVID-19 cases and has experienced 2,391 deaths. 

In addition, 33% of confirmed COVID-19 cases are African American and 40% of COVID-19-related deaths are Black. African Americans, however, make up only 14% of the state’s population. The race is unknown in 25% of cases and 11% of deaths. Whites are 33% of cases and 43% of deaths; Asian Americans are 2% of cases and 1% of deaths, Latinos are 2% of cases and 1% of deaths and Native Americans are less than 1% apiece.

At least two state lawmakers from Detroit — state Reps. Karen Whitsett (D-Detroit) and Tyrone Carter (D-Detroit) — contracted COVID-19. Another Motor City lawmaker, state Rep. Isaac Robinson (D-Detroit), died of a coronavirus-related condition on March 29.

However, state House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) applauded the protestors and tweeted: “This is your state Capitol right now. I will always support the right of the people to protest their government and make their voices heard. That’s why I wave the American flag.”

Chatfield and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) have called for Whitmer to scale back her stay-home order and reopen businesses before the order expires April 30. 

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Polling for the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce conducted by the Chicago-based Glengariff Group on Wednesday and Thursday after the protest show Whitmer’s handling of COVID-19 at 57% positive and 37% negative. Trump is at 44% positive and 50% negative.

Nationally, Pew Research finds that 66% are concerned state governments will open businesses up too quickly compared to 32% who worry it won’t be quick enough. Looking at party breakdown, Gallup found 89% Democrats and 69% of Republicans said they won’t return to normal life even if restrictions are lifted.

Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown noted Whitmer is working on a bipartisan partnership of seven Midwest states to coordinate the reopening of our region’s economy. 

“Michigan will have a responsible plan that prioritizes the health and safety of our citizens,” Brown said. 

Many health officials caution that states like Michigan should engage in more testing before relaxing stay-home declarations. A Harvard University study suggests that America needs to conduct three times as much testing than it has. To reopen the country by mid-May, a daily average of 500,000 to 700,000 tests would need to be performed by then, according to Harvard estimates in a New York Times report.

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During a Sunday interview on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Whitmer said she wants to reopen the state, but is concerned about lack of testing supplies.

“No one’s more anxious to re engage our economy than I am,” Whitmer said, “but I want to do it in a way that really does save life and makes us safe.”

For many weeks during February and March, the Trump administration was slow to order necessary medical supplies and make them available to states. At times, state governors have pointed out, they were competitively bidding against each other — and the federal government — for surgical masks, testing kits and ventilators.

In a March 30 joint op-ed in the Washington Post, Whitmer and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican and the chair of the National Governors Association, called for better coordination from the federal government.

“The Federal Emergency Management Agency needs to better coordinate the distribution of supplies based on need. Right now, there is no single authority tracking where every spare ventilator is or where there are shortages,” they wrote.

ER doctor: Keep stay home order, West Mich. is on COVID-19 upslope

As the curve appears to be flattening in Southeast Michigan, cases are rising in other areas like the Saginaw-Genesee-Bay area and West Michigan. A Kent County health official told WOOD-TV in Grand Rapids last week that the COVID-10 might not peak in West Michigan for several weeks.

“The curve is likely to increase over the course of the next few weeks,” said, Brian Hartl, Kent County epidemiology supervisor. “Just the modeling has shown to this point that the expected peak for us here in West Michigan is the first or middle part of May.”

Anthony’s caution in reopening the state seems to be in tune with the Whitmer administration, as well as health care professionals in Michigan and across the country.

“We must not make our move too soon,” Anthony said. “We must get this thing right because death is still lurking in the shadows in the event we get it wrong.”

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman writes about Southeast Michigan, history and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on Black life in Detroit.