Conservative protest at the Capitol against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, April 30, 2020 | Anna Liz Nichols
The news that members of the Boogaloo Bois and a self-described militia group had plans to kidnap and kill Gov. Gretchen Whitmer over her COVID-19 emergency actions shook Michiganders in the last weeks.
But for months, several lawmakers, particularly African Americans, have been sounding the alarm and calling on Republicans who run the Legislature to ramp up security, ban guns at the Capitol and denounce far-right extremism and white supremacism.
Little has changed. A letter from Democrats asking for Republican leaders to denounce symbols of hate at protests has gone without a response. Floor speeches from Black lawmakers about the impact of COVID-19 on communities of color were described as “shrill” by a Republican colleague. A state panel has yet to bar firearms from the building for months following heavily armed demonstrations. And those are just a few examples.
During a rally in Muskegon on Saturday, President Donald Trump told the crowd “you got to get your governor to open up your state. And get your schools open. The schools have to be open.”
Despite the stay-home order being lifted since June 2, the governor losing her emergency powers after a recent Supreme Court ruling struck them down and all schools in the state having the authority to choose whether or not they will offer in-person instruction, the crowd responded with a “lock her up” chant directed at Whitmer.
Tori Saylor, Whitmer’s deputy digital director, monitors what people say about the governor online, and she tweeted that “every single time the president does this at a rally, the violent rhetoric towards her immediately escalates on social media.”
On “Meet The Press” on Sunday, Whitmer said the president is “inspiring, incentivizing and inciting this kind of domestic terrorism.”
Whitmer’s life has been threatened before. A Detroit man was charged in May with false report of threat of terrorism after he allegedly made on April 14 “credible threats to kill” Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel. Whitmer later criticized U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr, who had said in July he “was not aware” of threats on her life.
Since the arrests in the alleged terrorist plot, federal officials have revealed that another Democratic governor, Virginia’s Ralph Northam, also was a target. And in a separate incident, a man was arrested for threatening to kidnap and “slash the throat” of Wichita, Kan., Mayor Matthew Whipple over the city’s mask ordinance.
This has taken place against the backdrop of a U.S. Department of Homeland Security report that white supremacist extremists remain the deadliest domestic terror threat to the United States, responsible for more lethal attacks in the nation than any other extreme group since 2018. The report shows they have “longstanding intent to target racial and religious minorities, members of the LGBTQ+ community, politicians and those they believe promote multiculturalism and globalization.”
The Booglaoo Bois, a far-right extremist group that has allegedly targeted police for violence across the country, isn’t chastened even after the Michigan arrests, with members holding a rally at Michigan’s Capitol on Saturday. Member Mike Dunn even told WLNS-TV that he was proud of those arrested.
“They were planning to perform a lawful citizens arrest upon a sitting governor and that has exercised government overreach, has breached the constitution of the United State of America and they were gonna do what needed to be done and should be done in several parts of this nation,” Dunn said.
But despite a brush with what could have been the highest-profile terrorist attack in Michigan’s history, Republican leaders still have not taken action to address these issues. And they have lashed out at Whitmer for being “partisan.”
So how did we get here?
A deadly pandemic
Michigan reported its first two positive COVID-19 tests on March 10 — which happened to be the day of the state’s presidential primary when Trump, a Republican, and Democrat Joe Biden won their respective contests.
Political tension had already been high, as Michigan is a hotly contested state in 2020, after Trump pulled out a surprise win here in 2016. But Democrats swept to big victories in statewide offices two years later, led by Whitmer. However, Republicans maintained control of both the House and Senate, setting the stage for big fights over the budget, road funding and more.
Then the coronavirus pandemic hit. Michigan was one of the hardest-hit states initially, prompting Whitmer to issue a stay-home measure on March 24. She took some of the most aggressive actions in the country, shutting down schools, businesses and mass gatherings.
While her response was and is popular — consistently earning support from more than 60% of Michiganders — she faced growing opposition from Republicans and right-wing activists.
Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake), House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) and Michigan GOP Chair Laura Cox emerged as some of Whitmer’s loudest critics — perhaps next to Trump, who repeatedly slammed her in tweets and media interviews and even bragged about telling Vice President Mike Pence not to take her calls on COVID-19. A series of right-wing protests were held at the Capitol and across the state, many attended by GOP officials.
In April, President Donald Trump famously tweeted, “LIBERATE MICHIGAN,” fueling the fire of anti-lockdown protesters in the state.
Over the past seven months, the COVID-19 pandemic has infected over 137,000 Michiganders, killed nearly 7,000 people, caused many people in the state to apply for unemployment benefits, created massive holes in the state budget and shuttered businesses and schools.
It also has been a time of major unrest across the country. In Michigan and elsewhere, far-right extremist groups have found their voice amid the chaos.
Why? Because no one has told them no, said Carolyn Normandin, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) Michigan.
“I think whenever extremist rhetoric is not challenged, people begin to get it normalized in their psyche, and I think that is very dangerous,” Normandin said. “I think any type of activity that doesn’t shut this down for what it is, which is extremist and violent, I think that’s a real big problem. And by not shutting it down, you’re just giving permission.”
Nessel saw this as a worrying pattern shortly after she took office. Hate crimes rose in Michigan by 30% between 2016 and 2017, per FBI statistics. They increased by 17% from 2017 to 2018, the most recent year of data.
The Democrat launched the Hate Crimes Unit within the Criminal Division of the Department of Attorney General in March 2019, but a month later, Republicans on the Senate Oversight Committee pushed back against the need for it. Nessel told the Advance in March 2019 that Trump’s rhetoric was part of the problem.
“There may have been undertones here and there over the course of many years, but certainly not coming from people that were elected officials in such high places. And I think what it did is it emboldened people who had similar sentiments to be more vocal about it — and in many cases to act upon it,” Nessel said. “And to feel self-righteous about their hateful sentiments.”
The most extreme example to date came this month, as federal and state authorities announced that 13 men have been charged for what officials categorize as “extremist” plans to target Whitmer, overthrow the state government and “instigate a civil war.”
Six Wolverine Watchmen members were charged on multiple counts for alleged acts of terrorism by federal officials and Nessel’s office charged seven more men under Michigan’s Anti-Terrorism Act. Another man was charged last week.
Still, many of Whitmer’s GOP critics didn’t even pause for a day after the plot was announced. Hours after Nessel addressed the state and shared details of the FBI’s findings on Thursday, Republican leaders were in the crowd and on the Capitol steps for a “Let MI People Go” rally protesting her actions to stop the spread of COVID-19.
“This is no time to be weak in our commitment to freedom,” Shirkey said to the crowd. “We need to be strong … and not be afraid of those who are taking our freedoms away from us.”
As for the terrorist plot, Chatfield told the crowd last week that he condemns “anyone who wants to incite violence in our community and our country because all lives matter.”
However, for lawmakers in Michigan who have been pushing for safer working conditions in the state Capitol and calling out systemic racism and extremism for the last seven months, this wasn’t enough.
“Talk is cheap,” state Rep. Sarah Anthony (D-Lansing) said. “I fundamentally believe that actions speak louder than words. And there has been little to no action to, at the very least, ensure that firearms are not allowed in our Capitol building. That is just one good faith effort that would go beyond the talk, and would give a lot of assurance to members of all colors and walks of life in that building.”
Sen. Sylvia Santana (D-Detroit) added, “You can’t talk out of both sides of your mouth. You can’t say one minute, ‘We’re praying for our governor’s family, and we’re happy that they’re safe.’ And then in the same vein, to stand up and then denounce anything that happened by these groups and individuals. This is real life, and you can’t take anything for granted. And I just feel that the majority party is taking this issue for granted.”
Joe Schwarz, a GOP former state senator and U.S. House member from Battle Creek who heads the Keep Michigan Safe group backing Whitmer’s pandemic actions, said the Republican leaders’ “quasi-silence speaks volumes.”
The first and largest right-wing protest at the Capitol was held on April 15, featuring about 3,000 people with the intention of creating a “traffic jam” even though most businesses were shut down.
That rally was followed by several smaller anti-Whitmer demonstrations in Lansing and across the state that several GOP leaders like Shirkey attended.
Members of the self-described Michigan Militia, Boogaloo Bois and the Proud Boys came to the events. Several people brought semi-automatic rifles. Events featured Trump and confederate flags and signs with swastikas and calling for Whitmer’s murder, like “Heil Whitmer” and “Tyrants Get the Rope.” Fiery speeches called for Whitmer’s arrest and one attendee brought a doll symbolizing Whitmer with a noose around her neck.
Chatfield noted his support for the April 15 rally with a video posted on Facebook waving the American flag outside the Capitol: “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. #OldGlory,” he wrote.
Several GOP leaders used similar rhetoric for Whitmer as the right-wing protesters. In April, Shirkey told MIRS News that Whitmer is “comfortable being a dictator” and a month later wrote on Facebook that the governor is “drunk on the addiction of unfettered power.”
In June, Cox issued a press release after Whitmer extended the state of emergency over coronavirus titled: “Cox Calls on Whitmer To End Executive Dictatorship.”
“Our nation works because our system of checks and balances ensures that no individual can become too powerful, yet Governor Whitmer has used the COVID-19 crisis to elevate her office to unprecedented levels of power. It’s time for Gretchen Whitmer’s experiment with executive dictatorship to end and for her to begin working with the peoples [sic] elected legislature once again,” Cox said.
Court of Appeals Judge Mark Boonstra, who was appointed by former GOP Gov. Rick Snyder, struck down Whitmer’s attempt to ban vaping products in May, but also penned a 13-page unrelated letter attacking Whitmer for her COVID-19 orders. Boonstra quoted articles from far-right publications calling the governor a “dictator,” a “little tyrant”and claiming she has a “tyrannical soul.”
Other Republicans have also used hyperbolic language to describe Whitmer and her actions, like state Rep. Beau LaFave (R-Iron Mountain), who frequently calls her “Emperor Whitmer.” He announced last month he had COVID-19. State Sen. Ken Horn (R-Frankenmuth), who is considered a more moderate Republican, compared Whitmer’s mask mandate to Soviet-era East Germany.
On April 24, many members of the House Democratic Caucus wrote a letter to Chatfield asking that he condemn the actions of the April 15 protesters.
“At the rally, numerous expressions of racist and anti-Semitic symbology were present. From confederate flags to Nazi swastikas, the presence of these aggressive and overt symbols of hate and division cast a dark shadow,” the April 24 letter reads, in part. “… We ask that you publicly and forcefully denounce the actions of the protesters who brought hate to our Capitol.”
Chatfield did not take action.
Armed protesters swarm Capitol
If you’ve seen photos of armed protesters yelling at police or standing in the Senate gallery, they likely were from the most raucous Capitol protest to date on April 30.
A couple hundred right-wing protesters stormed the Capitol building, many of whom were armed, after holding an anti-lockdown protest outside. One protester hit a Michigan Advance reporter with a gun, something noted by national media coverage, like the New York Times. Protesters stood over lawmakers in the Senate gallery while the session carried on and Shirkey met with some of the protesters. The Legislature voted on several measures rebuking Whitmer’s COVID-19 actions that day.
Trump’s reaction to the protests was summed up in a May 1 tweet again torching Whitmer and sympathizing with the armed protesters: “The Governor of Michigan should give a little, and put out the fire. These are very good people, but they are angry. They want their lives back again, safely! See them, talk to them, make a deal.”
Some of the individuals charged this month with involvement in the terrorist plot against Whitmer were there that day. And in June, six of them met again at another protest in Lansing to enlist more people to join them in their plans.
Shirkey spoke at a Grand Rapids anti-lockdown rally in May, where some of the militiamen charged for the plot to kill the governor took the stage.
Militia groups have been in Michigan for decades since the Michigan Militia was formed in 1994, but they have changed in recent years.
In 1995, Terry Nichols, a Lapeer native, joined Timothy McVeigh in bombing the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing almost 200 people. Rumors tied McVeigh to the newly-formed Michigan Militia, although it was never proven, because of several trips he made to Michigan.
While these groups, like the Michigan Militia and Wolverine Watchmen, are self-proclaimed militias, there is nothing within the constitution that allows for private militias to exist. The Second Amendment gives right to “well-regulated militias,” which would be trained and regulated by the government.
“Some of these groups have sort of morphed their thought processes from being anti-government to pro-President Trump, pro-gun, pro-police and most of the time anti-left stances. So, it’s a very big difference between the original sort of patriot movement that started in the ’80s and ’90s and some of these splintered groups,” Normandin said.
So who was behind the protests? Several conservative Facebook groups created events for the Capitol protests, according to the nonprofit Michigan Campaign Finance Network (MCFN).
The April 15 demonstration was organized by the Michigan Conservative Coalition (MCC) and the DeVos family-funded Michigan Freedom Fund was listed on the Facebook event as a host. The Michigan Conservative Coalition organized a May 20 event known as “Operation Haircut,” where barbers performed haircuts on the Capitol lawn in violation of Whitmer’s pandemic orders. The group was founded by state Rep. Matt Maddock (R-Milford) and his wife, Meshawn Maddock, chair of the 11th district GOP and a member of the national organization “Women for Trump.”
But while protests appeared to be Michigan-led events, the MCFN reported they actually were tied to out-of-state conservative groups, following the pattern of many anti-lockdown protests across the country. When big groups are behind efforts and try and make it appear as though they come from grassroots activists, that’s known as “AstroTurfing.” As the Advance previously reported, similar protests around the country have ties to big conservative groups, similar to the Tea Party protests of 2009 and 2010.
The Mighty Michigan Facebook page has spent thousands of dollars on ads criticizing Whitmer and the lockdown. While the group says on its website that it is nonpartisan, MCFN examined IRS filings of the Michigan Conservative Coalition and Mighty Michigan and found they have exchanged millions of dollars and have shared personnel and donors.
Among Mighty Michigan’s donors is the American Culture Project, a Chicago group chaired by Michigan native John Tillman, a conservative activist in Illinois politics. He told MCFN that Mighty Michigan is “completely independent” from the three nonprofits he helps lead. The American Culture Project is the named page owner of the Mighty Michigan Facebook page.
In September, Mighty Michigan ran Facebook ads capitalizing on a letter signed by leaders at Bridge Magazine, the Detroit News and other news organizations calling for more transparency in state reporting of school COVID-19 numbers and used it as another way to bash Whitmer.
Right-wing media helped boost the anti-lockdown message, with Fox News covering early protests. MIRS News called them “patriot protestors” in a video posted to Twitter. Right-wing commentator Steven Crowder — best known for scrapping with union members at the 2012 Right to Work protest — did an anti-Whitmer event at the Capitol earlier this month.
The conservative Detroit News editorial page has featured a steady stream of editorials and columns blasting Whitmer and her COVID-19 actions. Editorial page Editor Nolan Finley wrote several columns, including a May 18 column in which he slammed Whitmer as “a most arbitrary and condescending dictator.” In a Sunday column after the plot was foiled, Finley did not temper his criticism, writing, “Dictatorship and tyranny are what Michigan have been living under for most of this year as its Democratic leaders have tried to set aside representative democracy.”
When Shirkey announced he supported a ballot initiative to yank Whitmer’s emergency powers, he did it on the radio show of “Trucker” Randy Bishop, a felon who got his start as a Tea Party activist and is the former Antrim County GOP chair.
Bishop’s Facebook pages frequently pushed anti-Whitmer messaging and stories — including a May post with a photo of her northern Michigan vacation home and an activity report. Federal officials have said that the alleged kidnappers had the house under surveillance. The pages were taken down last week following the Wolverine Watchmen arrests.
Tensions inside the Legislature
Protests outside the Capitol weren’t the only source of conflict.
Inside the Legislature, many Black lawmakers repeatedly called out their Republican colleagues for racism or insensitivity during the pandemic.
Sen. Dale Zorn (R-Ida) wore a Confederate flag mask on the floor in April, shortly after the first protest. The Republican initially defended the action but then apologized. Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist and several legislators called for Zorn’s censure, but no action was taken.
Sen. Kim LaSata (D-Bainbridge Twp.) declared, “I am not Detroit” in a May committee hearing while COVID-19 cases and deaths surged in Southeast Michigan. Her argument was that regions outside of the Greater Detroit area should reopen because case numbers were lower, although many parts of the state had rising case numbers. Following her comment, Sen. Adam Hollier (D-Detroit) said her comments were “offensive” and asked that she not say things of that nature in committee.
And Sen. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan) called Santana and Sen. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor), “shrill” for calling out racism during the coronavirus crisis. Santana and Geiss spoke on the Senate floor asking Republicans not to pick partisan fights while allowing racist sentiments and other issues to fester during the COVID-19 crisis. McBroom said their comments did “little to convince open-minded people that there’s a reason to listen to the shrill outrage.”
Black lawmakers told the Advance they didn’t feel that GOP leaders have listened to their concerns.
“It’s just sometimes very frustrating to not be taken seriously,” said Anthony, the lawmaker from Lansing. “For African Americans, people of color, marginalized communities, this is our real life. There’s always this kind of threat of violence and intimidation when we are just trying to navigate and live our lives. … And it’s just kind of a dark reality that we often have to navigate.”
GOP spokespeople did not return requests for comment.
Guns in the Capitol
After the April protests, Anthony was escorted to the Capitol by a group of armed Black citizens from her community to ensure her safety. Other Democrats said that Chatfield failed to provide them with the same security as Republicans.
Santana, another Black lawmaker, wore a bulletproof vest to session in April.
That prompted a renewed conversation about banning firearms in the Capitol. But the Michigan State Capitol Commission (MSCC), the group charged with overseeing the issue, has stalled a decision seven times since May.
During a September meeting of the MSCC, who has the authority to ban firearms in the Capitol, Anthony said her, and other lawmakers of color, are “terrified.”
“The New Yorker and other publications have interviewed white supremacists that come from all over the country because their capitol buildings do not allow guns, and they come to Michigan because we do,” Anthony said. “And I am sorry, but when those white supremacists come into this building, they are targeting people that look like Rep. [Brenda] Carter (D-Pontiac) and I. We are terrified.”
Neither Shirkey spokesperson Amber McCann nor Chatfield spokesperson Gideon D’Assandro responded to a request for comment on the Democrats’ safety concerns or where they stand now on banning firearms in the Capitol.
MSCC members are now consulting with Shirkey and Chatfield, who strongly back gun rights and have not indicated they support a ban even after the plot against Whitmer was announced.
“I was not surprised when I heard about the findings from the FBI,” Anthony said. “My initial reaction was sheer horror that the threat to not only the governor and her family, but also to us as lawmakers, had manifested into reality.”
“But the other feeling I had in a weird way was validation. Individuals thought I was an extremist, overreacting, playing partisan games when I lifted up my voice before the Capitol Commission, when I lifted up my voice about the rise of the militia groups and white nationalist groups, they thought I was just trying to grab a headline,” Anthony added.
For Anthony, banning firearms in the building is only the first step, but Republican leaders need to take action to condemn white supremacists, fringe militias and far-right extremists, she said.
“The reality is that many of these fringe militia groups are also very anti- government, and they are even more extreme than many of my Republican colleagues,” Anthony said. “So, I don’t think that it does anything for our Republican colleagues to align with or provide safe harbors to these extreme groups.”
While the MSCC has yet to ban guns in the Capitol, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson on Friday barred the open carry of firearms in polling places, clerk’s offices and absentee vote counting boards for the Nov. 3 general election to help eliminate voter intimidation amid concerns about election-related violence.
McCann said Friday that Shirkey “wishes the secretary would put effort into reducing wait times for people trying to renew their driver’s licenses, but we recognize her actual job is not as attention-grabbing as making up firearm policies less than 20 days before an election.”
Whitmer calls out right-wing rhetoric
After the FBI findings of the terrorist plot were released, Whitmer pointed to Trump and Michigan Republicans for not doing what they could have done to quash the extremism and hateful rhetoric.
“I do believe that there are still serious threats that groups like this group, these domestic terrorists, are finding comfort and support in the rhetoric coming out of Republican leadership from the White House to our state House,” Whitmer said on “CBS Sunday.”
Shirkey and Chatfield both took issue with this.
In a Detroit News column directed toward Whitmer, Shirkey wrote, “Following the arrests and public announcement of the alleged plot against Michigan’s government, you used the information to further associate these accused terrorists with the Republican party and solicit campaign donations. … Your accusations are unfounded and highly offensive. I am not your enemy, and neither are the men and women who gather to peacefully demonstrate in opposition to your policies.”
Schwarz, who served in the Senate for 16 years, called Shirkey’s letter “disheartening.”
“His first paragraph was fine; he said we have to work together. And then the whole rest of the letter, he attacks the governor,” Schwarz said. “No, you don’t do that. You sit down, and you talk, and you get things done and you understand that if we lose civility, we’re really losing a bunch of what we have. We have to have a civil society.”
Chatfield also wrote an open letter to the governor, in which he said, “Hatred and violence are wrong, and that’s why I’ve continually denounced it. And I agree, it’s time to tone down the partisan rhetoric and turn ‘the heat down’ as you’ve said. Will you do the same for President Trump? You’ve arguably been his biggest critic this year in the country.”
On the day that the world found out about the plot against Whitmer, Trump pointed fingers at Whitmer, tweeting that she “has done a terrible job” and added “rather than say thank you, she calls me a white supremacist.”
Ken Sikkema, a Republican former Senate majority leader under Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm who served 20 years in the Legislature, said the protests that have taken place in Lansing recently have been “unique.”
“There have always been demonstrations of one sort or another,” Sikkema said. “I think, probably the frequency of them this year or the last few months, and certainly the display, if you will, of firearms of all sorts, that’s probably … unique. It hasn’t occurred quite like that in the past.”
Sikkema and Schwarz both said they can’t recall if banning firearms at the Capitol ever came up while they served.
“But we certainly had the authority back then. I think, given how society has changed and how raw politics has become, and because you’ve seen this very sort of visible display of firearms, it’s now an issue where it really hadn’t been an issue in the past,” Sikkema said.
But Sikkema does encourage policymakers to take action to relieve the anxiety of their constituents.
“Unfortunately, bigotry and hatred in this society, to some extent, it’s plagued with that. And although you can’t eliminate it entirely, I think there are some things you can do from a public policy perspective,” he said. “I think some of the feelings of anxiety that you see expressed come from feeling being left behind economically or socially. … It’s not like we’re helpless when it comes to how some of this anxiety is expressed. We’re not helpless; we can do some things. So I would simply encourage policymakers today to look at what can be done to sort of address this feeling of being left behind.”
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