Lansing braces for wave of ‘armed, violent’ protests before Biden’s inauguration

By: - January 13, 2021 1:05 pm

Michigan Capitol | Susan J. Demas

With images of a screaming, furious mob over running a weak defense of the U.S. Capitol a week ago, Michigan state and local officials are bracing for a possible armed, violent demonstration on Sunday at the state Capitol in Lansing. 

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has received intel that armed protests are being planned at all 50 state capitols and the U.S. Capitol in the days leading up to President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20.

Lansing Mayor Andy Schor on Tuesday asked Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to deploy Michigan National Guard members to Lansing in advance of the planned protests. 

A spokesman for Whitmer acknowledged they were monitoring the situation, but declined to comment further on whether she was considering granting Schor’s request. 

He also confirmed Tuesday afternoon that he would stand up an emergency operations center Sunday. An EOC brings all the top decision makers together in one location to evaluate intelligence, and real time reports to determine responses in major emergencies.

“So I expect that they’ll follow the law, and if they don’t, then they’ll face consequences,” said Schor of protestors expected on Sunday. “And our police officers are going to be prepared for any eventuality.” 

He acknowledged that Lansing Police Chief Daryl Green is working with other local law enforcement agencies to assure there are officers available if needed. Ingham County Sheriff Scott Wrigglesworth confirmed he has a “contingent” of officers on duty Sunday to assist.

The Capitol Commission and Michigan State Police are setting up a fence around the Capitol building. That move serves as a buffer to the building, and has been used successfully to separate white supremacists from counter protestors in previous downtown melees. 

It is not the first such major event that will featured armed and angry citizens. On April 30, a mob furious over COVID-19 restrictions stormed the state seat of Michigan government, many of them armed, and tried to force their way into the House chambers. Several armed protesters were allowed to watch from the Senate gallery overhead as the body voted to authorize suing Whitmer over her health restrictions.

It made international headlines and may have played cover for an alleged plan to abduct Gov. Gretchen Whitmer hatched by 13 Michigan men, some of whom were present that day.

The New York Times called that a “dress rehearsal” for the insurrection in D.C. on Jan. 6. The Michigan Capitol Commission voted Monday to ban open carry of firearms in the historic Capitol building — a move that Democrats had been advocating and pleading for since April. 

But that ban doesn’t address concealed carry, nor did it come with a financial plan to install metal detectors and other security in the building. That leaves the building, and those who work in it wide open to assault by a politically motivated actor or actors.

“My job is not to provide state employees & residents or other visitors to our Capitol with a false sense of security, especially given the current state of affairs in Michigan and around the nation,” explained Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel Twitter Tuesday. “I repeat- the Michigan Capitol is not safe.”

Defending the Capitol

Schor made his request for the Guard deployment after Lansing City Council President Peter Spadafore sent him a letter requesting the action. 

“What has been reported could very well be over blown, and these demonstrations may not reflect what we saw unfold in Washington, DC last week,” Spadafore wrote in the end of his letter, “but I believe it is imperative we take every precaution to  ensure the best possible outcome to ensure the safety of our residents and those that peacefully gather.”

While Spadafore took the action on his own, at least five of his compatriots on the City Council supported the request.

At-Large City Councilwoman Patricia Spitzley, who has declared a run for mayor this year, said she would normally be reticent in bringing in the military. But this is different, she said. 

“Under normal circumstances I would be very uncomfortable with that,” she said. “But after what happened at the Capitol, I think we are better off with them.”

Jeremy Garza, Second Ward councilmember, said he too supported the call for the deployment. But his concerns lay more in continuing to protect the city, which is in the midst of a surge of violence already. 

“I would hate to have some serious call on one side of town while our officers are tied up downtown and then we have fires in different parts of the city,” he said.

Ingham County Prosecutor Carol Siemon, who has been working to eliminate injustice in the justice system, said she thought the deployment of the Guard was an appropriate call. 

“You know, we’re not dealing with something police would usually be dealing with,” she said. “This is an insurrection. That’s a military thing. So I think having the Guard there is the right thing, as much as it makes me uncomfortable.”

Perhaps ironically, Michael Lackomar, who will be attending the protest on Sunday, agreed with deploying the Guard. As a team leader with the Southeast Michigan Volunteer Militia, he said he believes the Guard will be better trained and with stricter rules of engagement that local and state law enforcement would have. 

The request for the Guard, as well as mobilization of additional law enforcement resources, will have another impact: on the city’s struggling financial bottom line. When other departments send officers into the city to assist with crowd control in protests, the city of Lansing pays the other municipalities for the officer’s time. In large demonstrations, requiring numerous mutual aid responses, that means big bills from neighboring agencies.

Schor has been begging state lawmakers for more money. Twice an appropriation has been made in bills in the Legislature, and twice Whitmer has vetoed that legislation, he said. 

“When you look at the number of protests, regardless of the issue, whether it’s racial justice, whether it’s gridlock, whether it’s coronavirus, whether it’s economic devastation, whether it’s Donald Trump, Lansing police are always out there assisting MSP. We’re always on call; we’re always ready. We’ve got fire on call. We put up barricades and things. 

“And when there are protests and they move around the city, we’re the ones who were protecting the protestors with barricades and closing streets,” he said. “We are the Capitol city and we’re proud of it, but we absolutely have expenses and resources and staffing that’s pulled from other areas of the city, and overtime. And yeah, I definitely think that it’s important for that to be recognized and assisted by the state.”

Racial bias 

U.S. Capitol Police have been heavily criticized in the nation’s Capitol for failing to prepare for the throngs of Trump protestors who had been saying for weeks on social media they had plans for violence. 

The mob was met with a small uniformed police presence and quickly over ran security barriers and the building. But when Black Lives Matter organizers were planning and hosting mostly peaceful protests in D.C. last summer, the Capitol building was lined with riot gear-clad law enforcement. The National Guard was pre-deployed. The federal government sent in law enforcement from Corrections, the FBI, Secret Service, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and more. It was an overwhelming show of force.

Trump used those law enforcement assets to clear Lafayette Park, which is across the street from the White House, so he could stroll across the street to pose for photos while holding a Bible in front of a vandalized church. It was a PR stunt, backed by law enforcement acting as shock troops. 

“You had Secret Service and other folks tear gassing peaceful protestors so a president can walk across a street and hold up a Bible — and I hope it burned his damn fingertips while he was holding it,” said Spitzley, who is Black, of the glaring differences between federal responses to BLM protests and the Wednesday Trump mob. “And people wonder why African Americans, such as myself, worry about their children leaving the house everyday?”

And it was just one example of government and law enforcement over reacting to people of color and allies protesting for racial justice; and those from the right fueled by conspiracy theories and armed to the teeth. 

Over the summer, Schor and the Lansing Police Department were battered with allegations of police overreaction to a May 30 Black Lives Matters protest. That resulted in an overturned car being lit on fire, and the deployment of tear gas. Schor declared a curfew for several nights after that unrest.

In the wake of that tear gassing in downtown Lansing, Schor promised a review of the department’s use of less than lethal force policies and procedures. In an interview Tuesday, he said those procedures have not changed. The decision to deploy tear gas will be left to the chief of police. 

“I’ve said I don’t like using tear gas, but until we can figure out, in that case of intense violence, we need to figure out what’s the better way of getting people to abide by a curfew or to clear out,” Schor said. “And unfortunately, that was the tool that was used then, and it’s something that we keep on the list of tools in case a similar situation arises. It has nothing with what their issue is, it has to do with the actions that are happening at the time. And if we have people who are violent and destroying things and putting people’s safety at risk, our police officers, our police command are going to utilize the tools at their disposal to end the violence.”

He said he expects city law enforcement to respond to protestors based on their actions, not who they are or what they are protesting. 

“For me, we’re treating everybody the same in terms of the actions that they take,” he said. “And if the same situation were to happen and we were to treat it differently, that would be one thing. But if the same situation were to happen, we would treat it the same in terms of ending the violence and clearing the area.”

But at the end of the day, Schor said Chief Green and his on the ground command staff will make the decision about when and if to use tear gas. 

Spitzley is not concerned about a potential implication of racial bias with responses on Sunday. 

“You know what concerned me this summer was the lack of preparation,” she said. “There was no preparation to allow them to peacefully protest. And they knew it was going to happen. I think it is separate. There is planning going on now.”

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Todd A. Heywood
Todd A. Heywood

Todd Heywood is an award-winning journalist with over 30 years of experience. He's worked in print, online, radio and television. His reporting has been cited by the U.S. House of Representatives as well as in the United Nations reports on HIV. He's an avid vintage Star Wars collector and lives in Lansing with his three dogs.