After being reshaped by extremism, Houghton County faces an uneasy, uncertain future

By: - March 10, 2021 5:07 am

A Trump sign in the snow | Laina G. Stebbins graphic

This series is the product of a more than month-long investigation involving hundreds of documents, court proceedings, several days on the ground in the western Upper Peninsula, and interviews — both on and off the record — with over 30 sources in government, law enforcement, local residents and experts in extremism. The investigation began two days after the arrest of accused Capitol insurrectionist Karl Dresch of Calumet. The result is a look at the gradual radicalization of communities in Houghton County, from the tea party movement a decade ago to groups today mobilizing against diversity and embracing COVID and pro-Trump election conspiracies. That extremism, bolstered by a strong church network, boiled over several times last year into large protests with many concerned about violence in the future.

With an average of 200 inches of snowfall a year, Houghton County is a winter lover’s dream. At the end of January, the weather was warmer than usual in the western U.P. But it didn’t stop the “sled heads” — as locals call them — from driving to area hotels with their snowmobiles in tow.  

Along the main road in Houghton heading to the area’s largest college, Michigan Technological University, fraternity and rental row was abuzz with moving what little snow was available to front yards to build massive sculptures for the annual snow carnival

One could be forgiven for forgetting, even for a moment, that there was a deadly virus on the loose in Michigan, still claiming victims. Many of those usual snow-related activities were happening in spite of ongoing coronavirus restrictions on large-group gatherings. 

The area’s isolation was further fueled by the state’s late fall shutdown of everything from local restaurants and bars to high school sports. Add this to the widespread disbelief that President Donald Trump lost the presidential election and you have fertile ground to nourish, harvest and spread conspiracies. 

Calumet | Todd Heywood

As siblings Amy and Jake Heikkinen defied state law to keep Cafe Rosetta open without a license in Calumet after defying COVID restrictions, a small group of people began to meet in the “Patriot Club.” Ostensibly, the meetings were for prayers for the nation. But Republicans’ anger about the election, and concerns over additional state coronavirus actions, the prayer meetings became political. 

“The people of Copper Country are ultra-conservative, very conservative folk,” said Brian McLean, the GOP sheriff for Houghton County. 

State Sen. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan) concurred, noting national issues often play a role in organizing people in his district. 

“The region is strongly and stridently pro-life and pro-Second Amendment issues,” McBroom said, “and so I certainly think you can always look to some of what’s going on in the national scene to tell what’s motivating people because if there’s certain events happening in nationally in D.C. or in the media that also can motivate people to get more involved suddenly and to decide to look up a group of other like-minded individuals and get involved.”

Even as the battle over COVID mitigation measures began to fizzle — with Cafe Rosetta folding to court pressure and the Whitmer administration loosening restrictions — new fights were rising up in its place. Many Republicans still seething over Trump’s loss in November were convinced sabotage was at play. And the Patriot Club prayer-to-politics purpose took aim at Michigan Technological University’s stance against racism. 

Dave Karnosky, managing editor of the Mining Gazette, summed it up: “This is also a community at war with itself as old and new ways of thinking collide.” 

https://www.michiganadvance.com/2021/03/09/how-cafe-rosetta-became-the-nexus-of-houghton-countys-conflict-over-the-covid-crisis/

Prayer to politics

The U.P. has always been known as being culturally conservative, but it wasn’t always red. The area’s pro-labor bent made it a fit for more conservative Democratic politicians like the legendary state House Appropriations Chair Dominic Jacobetti, who died in 1994. 

Houghton County lies in the 1st Congressional District covering the entire Upper Peninsula and much of the northern Lower Peninsula. From the 1990s until 2010, the district was represented by pro-gun, pro-life Democrat Bart Stupak, a former Michigan state trooper. After his retirement, Stupak went to work as a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., and declined to be interviewed because, he wrote, he had not been in the Upper Peninsula in 10 years. 

Although Democratic President Barack Obama won the district in 2008, there was a swift backlash there and across the country. A well-funded, well-connected tea party movement rallied to oppose him and the Democratic-controlled Congress, decrying the Great Recession stimulus as wasteful big government spending and health care reform as socialized medicine that curbed freedom. 

The movement helped Republicans start to win more races in the U.P., like Crystal Falls Dr. Dan Benishek, who succeeded Stupak in 2010. He retired in 2016, clearing the way for another Yooper, Jack Bergman of Watersmeet, who cruised to reelection in 2018 and in 2020. 

While Obama again won the district in 2012, Trump became a rallying figure four years later in rural northern Michigan, like in many formerly Democratic areas across the country. Trump easily won the 1st District in 2016 and 2020, helping boost many Republicans in state and local races further down the ballot. 

President Donald Trump rally in Battle Creek, Dec. 18, 2019 | Andrew Roth

At first the Patriot Club’s prayer meetings, which leaders said began in November or early December, consisted of 10 to 15 people meeting virtually.

Prominent businessman and Trump supporter Erik Kiilunen was one of the group’s leaders. So was Brian Mason, 39, from nearby Atlantic Mine. He’s the pastor of North Star Baptist Church in South Range, which describes itself as an independent, fundamental Baptist church on its website

While Mason would not say whether he supported Trump for president, he said that he served as the county chair of the U.S. Taxpayers Party, affiliated with the U.S. Constitution Party. Both are hardline right-wing political parties with barely registered electoral support in Michigan that believe in ushering in a rebirth of the “Christian nation.” They are anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ equality and believe in exceedingly limited government involvement. Nationally the two parties merged in the late 1990s. 

In 2004, the Constitution Party was identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) as an extremist anti-government group. In 2013, the group appointed a white nationalist to the executive committee, according to SPLC. The SPLC in 2014 listed the party as an anti-government group, nationally and in Michigan. 

The Patriot Club has 10 leaders. Kiilunen and Mason are two, but they won’t divulge who else leads the group. 

“I do think we live in an increasingly divisive society that I don’t think is healthy. And I think that people, if they want to have their privacy and not be associated with a group or a party or anything like that, they should feel free to have that liberty and that privilege,’’ Mason said.

While Kiilunen attends the area’s dominant congregation, the First Apostolic Lutheran Church, he and Mason went to some lengths to clarify that none of the original prayer participants are from the same church. Both leaders said the Patriot Club boasts an email membership list of 800 people — more than the entire population of Calumet. 

The first public meeting drew 67 people, Mason said. Most were business owners concerned about losing their livelihoods. 

Erik Kiilunen | Todd Heywood photo

Since then, the group has continued to meet in various private locations. One meeting, Mason said, was a conversation with McBroom and Rep. Greg Markkenen (R-Hancock) — the area’s representatives in the state Legislature. 

Residents had whispered about the meetings, the Advance learned in numerous interviews. Some said they had taken a sneak peak into the windows of at least one presentation and saw a projected image of Adolf Hitler.

Kiilunen rejected the idea that he was a white nationalist or involved in white supremacy. He shed light on the Hitler imagery, sharing his own PowerPoint demonstration of various dictators from the 20th century and their genocidal reigns of terror, which he erroneously characterized as “socialist.” His argument is that all liberal or progressive ideas lead to genocide. Kiilunen misses that Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s was a direct countermovement to socialists and communists and Hitler’s fascist government was right-wing and white supremacist. 

So what’s the goal of the Patriot Club now? Mason said it’s to regain the pre-COVID lifestyle of the county.  

“We just want to live quiet and peaceful lives and enjoy living in the U.P. and doing the things that we do up here,” said Mason. “And with what is transpiring and taking place over the last year with things that people could argue were necessary or not necessary, with all the coronavirus restrictions and everything, our liberties, our freedoms to able to pursue employment, to be able to go out to eat, to be able to go to church, to be able to do the things that Americans have done for years in pursuing the American dream. We’re being hindered. And hindered without legislative process, without a voice, OK?”

That message is resonating, said Kiilunen. The Patriot Club has expanded to nearby counties of Baraga, Ontonagon and Iron. “People care, and they want to do something,” he said. 

Mason said the COVID health orders had helped residents begin to see how the government was interfering with their freedoms. 

“When you back somebody into a corner and they feel as though their livelihood and their life is being threatened, I believe that one of two things transpires and takes place,” said Mason. “They decide that life isn’t worth living, it’s not worth fighting for, and we have suicides. We have the individual that just hunkers down, grins and bears it, and takes the beating, hoping that at some point in time that beating stops. And you have the individual that in that circumstance and situation seeks to fight back because they aren’t going to be beat anymore. And I’m using this in a general term, in a general analogy.”

As a pastor, Mason said he’s counseled people who fell into all three categories. “I’m in rank with people that would say, ‘We need to do something. We have to fight back,’” he said. “‘I’m not going to accept a new normal or a different normal.’”

https://www.michiganadvance.com/2021/03/08/its-become-toxic-houghton-county-wrestles-with-its-past-trump-and-coronavirus/

The Capitol insurrection

Kiilunen decided to protest Congress certifying now-President Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory on Jan. 6. So he, his 16-year-old son and other relatives piled into vans and headed to the U.S. Capitol. 

He alleges that some of his relatives had witnessed so-called voting irregularities at TCF Center in Detroit on election night and his family members filed affidavits in lawsuits against the state. However, Republican claims of voter fraud in Michigan and other states Trump lost have been rejected by judges in over 60 cases. 

During his fiery speech before Congress was set to certify Electoral College votes declaring Biden the winner, Trump urged his supporters to “fight like hell and if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” He rehashed election conspiracies and detailed his plan for how he could still win another term with Vice President Mike Pence rejecting votes in key states he lost like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Arizona.

Trump told his supporters that they would march to the Capitol, but he did not join them, or appear at the Capitol.

Kiilunen said when he arrived at the Capitol, he only went so far as the incomplete stage that was being built for Biden’s inauguration. He claims an unidentified business associate called him and told him the police allowed people beyond the security lines. He claims the associate was told by a police officer the whole event was “staged.”

It’s unclear how many Houghton County residents went to the U.S. Capitol. After details of the insurrection’s violence began being reported and law enforcement began making arrests, many calls to travel to D.C., including offers to join in a bus convoy, disappeared from social media. 

The pro-Trump insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, Jan. 6, 2021 | Alex Kent

A 40-year-old Calumet man known for his rabid support of Trump and sales of Confederate stickers was indicted by the federal government for his alleged role in the insurrection. 

Karl Dresch, the son of a former GOP lawmaker, was charged on Jan. 20, the day after the FBI arrested him at his home in Calumet, on five federal counts. They include charges of obstruction of an official proceeding, entering and remaining in a restricted building or grounds, disorderly and disruptive conduct in a restricted building or grounds, disorderly conduct in the Capitol building, and parading, demonstrating or picketing in the Capitol building. He’s currently in federal custody pending transfer to D.C. to face charges. 

Kiilunen said he did not know Dresch, but he said from Dresch’s social media photos, “it didn’t look like he was doing anything violent in the Capitol.”

McBroom, the state senator, said he was not “surprised” that one of his constituents was arrested in the insurrection, but he was “disappointed.”

“I mean it was awful and counterproductive and dangerous and unconscionable,’’ he said. “So I mean, like I said, the fact that it happened at all, it should surprise all of us because to have allowed our baser instincts to have overcome what we know is the right thing to do in this country and the right way to carry and comport ourselves is shocking, and very discouraging.”

After the November election, McBroom held a series of hearings as Senate Oversight chair on alleged election irregularities in Michigan, playing host to a parade of conspiracy-minded residents making unsubstantiated claims. McBroom, however, did not sign onto a January letter that the majority of his Senate Republican colleagues did, calling on Congress to investigate voter fraud claims. An earlier draft called for a delay in the Jan. 6 Electoral College certification.

https://www.michiganadvance.com/2020/12/01/as-barr-finds-no-widespread-election-fraud-mich-gop-leaders-lift-up-conspiracy-theories-at-7-hour-hearing/

Like other Trump supporters, including Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake), Kiilunen blamed the violence at the Capitol on Antifa — as in anti-fascism, which is a political school of thought, not an organized group — and Black Lives Matter activists “going incognito.” That’s a popular conspiracy theory in right-wing media that enjoys widespread GOP support in polling.

“It’s just a farce,” he says of claims of Trump supporters being violent or causing damage.

But last week, FBI Director Christopher Wray — a Trump appointee — confirmed during congressional testimony there was no evidence Antifa or Black Lives Matter were involved in the attack on the Capitol. 

Yogananda Pittman, acting Chief of the Capitol Police, said in testimony to Congress on Feb. 25 that an estimated 800 rioters flooded into the Capitol building overwhelming police forces, while over 10,000 protesters descended onto the Capitol grounds. Five people were left dead, including a police officer. Nearly 150 police officers were injured in the violent confrontations. 

Targeting and harassment

Two days after the insurrection, Kiilunen made a big statement back home. He purchased a full-page advertisement in the Houghton Mining Gazette. It was the Declaration of Independence, prefaced with an attack on the staff of the Western Upper Peninsula Health District. 

“The enthusiasm with which you pursue your work has not gone unnoticed,” the message reads. “Your continuous efforts to destroy our local businesses and economy under the auspices of protecting us from the covid virus, and it’s [greater than sign] 99% recovery rate, are not appreciated. The continuous pushing of the false narrative behind Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s unconstitutional mandates must stop. Your heavy-handed efforts are dividing our community while destroying the mental and physical health of the very community you purport to serve.”

After the full text of the Declaration, there was a closing note: “Please leave our local restaurants and bars alone, they have a right to make a living too. The public is free to patronize them or not, it is their choice.”

The Jan. 8 ad was signed by Kiilunen, as well as Jake and Amy Heikkinen, who own Cafe Rosetta, a flashpoint for COVID restrictions in Calumet. Scores of other residents signed on, as well. 

Associate Editor Joshua Vissers quit his job, saying the ad from Kiilunen went too far. The paper had refused to print Kiilunen’s increasingly strident attacks in the letters to the editor section, which identified officials and referred to them as Gestapo, Vissers said.

So Kiilunen instead placed an ad with many of the same themes and misinformation. Vissers said he felt the paper was selling out for the advertising cash instead of upholding the truth. 

“The inclusion of the Declaration of Independence really disturbed me because at best, he’s wrapping himself with the flag and trying to pretend this is a patriotic action,” Vissers said. “At worst, he’s saying that this is the beginning of a war.”

Vissers said he pleaded with his editor not to run the advertisement, making it clear that if it ran, he would resign. That evening he visited the office to see the paper on the presses. The ad was running. He went up to his office and typed out his resignation. 

Karnosky, the Mining Gazette’s managing editor, said he understood Vissers’ decision. 

“We had a lengthy conversation the night he quit,” Karnosky wrote in an email to the Advance. “To give a little background, he did plead, very briefly (via text) that we not run the ad. I shared his opinion, but also knew the decision was out of my hands.’’

The interim publisher ultimately made the call, Karnosky said. “I did fight for, and get, a disclaimer at the bottom of the ad that stated that the opinions of the ad did not reflect the opinion of the paper itself.”

Karnosky also said Vissers’ resignation left the already short-staffed paper even further under-resourced, “handcuffed” he wrote, in trying to cover the political split in the community. Karnosky also said Kiilunen was originally quoted a higher price for his full page ad than for which he ultimately paid. 

Meme posted against Tanya Rule, the environmental health director for the Western Upper Peninsula District Health Department

This wasn’t the first time anti-COVID rules activists targeted civil servants. On Facebook and in the cafe, a meme was posted accusing Tanya Rule, the environmental health director for the Western Upper Peninsula District Health Department, of being “an avowed socialist” who unfairly targeted local businesses with a heavy hand of government. That chatter resulted in increased safety concerns and new safety protocols for health department staff, said Kate Beer, Health Officer of the department. 

Videos posted on TikTok on Jan. 5 show Kiilunen chasing a man wearing a mask away from Cafe Rosetta. The man demanded Kiilunen stay back because he was unmasked. Kiilunen tells the man to stay out of the cafe. 

Other videos have appeared on social media of residents arguing over masks and the danger posed by Cafe Rosetta’s continued refusal to follow health orders. The pushback also manifested in ominous threats to provide armed security to recalcitrant businesses. 

Beer alleges local law enforcement stopped providing escorts to health officials into businesses to deliver health orders. With the open harassment of her team and the social media calls for weapons at protests, Beer said delivering paperwork without law enforcement physically present has an edge of danger to it now.

“It is a little concerning when we ask for onsite help or onsite standby and the onsite ends up being a block away,” Beer said. “It’s very concerning and that’s why we’ve limited what we will do, and only specific actions that are required to solidify a case.”

MSP spokeswoman Shanon Banner said troopers have never assisted in civil cases like health orders, something Beer contends is untrue. 

County Sheriff Brian McLean said his job does not include enforcement of civil laws, such as the public health code. He said until, and if, a court orders a recalcitrant business owner arrested, he is hands-off with enforcement.

Rising activism in Houghton County

Most of the strict coronavirus mitigation rules have since been hailed by researchers as having been successful in preventing more deaths and disease. 

In Houghton, the ban on high school sports led to a crowd of high school-age students and their parents gathering on the Portage Lake Lift Bridge Jan. 30. The protest drew maybe 100 people; another one at the state Capitol in Lansing drew over 1,000. 

The movement, called “Let Them Play,” has been spearheaded by Jayme McElvany, who, as the Advance reported, subscribes to COVID denialism theories much like Mason and Kiilunen do. 

Portage Lake Lift Bridge | Todd Heywood

The state lifted the youth sports ban in February. Despite this, Karnosky, the editor of the Mining Gazette, said families have not followed health precautions such as wearing masks during high school sports. 

“We are seeing parents and coaches of local sports teams refusing to do the one thing they all promised to do if they were allowed to resume winter sports, wear masks,” he wrote in a Feb. 28 email. “I have already written one editorial about this issue after just one week of competition [Feb. 18 edition]. I feel that, 10 days later, I have to write another because they are still not getting the message.”

On March 4, Beer issued a press release announcing a Feb. 27 and 28 youth hockey tournament may have been a “super spreader” event. 

“Quarantine is recommended for all Marquette Junior Hockey players, coaches, family members, and other spectators attending the event for ten days starting Monday, March 1st, until Thursday, March 11th,” the press releases stated. “All attendees should monitor for symptoms and contact your medical provider should you become symptomatic. Those who remain well should consider COVID testing to identify asymptomatic infection.”

All the controversy and conflict is tearing the community apart. Karnosky, said the county is in an “extremely complicated” political moment. 

Jennifer Kelly, the Democratic Houghton County clerk who received a threatening phone call last March, calls this a “toxin” in the community and it concerns her. Donna Effinger, executive director of Angel Mission Free Store in Calumet, has had a front row seat to the increasing conflict down the street at Cafe Rosetta. 

Donna Effinger | Todd Heywood photo

“It’s bad enough, the rhetoric on, whether it be on the street or on Facebook but, like I said, when it’s pitting family members and lifelong friends against each other, it hurts,” Effinger said. 

With Cafe Rosetta owner Amy Heikkinen’s refusal to comply with another round of coronavirus health orders in December, her supporters became vocal in their calls to support and protect her business — and those of others who were flaunting health orders from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. 

On Dec. 21, after Cafe Rosetta’s food license was suspended by the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, Heikkinen supporter Antrisha Maria Luoma posted a TikTok video of herself calling for armed security at recalcitrant businesses. 

“What I am thinking is, both my husband and I are veterans. We used to be military police,” Luoma says in the video. “We have like an armory full of weapons and ammunition. So if you need armed security guards for free we would definitely be willing to help. Just ask. Literally. You guys should be able to stand up for yourselves. I know it sucks. I know it’s hard. But we all have constitutional rights for a reason. They can’t be doing this to us and destroying families and businesses over this.”

Effinger and Kelly said there was a sense the county is moving towards a conflict. Effinger cites people bringing guns to rallies to support Cafe Rosetta’s continued defiance of state health orders and at mask burning rallies, such as the one Kiilunen hosted on the lawn of the Houghton County Courthouse on Jan. 2.

McBroom said he felt the rhetoric was “empty” when it came to armed security at the protests and businesses. 

“I guess it’s not that I had no concern, but it was that I believe the principles and the values we had would have won out in the end and that it was more bravado than it was something to genuinely fear,” he said. “But I certainly understand why other people felt it was something to fear. I understand that to discuss that is scary.’’

Michigan Tech tensions

Throughout the summer and fall, Kiilunen helped organize “Trump trains.” In most of those events, dozens of cars and trucks would line up, with Trump and American flags flying — an occasional Confederate flag was also present — and the convoy would drive through the county through each of the villages, townships and into the city of Houghton. 

On Sept. 27, a “Trump train” of 500 to 600 vehicles led to tensions with students at nearby Michigan Technological University, one of the premier engineering schools with 6,867 graduate and undergraduate students. Of those, 1,457 are not residents of Michigan and 619 are international students.

Complaints about the caravans led the MTU Senate Faculty to create a committee and issues related to the event. 

Students claimed they were subjected to threats of rape, racial slurs, being pelted by water and water bottles and being subjected to “rolling coal.” This is a slang reference to causing a vehicle to dump a noxious black cloud out of its exhaust. 

On Jan. 20, the committee released a 163-page report on its findings which included surveys, email information, photos and videos related to the Trump train event. 

Michigan Technological University| Jcvertin, Wikimedia Commons

During the discussion after the report’s presentation, Michael Mullins, a chemical engineering professor, said he had accompanied students. He described the participants as “riled up,” “loud,” and “boisterous.”

“It could have gotten out of control,” he told his fellow senators. 

Two students also spoke, identifying themselves as students of color. 

“It is important for you to understand what it feels like for the university to be a springboard for an outside group that is threatening our community,” said a student identified in the recording only as Isaac. “Slurs are not just words. It’s not just insults, it’s a threat.”  

The MTU Senate passed a resolution calling for action to address racism and anti-Blackness in higher education. 

“The University Senate of Michigan Technological University explicitly and loudly denounces white supremacy, anti-blackness, systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, fatphobia, and other oppressive and intolerant behaviors, actions, and speech,” Resolution 41-21 reads. 

When the MTU board was presented with the resolution on Feb. 26, Kiilunen spoke in opposition. He called on the university to focus on invisible differences in people to get beyond racial and other categories. 

Mary Sears, a former Republican activist who, after Trump’s defeat, moved to the Constitution Party, said the resolution condemning systemic racism and bigotry “clearly shows how our universities are promoting white self-loathing, racism, bigotry and bias.” Her Jan. 28 Facebook post encouraged others to confront MTU leaders about the resolution. She declined multiple requests for an interview.

Kiilunen bristled at the university. “We’ve got some radical progressives over there trying to paint our neighborhood as white supremacist,” he said in an interview in late January. 

He argues that’s untrue and inaccurate, citing the struggle of early Finnish, Italian and other European groups who immigrated to Houghton to mine copper. He argues the exploitation of those ancestors was as bad as chattel slavery. 

Asked by the Advance if white privilege were real, he responded, “No. I think it’s manufactured.”

This launched him into a lecture about his interactions with people of color, including his dealings with Chinese businessmen, and his father’s attendance at an integrated high school in Detroit. 

“I don’t call myself racist,” he said. “Look, you’ve got Finnish people and one of the traits of a Finn is, if they are extroverted when they’re having a conversation with you, they look at your shoes. If they’re introverted, they look at their own shoes, right? They’re not big social creatures except among their tight-knit families, whether they’re around your church or what. And the families are typically churches and all that.”

Heidi Beirich, co-founder and chief strategist at the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, said conservative movements have struggled with confronting racism directly. 

“There’s always been this on the right, this unwillingness to confront the racial realities of the United States to paint some other story,” she said. 

She said some currently live in a world fueled and informed by a supremacist historical mythology.

“This whitewashing of reality, and that is a part of white supremacist narratives,” she said. “… It’s rewriting history to favor a particular white population and ignoring the contribution to reality of others.”

Red flags

White nationalists appear to have taken note of the isolation and politically conservative environment in the Upper Peninsula. Vice News reported the Michigan leader of the violent Neo-Nazi group The Base had been planning a “fortified” compound in the U.P. Justen Watkins, 25, allegedly discussed his plan in chats last year. In his view, the white nationalists could purchase cheap property and make a living plowing snow and other physical labor in the area, Vice News reported. 

Watkins described the Upper Peninsula to others as a place that was practically a “white-ethnostate,” given its demographic makeup, while allowing there was a Native American reservation near his planned community, Vice reported. 

“The faster we get guys the faster we can snowball property grabs. Get four plus guys in a house splitting property tax and food and saving up for each of them to buy the next bit of land and move in four more to help,” the report quotes Watkins as saying in the secret chats. 

The United States has seen extremism grow into threats to communities before, like Ruby Ridge in northern Idaho, where white nationalist Randy Weaver kept law enforcement at bay for days to avoid being arrested for weapons charges in 1992.

Michigan has long been a hot spot for militia groups, some of which were radicalized by the Ruby Ridge incident, and several members of the Wolverine Watchmen group were charged last fall in the kidnapping and murder plot against Whitmer over COVID orders. 

https://www.michiganadvance.com/2020/10/08/law-enforcement-uncover-militia-plot-to-kidnap-and-possibly-kill-whitmer-storm-capitol-incite-civil-war/

Indeed, the nation is currently facing the largest wave of domestic terrorism investigations in years. Wray, the FBI director, testified to Congress last week that the agency had 2,000 open domestic terrorism cases, more than doubling in the course of just months. 

A spokesperson from the FBI Detroit Field Office declined to identify how many domestic terror cases are being investigated in Michigan. 

U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly), chair of the House Subcommittee on Intelligence and Counterterrorism, solicited Wray’s first on-the-record description of the outsize threat posed by white supremacist extremists. That was last September, months before the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. 

A former CIA analyst and senior Pentagon official, Slotkin has worked to combat the growing threat of domestic terrorism and hate groups for the past year, particularly in the wake of armed protests of the Michigan state Capitol in April 2020, and the foiled right-wing extremist plot to assassinate Whitmer and blow up the state Capitol.

“The 20 years of the post-9/11 era, where our nation’s greatest threats were external, is officially over,” Slotkin said in her State of the District address last month. “As the new chair of the Intelligence and Counterterrorism Subcommittee, I plan to address these threats directly, through legislation that ensures that we protect civil liberties and privacy, while punishing those who will incite or use violence to further their political goals.”

FBI Director Christopher Wray at a pre-inauguration briefing, Jan. 14, 2021 | Department of Homeland Security via Flickr Public Domain

In preparation for this series, the Advance shared documents with Beirich, the extremism expert, who was not initially familiar with what was happening in Houghton County, so she could better assess the situation. She had no editorial control on the series, nor has she seen final stories that include her comments before publication. 

“I think it’s a troubling thing to think that an entire county, with a mix of fringe political beliefs, conspiracy theories, pro-Trump ideas and strains of racism, have gotten a foothold in that big of a space,” she said upon her review. “Their ability to push those ideas and grow that out is going to, and indoctrinate children, it’s astounding compared to most movements. I mean, you don’t see it.”

She described it as widespread radicalization. 

“You found an entire county that may be going through a radicalization process, right — as a result of the politics in the last few years, Trump and perhaps this particular religion [the First Apolstolic Lutheran Church], like I said, I don’t know as much about that,” Beirich said. “And I think it’s interesting and I wonder if this is happening in other rural areas. Is this kind of process of radicalization happening in a lot of places where people don’t pay attention?” 

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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.

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