Armed protesters demonstrate against Covid-19 lockdown at Michigan capitol
Hundreds of protesters, some armed, gathered inside Michigan’s state capitol on Thursday as state lawmakers debated the Democratic governor’s request to extend her emergency powers to combat coronavirus.
A tightly packed crowd of protesters, some carrying rifles, attempted to enter the floor of the legislative chamber, and were held back by a line of state police and capitol staff, according to video footage posted by local journalists.
“Let us in! Let us in!” the protesters chanted, as they stood shoulder-to-shoulder inside the statehouse. Few of them were wearing face masks.
Some of the protesters shouted anti-government slogans, including comparing the state’s Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, to Hitler.
One Democratic state lawmaker posted a photograph of men with rifles standing in a gallery yelling down at lawmakers below. “Some of my colleagues who own bullet proof vests are wearing them,” the state senator Dayna Polehanki wrote on Twitter.
Directly above me, men with rifles yelling at us. Some of my colleagues who own bullet proof vests are wearing them. I have never appreciated our Sergeants-at-Arms more than today. #mileg pic.twitter.com/voOZpPYWOs
— Senator Dayna Polehanki (@SenPolehanki) April 30, 2020
One protest sign outside the statehouse on Thursday read: “Tyrants get the rope.”
Thursday’s protest in Lansing, Michigan’s capital, was much smaller than the 15 April “Operation Gridlock” protest when supporters of Donald Trump organized thousands of people to publicly demonstrate against what they said was the overreach of Whitmer’s strict stay-at-home order.
Many people at Thursday’s “American Patriot Rally”, including militia group members carrying firearms and people with pro-Trump signs, appeared to be ignoring state social-distancing guidelines.
Members of the Michigan Liberty Militia were at the protest, armed with guns, and one member said that the group was there as a “security detail” for the event organizers, MLive.com reported. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors American extremist organizations, includes a “Michigan Liberty Militia” among its list of extreme antigovernment groups.
A sign currently on the lawn: pic.twitter.com/sPqeCfVUQ0
— Craig Mauger (@CraigDMauger) April 30, 2020
Police allowed several hundred protesters to peacefully enter the capitol building around 1pm, where they crammed shoulder-to-shoulder near the entrance to legislative chambers.
Protest moves inside Michigan Capitol. Crowd attempts to get onto Hoise floor. Lots of Michigan State Police and House sergeants at arms blocking door. pic.twitter.com/4FNQpimP4W
— Rod Meloni (@RodMeloni) April 30, 2020
At the MI Capitol pic.twitter.com/IuYoBhstIg
— Anna Liz Nichols (@annaliznichols) April 30, 2020
The slow reopening of state economies around the country has taken on political overtones, as Republican politicians and individuals affiliated with Trump’s re-election promoted such protests in electoral swing states, such as Michigan.
State legislative approval of Whitmer’s state of emergency declaration, which gives her special executive powers, was set to expire after Thursday.
Late in the day, the Republican-led legislature refused to extend the state’s coronavirus emergency declaration and voted to authorize a lawsuit challenging Whitmer’s authority and actions.
The governor, unfazed, responded with orders stating that an emergency still exists, while declaring new 28-day states of emergency and disaster.
The declaration is the foundation for Whitmer’s stay-at-home measure, which will remain in effect through 15 May, and other directives aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus.
Whitmer accused GOP lawmakers of “putting their heads in the sand and putting more lives and livelihoods at risk. I’m not going to let that happen”.
“Governor Whitmer, and our state legislature, it’s over with. Open this state,” Mike Detmer, a Republican US congressional candidate, told the crowd. “Let’s get businesses back open again. Let’s make sure there are jobs to go back to.”
People had their temperature taken by police as they entered. Inside, they sang the national anthem and chanted: “Let us work.”
Police made only one arrest at the protest, Lt Brian Oleksyk, a Michigan state police spokesman, said. A 35-year-old male protester was arrested for assaulting another protester outside of the capitol building. While there was “a little bit of pushing” by protesters inside the building, Oleksyk said, “after verbally protesting for an hour, things calmed down.”
Michigan’s state senate minority leader, a Democrat, said the protesters had threatened Capitol police staff, press and lawmakers. “This protest wasn’t about the stay-at-home order, it was an opportunity for a small group of folks – very few of whom were engaging in social distancing or wearing masks – to show off their swastika posters, confederate flags, nooses hanging from cars and signs calling for murder,” said Jim Ananich, a Democrat who represents the city of Flint, in a statement.
A spokeswoman for the Michigan senate minority leader confirmed that at least one lawmaker on Thursday “chose to wear a bullet-proof vest”.
It is legal to openly carry firearms inside Michigan’s state capitol building.
Other speakers at the event, which had different organizers than the Operation Gridlock protest, questioned the deadliness of Covid-19. They also said Whitmer’s stay-at-home order violated constitutional rights, and urged people to open their businesses on 1 May in disregard of her order.
Local news outlets reported that Facebook had repeatedly taken down event listings advertising Thursday’s capitol protest. “Events that defy government’s guidance on social distancing aren’t allowed on Facebook,” a Facebook spokesperson said, confirming the removal.
The mayor of Lansing, Andy Schor, said in a statement on Wednesday that he was “disappointed” protesters would put themselves and others at risk, but recognized that Whitmer’s order still allowed people to “exercise their first amendment right to freedom of speech”.
Whitmer has acknowledged that her order was the strictest in the country, but she defended it as necessary as Michigan became one of the states hardest hit by the virus, having already claimed 3,789 lives there.
Protesters, many from more rural, Trump-leaning parts of Michigan, have argued it has crippled the economy statewide even as the majority of deaths from the virus are centered on the south-eastern Detroit metro area. Many states, including Georgia, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Ohio, have already moved to restart parts of their economies following weeks of mandatory lockdowns.
Agencies contributed to this report