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A Michigan woman asked county officials to denounce the Proud Boys. One commissioner flashed a rifle instead

Members of the Proud Boys make a hand gesture while walking near the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021.
Members of the Proud Boys make a hand gesture while walking near the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021.Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/The Washington Post

Keli MacIntosh intended to speak before the Grand Traverse County Board of Commissioners this week with a straightforward demand: Would the board openly denounce the Proud Boys after the Jan. 6 riots on the U.S. Capitol?

Members of the far-right group had addressed the Michigan body last year as it considered a gun-rights proposal, she said, and more recently, other Proud Boys have been identified as part of the mob that stormed Congress. So MacIntosh wanted her own elected officials to stand up.

As she addressed the virtual meeting on Wednesday night, the commission's vice chair, Republican Ron Clous, stepped out of the frame. When he returned into view, he was carrying a semi-automatic rifle.

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MacIntosh, a 74-year-old retired nurse, grew terrified, she told The Washington Post.

"He is supposed to be looking out for the best interests of the community," she said of Clous. "What is the message he's trying to convey? That if someone speaks out against us, we'll just threaten them with a gun?"

Clous did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Post. But speaking to the Traverse City Record-Eagle, the commissioner said he reached for his gun in response to MacIntosh's request.

"I was just going to show the rifle and show that I fully support the Second Amendment, but then I opted not to," he told the newspaper. He also said he would not denounce the Proud Boys,a far-right group with a history of violence, saying that they "were decent guys and they treated us with respect."

The explosive incident underscores how an ever-widening political rift - between those who have denounced the rioters and those who might be turning a blind eye - has reverberated far beyond Washington. In this case, it's come to a pocket of northern Michigan known as the nation's capital for cherries, not matters of government.

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Months before former president Donald Trump infamously told the Proud Boys to "stand back and stand by" during a debate, members of the group showed up to a county commission meeting in Grand Traverse County.

The commission was set in early March to consider a proposal to turn the county into a "Second Amendment sanctuary," a symbolic gesture that prevents the county from using government funds to restrict gun rights. According to the Record-Eagle, two self-identified Proud Boys spoke at that meeting in favor of the plan, which passed, 4-to-2.

Clous denied knowing anything about the organization, which has been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, beyond the testimony he heard in March. The commissioner told the newspaper this week that the Proud Boys at the meeting "were probably the most respected folks that got up and talked."

In the spring, MacIntosh openly contestedthe group's appearance before her county commission. Later in the year, she noted, the influence of far-right groups only seemed to grow stronger in Michigan and beyond.

In April, a throng of armed protesters crammed into the state capitol in Lansing, demanding an end to coronavirus restrictions. Months later, some in that crowd were charged with an alleged plot to kidnap Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

But the last straw for MacIntosh was seeing a mob of Trump supporters bashinto the Capitol, temporarily keeping Congress from confirming President Biden's electoral victory.

The county commissioners' vote to becoming a Second Amendment sanctuary -- and their decision to hear testimony from the Proud Boys in favor -- was a form of "subtle encouragement" that could have fueled more violent incidents over the past year, she argued.

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"We need to go out of our way to do whatever we can to tone down this terrorist attitude that seems to be really growing in our country," she said.

So MacIntosh, who is involved with the local chapter of the liberal advocacy network Indivisible, signed up to speak during a public comment period at Wednesday's meeting. Another activist in liberal circles spoke before her, challenging members of the commission to declare that they were not members of militia groups.

The commission chair, Rob Hentschel, erupted in response, singling the woman out.

"I am not a member of Proud Boys," he said. "But I do know a few Proud Boys. I've met Black Proud Boys, I've met multiracial Puerto Rican Proud Boys and they inform me they also have gay Proud Boys. I don't see how that's a hate group."

By the time it was her turn to speak, MacIntosh was so rattled that her hands were shaking, she said. She scrapped her prepared comments and spoke off the cuff.

"You can say that we don't have problem Proud Boys around our area, but there are obviously problem Proud Boys around the country," she told them. "For them to have been invited to speak [means that] permission has been given to these activist groups to do more with their guns than go out hunting."

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That's when Clous left and reappeared, silently bringing his rifle into view.

Hentschel, who laughed on camera when he saw the gun, later said he took no issue with his fellow commissioner's response.

"I saw it across his chest and I thought it was ironic of him to do that," he told the Record-Eagle. "The person was talking about guns and he had one across his chest. I didn't see him do anything illegal or dangerous with it. He wasn't threatening or brandishing. He was just holding it."

But as the incident draws more attention to Grand Traverse County, MacIntosh fears things could only get worse.

Instead of ending with a statement from commissioners that could tone down the rhetoric, “the meeting ended up just stirring people up,” she said. “Poking the bear with a stick is not the best way to solve our problems.”