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Tension in states

Armed militia joins Michigan protest, spurring legislators to don bulletproof vests

Members of a armed militia spoke to protesters on the steps of the Michigan statehouse.
Members of a armed militia spoke to protesters on the steps of the Michigan statehouse.Matthew Dae Smith/Lansing State Journal via Associated Press/Lansing State Journal via AP

Gun-carrying protesters have been a common sight at some demonstrations calling for coronavirus-related restrictions to be lifted. But an armed militia’s involvement in an angry protest in the Michigan state house Thursday marked an escalation that drew condemnation and shone a spotlight on the practice of bringing weapons to protest.

The “American Patriot Rally” started on the state house steps, where members of the Michigan Liberty Militia stood guard with weapons and tactical gear, their faces partially covered. They later moved inside the Capitol along with several hundred protesters, who demanded to be let onto the House floor, which is prohibited. Some protesters with guns — which are allowed in the state house — went to the Senate gallery, where a senator said some armed men shouted at her, and some senators wore bulletproof vests.

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For some observers, the images of armed men in tactical gear at a state Capitol were an unsettling symbol of rising tensions in a nation grappling with crisis. Others saw evidence of racial bias in the way the protesters were treated by police.

For some politicians, there was fresh evidence of the risk of aligning with a movement with clear ties to far-right groups.

Prominent Michigan Republicans on Friday criticized the showing, with the GOP leader of the state Senate referring to some protesters as “a bunch of jackasses’’ who “used intimidation and the threat of physical harm to stir up fear and feed rancor.’’

President Trump, who has been criticized for condoning extremist views, called the protesters “very good people” and urged Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer to “make a deal.”

Michigan has been the epicenter of the political showdown over how to contain the spread of the deadly virus without decimating the economy. About a quarter of the state’s workforce has filed for unemployment and nearly 4,000 people have died.

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Rally organizer Ryan Kelley said the event was intended to pressure Republicans to reject Whitmer’s plan to continue restrictions on work and travel. He called the protest a “huge win,’’ noting the Republican-controlled Senate refused to extend Whitmer’s coronavirus emergency declaration — though she said Friday her stay-at-home order remains in effect.

Kelley, a 38-year-old real estate broker, said he and other organizers are not part of a formal group but represent people who have been harmed by the stay-home order. He said he invited the Michigan Liberty Militia, which is listed as an anti-government group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, to serve as “security.’’

Gun-carrying protesters outside state capitols are a regular occurrence in many states, especially in Republican-leaning ones. But rarely do such protests converge at the same time around the country like they have during the coronavirus pandemic.

An overwhelming majority of Americans support stay-at-home orders and other efforts to slow the spread of the virus, according to a recent survey from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

The visual of armed protesters, mostly white men, occupying a government building to a measured response by law enforcement is a jarring one for many Black Americans.

It draws a stark contrast to the images that emerged from Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, when crowds of unarmed, mostly black men, women, and children took to the streets in protest after a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown. Police shot tear gas to disperse the crowds, further inflaming the tensions between the predominantly black community and law enforcement.

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“Systemically, Blackness is treated like a more dangerous weapon than a white man’s gun ever will, while whiteness is the greatest shield of safety,” said Brittany Packnett, a prominent national activist who protested in Ferguson.

The Michigan demonstrators, she added, “are what happens when people of racial privilege confuse oppression with inconvenience. No one is treading on their rights. We’re all just trying to live.”