If any doubts lingered that the anti-lockdown protests gathering momentum in various states hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic are primarily an opportunity for right-wing extremists to sow chaos and fear, then just look at what happened in Lansing, Michigan, on Thursday.
Hundreds of camo-clad, gun-toting militia “Patriots” from around the state descended on the state Capitol and occupied it for several hours, brandishing their weapons and threateningly demanding an end to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s lockdown orders. The terrorism worked: The Michigan House, folding in the face of the threats, chose not to extend the lockdown for another 28 days, as Whitmer had requested.
Republican lawmakers also announced their plans to file a lawsuit challenging the governor’s authority. Whitmer, meanwhile, quickly issued new orders stating that an emergency still exists, simultaneously declaring new 28-day states of emergency and disaster.
Jammed into the rotunda, the protesters attempted to march onto the House floor, but were prevented from doing so by the sergeant-at-arms and state police. Some chanted "Let us in!" and "This is the people's house, you cannot lock us out."
In addition to the weapons and body armor, a number of the participants wore Hawaiian shirts, indicating they were participating in what they believe is a coming civil war, or “Boogaloo.”
Some legislators felt so threatened that they wore body armor to the session. “Some of my colleagues who own bullet proof vests are wearing them. I have never appreciated our Sergeants-at-Arms more than today,” tweeted Sen. Dayna Polehanki.
One of the many signs held by protesters threatening violence read: “Tyrants get the rope.”
In the meantime, Donald Trump urged Whitmer to talk to the protesters: "The Governor of Michigan should give a little, and put out the fire," Trump tweeted on Thursday. "These are very good people, but they are angry."
He added: "They want their lives back again, safely! See them, talk to them."
"At the point of a gun? Hell no," replied Democratic strategist Jim Manley.
Michigan has been hit particularly hard by the novel coronavirus pandemic. As of Thursday, the state of Michigan had 41,379 cases of the coronavirus with 3,789 deaths.
Thursday’s “American Patriot Rally” was organized by Michigan United for Liberty, and featured members of the Michigan Liberty Militia, listed as an extremist antigovernment group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Among the speakers it invited to address the crowd on the steps of the Capitol was former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, a longtime “constitutionalist” closely affiliated with the “Patriot” movement who has been a leading critic of the lockdown orders since they were first issued.
Michigan has a long history in the “Patriot” movement dating back to its origins in the 1990s, and is one of its major epicenters. That history includes:
- “Mark From Michigan” Koernke, a leading “Patriot” speaker during the 1990s who toured the nation giving lectures claiming that the “New World Order” intended to round up Americans into federal concentration camps using black helicopters. Koernke later ran into legal problems for attempting to evade a police officer.
- The Michigan Militia, a 1990s outfit based in the Upper Peninsula that had a substantial following throughout the state, and organized paramilitary training sessions for would-be warriors against the New World Order. Their two primary leaders, Norm Olson and Ray Southwell, later moved to Alaska and set up a similar militia operation there.
- Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols—the accomplice of Timothy McVeigh—was born and raised in Michigan, and met McVeigh while in the Army. In 1991, he invited McVeigh to join him at the family farm in Decker, where they coordinated the gun sales that provided them with income; it was there, while watching news about the 1993 destruction of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, that the two men first discussed a retaliatory attack on the government. Terry’s brother, James Nichols, was an avid member of the Michigan Militia—though up to his death in 2017 at age 65, James Nichols denied any involvement in the bombing.
Much of the “Patriot” movement activity subsided in Michigan after Olson and Southwell moved to Alaska, but it remained dormant in the state until being revived as an extension of the so-called “Tea Party” movement after 2009. Led now by Clint Dare and Ron Gaydosh, the Michigan Militia Corps re-organized and elected Dare their new state commander. It slowly raised its in numbers again, and currently claims to have cells in around 17 counties as part of its organization.
Michigan’s Democratic state senate minority leader voiced his anger and concern. “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 of Flint in a statement.