Michigan: rightwing militia groups to protest stay-at-home orders

<span>Photograph: Jeff Kowalsky/AFP via Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Jeff Kowalsky/AFP via Getty Images

Rightwing militia groups in Michigan plan to rally at the state capitol building on Thursday to protest Democratic governor Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home orders that she put in place to slow the deadly spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

Thursday’s demonstration will be the latest in a series of protests that started as a demonstration against the lockdown policy but are now generating fears of an eruption of political violence.

Related: 'Big Gretch': how the pandemic pushed Michigan's governor into the spotlight

The state is currently investigating what the Michigan attorney general, Dana Nessel, characterized on Monday as “credible threats” against state Democratic politicians. Her comments followed a report of threats of violence on rightwing social media pages.

Residents posting in the Michiganders Against Excessive Quarantine Facebook page called for Whitmer’s assassination. “Wonder how long till she’s hit with a shotgun blast,” one wrote. Another said they hope Thursday’s protesters are “armed to the teeth” because “voting is too late”.

Dramatic images from a 30 April protest showed militia members carrying assault rifles while glaring and shouting from the galleries of the state legislature as an emotional debate over extending a stay-at-home order took place. In response, a black lawmaker last week came to Michigan’s capitol with an escort of armed black citizens.

A militia group stands in front of the governor’s office at the state capitol in Lansing, Michigan, on 30 April.
A militia group stands in front of the governor’s office at the state capitol in Lansing, Michigan, on 30 April. Photograph: Seth Herald/Reuters

Few states have been hit harder by the pandemic than Michigan. Wayne county, which holds the city of Detroit, has recorded some of the US’s highest rates of infection. Whitmer has instituted some of the country’s strictest emergency orders in order to control the virus’ spread. Polls have consistently shown the state’s residents approve by a wide margin of how she’s managed the crisis.

However, some residents of rural counties contend they shouldn’t be subjected to the orders because the infection rates in their communities are relatively low. But that message has frequently gotten lost as the demonstrations turned into a flashpoint in the bitter debate over gun rights, and a forum for making political statements and threats against Democrats.

During a state senate session on Tuesday, the state senator Mallory McMorrow said the protests and threats are now “about spreading blood on the front lawn of this building”.

Leadership on both sides of the aisle have condemned the protesters’ “intimidation” tactics and are calling on law enforcement to arrest those who brandish weapons.

“These folks are thugs and their tactics are despicable,” the Republican state senate majority leader, Mike Shirkey, said during Tuesday’s session. “It is never OK to threaten the safety or life of another person, elected or otherwise, period.”

Democrats called for the state to ban guns in the state capitol building. The Republicans, however, control the legislature and are resisting that push.

The first and the largest protest, called “Operation Gridlock”, was partly organized by the Michigan Conservative Coalition, a grassroots political organizing group. Meshawn Maddock, one of its founders, said on Monday that the group is no longer involved.

Whitmer has remained steadfast in her approach. While she has relaxed some orders in recent weeks as the number of cases statewide has continued to drop, she extended the state of emergency until the end of May, and has implemented a six-phase reopening plan that could take months. At her Monday press conference, she acknowledged the right to protest, but asked demonstrators to exercise caution to prevent the virus from spreading.

“I would appreciate it if others would do their part to try and lower the heat,” she said. “If you choose to demonstrate I ask that you wear a mask and stay 6ft apart from others.”