Updated, 6:38 p.m. with comments from Chatfield’s spokesman
A couple hundred right-wing protestors chanting “Lock her up” and “Heil Whitmer” spilled into the Michigan state Capitol Thursday after holding a rally on the Capitol steps, even though the building is currently closed for tours and events to stop the spread of COVID-19.
While jammed outside the House chamber, one protestor carrying a long gun turned and hit this reporter in the head with a rifle. The incident did not appear intentional, but was reported to the Michigan State Police (MSP). Lt. Brian Oleksyk said MSP arrested one protestor for assaulting another protestor at the rally.
Just got slammed in the head by a protestor’s rifle.
There is no care for safety or social distancing in the crowd
— Anna Liz Nichols (@annaliznichols) April 30, 2020
Gideon D’Assandro, spokesman for House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering), noted the Capitol “is currently closed to functions, including group events, meetings and tours, etc. But the public is still allowed to view meetings of the Legislature, so they are allowed in when the House or Senate is in session.” He declined to comment on the incident with the reporter until the speaker talks with personnel onsite. A spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) did not return a request for comment from the Advance.*
Many of the shouts from speakers and protestors were directed at Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to end what they said was “tyrannical rule” and stop the stay-home order during the pandemic that’s sickened more than 40,000 and killed more than 3,700 in Michigan. The order is in effect through May 15.
Signs ranging from profane and misogynistic (“Tyranny Bitch”) to violent (“Tyrants Get The Rope”) were raised at the event. A speaker at the protest acknowledged the more than a dozen militia members at the Capitol, saying that they were there for security to protect protestors. Several speakers discussed conspiracy theories about the disease.
Speakers called out the Legislature for letting Whitmer’s stay-home order stand, even though many legal experts don’t believe lawmakers have the authority to do overturn it.
The protest took place as the GOP-led Legislature prepared to go forward with legal action against Whitmer and appease conservative protestors and interest groups by trying to limit her orders.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s approval rating for handling COVID-19 has remained high throughout the crisis, with most recent Navigator polling taken April 22 through Tuesday showing her at 65% approval. President Donald Trump is at 43% approval in Michigan for his COVID-19 response.
As for measures to stop COVID-19, polls have consistently found support across party lines. A Politico/Morning Consult poll found 81% of voters believe we “should continue to social distance for as long as is needed to curb the spread of coronavirus, even if it means continued damage to the economy.” A super-majority of both parties agreed, with 89% of Democrats and 72% of Republicans on board.
More than 40 states adopted stay-home orders to combat COVID-19, which has spread to more than 1 million people nationwide and killed almost 62,000.
Similar small protests have taken place in other states, many of which were organized by well-connected conservative groups like Freedom Works, which also funded tea party events against former President Obama.
Freedom was a major theme as protestors staged a smaller version of Operation Gridlock, an event from earlier this month where more than 3,000 people gathered to protest the stay-home order, but greatly resembled a Trump rally.
Both rallies featured Confederate flags and swastikas, with protestors chanting “Heil Whitmer” and calling her executive orders a violation of their civil liberties.
Like in Operation Gridlock, social distancing and mask usage was minimal. This time, most protestors did not stay in their cars. Oleksyk said 600 to 800 people gathered outside for the rally and police let 275 individuals into the Capitol. Short of the one arrest, Oleksyk said the event was a peaceful protest.
“Everything else has been peaceful. People are behaving and we’re creating a safe environment for them to practice their freedom of speech. Other than that one arrest so far everything’s been good,” Oleksyk said.
Outside the doors of the House, the majority of protestors that entered the Capitol gathered seeking entry to the session. The crowd hurled insults at Capitol officials and police calling them “bastards” and “cowards.”
Republicans state House candidate Michelle Gregoire, who is running against state Rep. Jim Haadsma (D-Battle Creek), returned to the Capitol after a confrontation with House Chief Sergeant David Dickson on Wednesday. Reporter Ali Kasben from Gongwer noted Gregoire’s videos Thursday.
Even though the protester who was thrown out of the House gallery yesterday asked for Chief Sergeant David Dickson's name so she could press charges, she keeps calling him "the black guy" in her videos from today and yesterday.
— Ali Kasben (@kasbenal) April 30, 2020
A group focused on the sergeants, who wear red blazers, called them “red coats” and declared America has fought red coats before.
Dozens of armed individuals stood in front of the House doors yelling, “Let us in” even though the public is not allowed on the floor. Over in the Senate, 22 people were allowed in the gallery. This included a few people with large guns.
Advance Editor Susan J. Demas contributed to this story.