Update, 4:41 p.m., 5/13/20: Both the House and Senate have now canceled session Thursday. Check back at the Advance for further coverage.
Fears are ramping up among some lawmakers ahead of Thursday’s session, which is set to coincide with a planned armed right-wing protest that organizers have dubbed “judgment day.”
“It only takes one person to change everything forever,” state Sen. Mallory McMorrow (D-Royal Oak) said Tuesday in an emotional speech on the Senate floor. “In 2007, my friend and classmate walked into class at Virginia Tech and never came back.
“… It’s not about staying at home. It’s not about maybe losing your business. … It’s about spreading blood on the front lawn of this building,” McMorrow said. “And I would be lying if I said that sitting in my chair with four men in rifles behind me didn’t make me think that I was going to be joining my friend very soon.”
Many other Democratic legislators have voiced grave concerns about protesters with firearms likely being allowed into the Capitol and Senate gallery once again, especially ahead of violent and threatening comments on social media — especially about Gov. Gretchen Whitmer — from people who plan to attend.
Past demonstrations were supposed to be against her emergency orders to stop the spread of COVID-19, but many came with Confederate and Donald Trump flags and featured speeches and signs for various conservative causes.
On Monday, the six-person Michigan State Capitol Commission met virtually to discuss the possibility of changing their rule to prohibit firearms from the Capitol for public safety reasons. Although Attorney General Dana Nessel had provided commissioners with a formal legal opinion that they could ban guns, the panel ultimately decided to shelve the topic until next week at the earliest.
Now some legislators worry that Thursday could be a repeat of the last conservative protest on April 30 — in which men with assault rifles shouted at senators and staffers from the Senate gallery above — with a higher possibility of a violent outcome.
In a press release Wednesday afternoon, Nessel said her office is working with the Michigan State Police and the Ingham County Prosecutor’s Office to ensure that Thursday’s protest will be “free of violence and intimidation.”
“I vehemently support the First Amendment right to protest government actions at the Capitol or elsewhere around the state; however any such activity must be done in a manner that is safe and lawful,” Nessel said. “The presence of heavily armed protestors at the Capitol unnecessarily creates a powder keg dynamic that is dangerous to protestors, law enforcement and public servants reporting to work at the Capitol.”
The release notes that protesters will be subject to criminal prosecution if they openly carry firearms in a threatening manner or refuse to obey directives from law enforcement officers.
Despite the fact that protesters’ threats of physical violence on social media being almost exclusively leveled at Whitmer and Democratic lawmakers, Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) said on Twitter Monday that threats from “both parties” need to stop.
“I disagree with many of the governor’s decisions. I’ve been very open about that. I also support the right to protest. But as I’ve said before, those making physical threats (to both parties) are out of line and should be punished. It’s despicable. It’s wrong. It needs to stop,” Chatfield tweeted.
Meanwhile, state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) has continued to be the more vocally critical one of the two GOP leaders on Whitmer’s actions. On his Facebook page, Shirkey published a sarcastic post Monday mocking Whitmer’s social distancing procedures for grocery shoppers.
On his Twitter, Shirkey has also persisted in his calls for Whitmer to let more people go back to work at barbershops, breweries and other businesses. He called the governor’s approach to fighting COVID-19 “as cruel as it is illogical.”
On the Senate floor Tuesday, Shirkey gave a short speech condemning the violent social media comments about Whitmer.
“It is never OK to threaten the safety or life of another person, elected or otherwise, period. The moment an individual or group embraces the threat of physical violence to make a point is the moment I stop listening,” Shirkey said.
Afterwards, state Sen. Dayna Polehanki (D-Livonia) took the podium and introduced a resolution urging the Capitol Commission to prohibit firearms — an opportunity which she said the commissioners “squandered” on Monday.
“I would like to be working on supporting my constituents … not having to give this floor speech begging for the Capitol Commission to keep us safe from armed men in our workplace,” Polehanki said. “It is worth asking this again — what kind of Michigan is this?”
Shirkey then elaborated on his comments, claiming that he has a “very clear record” of calling out “a very small portion of protesters” who he says have misbehaved with their guns at the Capitol.
But he said standing behind the Capitol Commission is “cowardly,” and instead called on Whitmer and Nessel to punish individual protesters who go too far.
“Law enforcement needs to take this upon their own hands, and when those brandishing activities occur, they need to be addressed. I’m calling on the Attorney General and the Governor to do so, with the cooperation of the Michigan State Police,” Shirkey said.
State Sen. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor) and others made it clear on social media that they do not believe Shirkey’s and Chatfield’s words were enough.
“Their ‘condemnations’ ring hollow,” Geiss tweeted Tuesday. “Were they serious—especially the #mileg ones—they’d actually be doing something real to protect visitors, staff, & members instead of (in the [Senate Majority Leader’s] case) punting responsibility to the Gov. & AG.”