Nessel: Defiant Owosso barber is ‘not a hero’ for militia-backed reopening

Says Capitol ‘cannot be a sanctuary for crime’ during Thursday protest

Attorney General Dana Nessel at the Lansing Women's March, Jan. 18, 2020 | Anna Liz Nichols

A small Owosso barbershop garnered national attention after militia members helped protect the owner while he reopened his shop on Monday, despite the governor’s executive order closing all non-essential businesses due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The reopening of Karl Manke’s barbershop on May 4 was similar to the protests happening in Lansing, with Confederate flags, President Trump hats and rifles. 

Attorney General Dana Nessel told the Advance Wednesday that this demonstration is “concerning.”

“What we have seen during the course of the COVID-19 activities is a real insurgency when it comes to militia groups and … white supremacy organizations,” Nessel said in a phone interview. “You have a lot of people, obviously, that have questions or issues with the governor’s orders, and that’s fine. But I think that these other groups, these anti-government groups, are preying on those concerns.”

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The attorney general said her office has seen an uptick in militia and white supremacy activity and the Hate Crimes Unit is currently investigating these incidents. She said she could not provide further information on incidents at this time.

Despite some support from Michiganders itching for businesses to reopen, the barber lost his license after violating Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s emergency order. The Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA) summarily suspended his barber’s license, the license for his shop and an administrative complaint was filed. 

The Michigan State Police served Manke two misdemeanors for continuing to run his business during the statewide shutdown, and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) sought a temporary restraining order that would force Manke to close. However, on Monday Shiawassee County Circuit Court Judge Matthew J. Steward denied the DHHS’ request. 

“He’s been asked on multiple occasions to cease and desist in his conduct. I know he has been cited for his continued operation,” Nessel said. “This man is not a patriot, and he is not a hero. He is putting the health, welfare, safety and lives of his customers and community at risk.”

Michigan has more than 48,000 COVID-19 cases and more than 4,700 deaths.

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Nessel told WJR-AM host Paul Smith that Manke “brought the attention on himself.”

“There are things that I think will be made public at a later time that people probably don’t know about Mr. Manke and I’m hoping we’ll have a court hearing where some of that will be made public,” Nessel said.

Nessel deplores armed protestors at the Capitol 

Ahead of another anti-Whitmer protest planned for Thursday, Nessel said the Capitol “cannot be a sanctuary for crime.”

Hundreds of right-wing protestors, some of whom were armed, filed into the Capitol on April 30 after holding a rally on the building steps. Almost two dozen protesters stood in the Senate gallery while session continued. 

“It’s very concerning to me when I see people who come to the state Capitol, fully armed with assault weapons and say they are there as some sort of protection or almost as a pseudo-police presence,” Nessel said. “They don’t have any lawful authority. They don’t have lawful intentions either.”

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Following last month’s protests, lawmakers have voiced safety concerns about allowing firearms into the Capitol. The House and Senate are not meeting Thursday, although GOP legislative leaders have said the protest was not a factor.

The Michigan State Capitol Commission met virtually on Monday to discuss the possibility of prohibiting firearms from the building for public safety reasons. 

The panel ultimately decided to shelve the topic, despite Nessel’s formal legal opinion that the commission has authority to ban guns.

State Sen. Dayna Polehanki (D-Livonia) also introduced a resolution Tuesday that calls for a ban on guns in the Capitol, with the exception of law enforcement. 

Panel punts on Capitol gun ban, another right-wing protest planned for Thursday

“We don’t want people to be threatened or intimidated. We don’t want people to feel as though they can’t go to our state Capitol, the seat of democracy in Michigan, and participate because they’re scared for their lives. That is the last thing you want to see,” Nessel said. 

The Attorney General’s office has been working with the Michigan State Police and the office of Ingham County Prosecutor Carol Siemon to prepare for what is expected to be another contentious protest. 

“Yes, you can open carry. That is the law of the state. But it doesn’t mean you can brandish a firearm,” Nessel said. “And it doesn’t mean you can commit an act of felonious assault, it doesn’t mean that you can trespass or resist and obstruct a police officer while they’re issuing a lawful directive.”