Watchdog group: Anti-Whitmer protests tied to out-of-state conservative outfits

"Operation Haircut," another right-wing protest at the Capitol, May 20, 2020 | Anna Liz Nichols

Several conservative Facebook groups have created a series of anti-lockdown events at the state Capitol, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network (MCFN), a nonpartisan nonprofit organization examining the role of money in state politics. 

They range from “Operation Haircut” that took place Wednesday to stand in solidarity with businesses that have illegally reopened during the COVID-19 crisis to an armed protest where attendees demanded to enter legislative sessions and berated police officers on April 30.

While they appear to be Michigan-led events, an MCFN report indicates they actually are tied to out-of-state conservative groups. When big groups are behind efforts and try and make it appear as though they come from grassroots activists, that’s known as “AstroTurfing.” As the Advance previously reported, similar protests around the country have ties to big conservative groups, similar to the Tea Party protests of 2009 and 2010.

The lines at Operation Haircut spanned a large portion of the Capitol lawn as over a dozen hairdressers gave free haircuts. The event drew 300 to 400 people, Michigan State Police (MSP) Lt. Brian Oleksyk said. GOP lawmakers including state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) and Sen. Tom Barrett (R-Potterville) dropped by, the latter of whom declined to comment to the Advance.

The event was fairly calm in comparison to previous right-wing protests that featured militia members and many carrying automatic rifles. There were anti-Whitmer signs like “Which Witch is Which?” with photos of her and U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and “Pure Despotism.”

By 2 p.m., with just an hour to go, Oleksyk said MSP had issued a total of three citations for disorderly conduct to hairdressers.

“We educate them on complying with the order, give them a certain amount of time that we can give them a warning, hopefully they comply and as time goes by, we end up issuing a citation,” Oleksyk said. 

The citations from the event will be reviewed by Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel and additional sanctions may apply with the state licensing department, Oleksyk said. 

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“The majority of the people out here are observers. It’s few people that aren’t complying.,”Oleksyk said. “This is a very small group, I would say most people are complying in this trade.”

Amongst those charged with disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor in Michigan with a $1,000 fine was Owosso barber Karl Manke, who gained media attention recently for illegally reopening his shop during Whitmer’s stay-home order.

The first large protest of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-home order was “Operation Gridlock” in which over 3,000 people waved President Donald Trump flags and Confederate flags from their cars on April 15. A few hundred gathered outside the Capitol with signs with swastikas and insults directed at Whitmer.

Operation Gridlock was organized by the Michigan Conservative Coalition (MCC) and the DeVos family-funded Michigan Freedom Fund was listed on the Facebook event as a host. The Michigan Conservative Coalition organized Operation Haircut, as well. The group was founded by state Rep. Matt Maddock (R-Milford) and his wife, Meshawn Maddock, chair of the 11th district GOP and a member of the national organization “Women for Trump.”

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Following an extension of the stay-home order April 9, a Facebook page for an organization called Mighty Michigan spent thousands of dollars to advertise a petition against the ban on motorized boating and travel between residences, a ban which has now been lifted. The advertisements, in the week after April 9, appeared on Michigan feeds between 510,000 and 615,000 times, according to MCFN.

Mighty Michigan says on its website that it is a nonpartisan organization that serves to give Michiganders a voice in government. It hosts a blog largely dedicated to critiquing Whitmer, paired with political cartoons.

MCFN examined IRS filings of the Michigan Conservative Coalition and Mighty Michigan and found they have exchanged millions of dollars and have shared personal and donors. The only page on Facebook Mighty Michigan has “liked” is the Conservative Coalition.

Among Mighty Michigan’s donors is The American Culture Project, a Chicago group chaired by Michigan native John Tillman, a conservative activist in Illinois politics. He told MCFN that Mighty Michigan is “completely independent” from the three nonprofits he helps lead, producing content directed at Michiganders.

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“Various organizations may share vendors, but that is no different than people sharing office space at WeWork and using common vendors there,” he wrote. “It is important that you get this factually correct and not imply some sort of operational connection that does not exist.”

The American Culture Project is the named page owner of the Mighty Michigan Facebook page.

Mighty Michigan was created in September 2019 and has spent more than $165,000 advertising in Michigan and has gained over 26,000 total followers, according to MCFN. During this presidential primary season, there were times it was in the top 10 advertisers in the state.