With images of thousands of Americans overrunning the U.S. Capitol just over a week ago fresh in mind, Lansing is bracing for potential violent, armed protests this weekend through Wednesday, when President-elect Joe Biden is sworn in in Washington, D.C.
Experts have warned that a coalition of militias, right-wing activist groups, white supremacists and others are planning to descend on capitols across the country on Sunday following the violent pro-President Trump insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
In hours of interviews with law enforcement, experts, politicians and militia members, the Michigan Advance has confirmed a Monday FBI bulletin warning of armed violent protests being planned in all 50 state capitols and D.C. was accurate. This happened as officials ramped up defenses for the state Capitol, while militia members found less public ways to communicate and plan their presence in Lansing on Sunday.
Amy Cooter is an expert in the self-described militia movement in Michigan. She’s studied them for over a decade, earning her doctorate from the University of Michigan with a thesis on the groups. She’s now a senior lecturer in sociology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.
“I think odds are good that not just in D.C., but that in state capitols and places, we’re going to see real problems on or around inauguration day,” she said. “And I don’t mean just protests, I mean armed folks who are really on edge, who are looking for any excuse to find an enemy in front of them. I sure hope I’m wrong. I really look at the arrests that are happening [from the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol takeover] to calm them down as opposed to stir them up. But that’s just not the vibe I have and it’s not what typically fits with the mentality, especially for those who are drawn into QAnon and other conspiracy theories right now.”
All the ingredients for a much more volatile, and potentially violent crowd than the Capitol saw at armed anti-Gov. Gretchen Whitmer protests in April are all there. Some right-wing activists remain angry over months of COVID-19 restrictions from the governor and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and a ground-shifting national election that left Democrats in charge of both chambers of Congress and the White House. Meanwhile, a recalcitrant losing president is clawing at the presidential podium, after months of lobbing unfounded, and disproven election fraud allegations.
There’s also alienation from social media giants like Facebook and Twitter and the deplatforming of newer services like Parler that have left them struggling to maintain contact with each other. This week, a ban on open carry at the Michigan Capitol was enacted and the U.S. House again impeached Trump.
Underpinning all this, 17% of Americans, according to a Dec. 30 IPSOS/NPR poll, believed the QAnon conspiracy theory about Democrats: “A group of Satan-worshipping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control our politics and media.”
The theory implies that Trump is fighting this secret elite — the so-called “deep state” — and will soon unveil indictments of hundreds, perhaps thousands of Democrats and media, for treason. This wave of indictments will result in Trump taking the presidency in an emergency action under the Insurrection Act. The insurrection on Jan. 6, the theory goes, was cover for retrieving incriminating evidence from top congressional Democrats that are the final nail in the legal coffin of this alleged conspiracy.
Cooter said Michigan’s militia movement has seen significant fracturing over the last year. Those splinters revolved around not only coronavirus restrictions, but protests for racial justice that swept the nation in the wake of the murder of Minneapolis resident George Floyd in May.
“But my general sense is that that’s kind of having two simultaneous and contradictory impacts, where there are some people who are kind of becoming disenchanted with it, and they’re just going to hunker down on their own and see how the hell this plays out,” she said. “There are other people who think this means this is their moment to be the super patriot, right? And potentially take matters into their own hands. And clearly, those are the ones we’re most concerned with. Those are the ones that likely were the most prepared, heading into the Capitol occurrence. They weren’t the only people there, but they are likely to garner more publicity in their local area, maybe more members, and in my opinion, are likely to be a problem for a while to come.”
Michigan-based militias became a focal point of concerns related to right-wing, anti-government extremism in early October. That’s when 13 men were indicted on federal and state terrorism charges related to an alleged plot to abduct Whitmer and put her on trial for treason. Their hope was to execute the governor live on TV. Some of those men were involved in a splinter group called the Wolverine Watchmen that broke off from the larger Michigan Liberty Militia in the months before the kidnapping plotters began to actively surveil Whitmer’s vacation property in northern Michigan.
The alleged plot also included a possible take over of the state Capitol. That plot would have been an assault on the Capitol building to take the building and hostages. The plotters allegedly planned to execute the hostages.
Michael Lackomar is a team leader for the Southeast Michigan Volunteer Militia and a regular spokesman for the group said members had originally intended to attend Sunday’s protest. But on Thursday afternoon, his group announced it would not be attending.
“We have received intelligence that this may be a false flag event,” said Michael Lackomar, team leader for the SMVM and a regular spokesman. “We have additional intelligence that the Proud Boys intend to be there to cause ‘maximum chaos.’ In our security assessments, we believe protesters will not have safe escape from downtown should things go sideways. We are encouraging people to stay away.”
The Proud Boys touts itself as a pro-Western civilization organization. It’s members have been documented to attack people of color, progressive and left-leaning people and members of the LGBTQ community. The Anti-Defamation League lists them under “bigotry” in its extremist monitoring. Some of their members and leaders promoted the Jan. 6 insurrection, Fox News reports.
Lackomar said earlier this week, he has not heard “explicit call to arms or call to violence,” but “to be perfectly honest and frank, we don’t come straight and say that.”
He acknowledged a wave of alienation may fuel an already smoldering fury roiling just under the surface.
“Everybody’s trying to figure out what the hell is going on at the moment,” he said of militia leaders and members in the state. “There’s rampant, wild conspiracy theories flying around right now. There’s people just trying to keep grounded and verify what they are hearing, and absolutely nobody is happy at this moment. Parler was shut down. Parler, which we were using as our alternative to Facebook since they unceremoniously booted us.
“And it looks like big tech conspiring to shut down a competitor, is how it smells. That has got the rumor mills just a churning. I’ve heard everything from Chinese attacks, to insurrection at being signed and regular US military being deployed within the continental US. I’ve heard longtime militia people being restricted in their travels via means of the no-fly list. It feels like a whole scale clamp-down, which I am afraid is going to elicit violence that makes last Wednesday look like a f—ing picnic.”
The deplatforming of right wing extremists — ranging from “Stop the Steal” conspiracy theorists to white nationalists to militia movements and white nationalists — has had blowback for intelligence experts. Those public platforms allowed for chatter to be followed by law enforcement. But now, adherents are moving to places like MeWe, Discord and encrypted internet programs like Telegram.
Cooter said it may also feed conspiracies.
“It does mean that the most fervent folks are the ones who are being left in those networks because they’re actively reaching out and, or actively recruiting people, trying to stay in touch through other means,” she said. “It means that they do see themselves as being pushed to the margins of society as a whole. They genuinely believe this is an infringement on the first amendment and with the government and Facebook and Twitter and everyone else, are trying to control them, not just their ability to have a platform, but control what they say, what they think.”
It’s also left both law enforcement and folks like Lackomar blinded as to what to expect Sunday.
“I really don’t know how many people will be there, or what will happen,” he said. “I just don’t.”
SMVM Coordinator Lee Miracle is a retired postal worker who has been enjoying his retirement with his menagerie, including his beloved guinea pigs. He said he is deeply suspicious of the Jan. 17 protest calls in Lansing. No other state militia leaders have taken ownership of the rally planning, he said. So for him, it reeks of being a “false flag” operation driven by “communists.”
He remains deeply skeptical of the election results, even though dozens of pro-Trump lawsuits alleging voting irregularities in key states like Michigan have failed in court and former U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr said there was no evidence of widespread voter fraud.
“In fact, everybody I talk to would rather this was so clean and rather it was — I wish it was convincing,” Miracle said. “I wish I could sit down and go, ‘OK. Well, Biden’s the president.’”
He admits there is potential for violence Sunday, but he doesn’t believe the country has reached a point where violence is essential to his freedom.
“There’s an author named Claire Wolf, who wrote, ‘101 Things To Do Until the Revolution’ and she says, ‘It’s too early to shoot the bastards,’” Miracle said of the former WorldNetDaily columnist and libertarian. “I still think it’s too early to shoot anybody. I hope we never do. I hope I never have to raise a firearm in anger. Honest to God, I hope I don’t. I don’t think we’re there yet. I think we’re closer than we’ve been in a while.”
The Jan. 6 insurrection in Washington resulted in five deaths. A female protestor was shot by a Capitol Police officer as she tried to climb through a shattered out window in the speaker’s lobby in the Capitol, while a Capitol Police officer died as a result of being assaulted by insurrectionists with a fire extinguisher. Three others died as a result of a medical emergency they suffered near the Capitol and during the melee.
Miracle meanwhile has a message for his compatriots in the militia movement: “For God sakes, no, don’t go out and don’t try to kidnap the governor because that’s stupid. Don’t smash anything. Don’t break anything. That kind of thing. Don’t blow up anything. Stand by.”