Few show up for right-wing demonstration at Michigan Capitol amid strong police presence

An armed demonstrator stands outside of the Michigan state capital building on January 17, 2021 in Lansing, Michigan. Supporters of President Trump gathered at state capitol buildings throughout the nation today to protest the presidential election results and the upcoming inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden. | Scott Olson/Getty Images

The small group of protesters, including armed members of the far-right, anti-government “boogaloo bois,” who gathered outside the Michigan Capitol in downtown Lansing Sunday afternoon were far outnumbered by police and members of the National Guard — relieving elected officials and law enforcement who had braced for chaos and violence in the wake of the pro-President Trump insurrection in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6.

“We have had no incidents of violence; we’ve had a protest that was non-violent, and I’m proud so far of everything we’ve done,” Lansing Mayor Andy Schor said at a press conference Sunday afternoon. “We will stay vigilant. We know there’s more to the day and more to the week coming up.”

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has warned of potential violence in all 50 U.S. capitols and D.C. in the days leading up to President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on Wednesday. Alongside what Schor called “some very credible threats” specific to Lansing, prompted a mass influx of military and police around the Michigan Capitol building on Sunday. 

Lt. Brian Oleksyk, Michigan State Police spokesperson, said he could not reveal how many police were stationed around the Capitol on Sunday, but noted that “when you see the Capitol, the majority of people you see on the Capitol grounds” are media and police. Oleksyk reported there were about 20 protesters; Lansing Police Chief Daryl Green said that number was closer to 75 protesters and 40 counter-protesters.

“We’ve increased police presence since last Monday, and there will be increased law enforcement here over the next couple of weeks,” Oleksyk said.

A fence was erected around the Michigan Capitol prior to Sunday’s protest, Jan. 15, 2021 | Allison R. Donahue

The increase in law enforcement likely played a large role in the small number of protesters who showed up Sunday, U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly) said. 

“Preparedness matters; it deters threats,” said Slotkin, a former CIA analyst and Pentagon official. “… I’m particularly heartened we did not see violence today. I don’t think using violence in our political system represents the average Michigander or the average American. I think the average person was disgusted to see what happened at the U.S. Capitol and does not want to see that repeat in Michigan.”

A boogaloo bois member, who was carrying an AR-15 and a 9mm gun, told MLive that “a bunch of people decided not to come today because of the fear of the National Guard and our state boys watching us right now.”

While there was a small turnout on Sunday, the coalition of militias, right-wing activist groups and white supremacists that officials have been preparing for in capitols throughout the country could still present trouble for Lansing this week, and elected officials and law enforcement said they’re keeping their guard up in the coming days.

“Those people may flex their plans somewhat and adjust accordingly. … We’re well aware of the 20th [the inauguration] and we’re well aware of the next couple days,” Green, Lansing’s police chief, said. “We’ll remain in a high state of awareness. We are prepared.”

Legislative leaders announced Friday that the House and Senate will not meet this week.

Militia group bows out, right-wing extremist groups gear up for Sunday in Lansing

As Sunday, and this week in general, approached, emblazoned in some officials’ minds were images not only of the violent Jan. 6 insurrection, but of the angry, armed crowds that entered Michigan’s Capitol building during an anti-Whitmer protest in April.

“My life in many ways changed after that April 30 protest in which those armed gunmen stormed our capitol,” state Rep. Sarah Anthony (D-Lansing) said. “You look at the similarities of what happened in our U.S. Capitol and what happened in Michigan, and the most frustrating thing about this time is myself and other leaders in the House, particularly on the Democratic side, have been calling for increased safety procedures. We have been highlighting the rise of these militia and white nationalist groups; it’s taken bloodshed at our nation’s capitol to start to take some of these conversations seriously.”

The Michigan State Capitol Commission voted unanimously Monday to ban the open carry of guns inside the state capitol, but a number of elected officials, including Anthony, said that ban does not go far enough to protect lawmakers and all those working inside the Capitol building.

“Tensions are too high to pass a half-measure at this time,” Anthony said. “We need to ban firearms [in the capitol building] outright. Right now, there are no metal detectors, no people checking licenses for people who can carry. I’m not just thinking of that building but the neighbors that surround that building. Every time there’s a bomb threat, it’s not just confined to that one building. I’m thinking of the neighbors, of the small businesses.”

A bomb threat was called into the Michigan Capitol the day after the D.C. insurrection, on Jan. 7.

A number of elected officials emphasized the impact the possible violence at the capitol has on the residents and small businesses in the downtown area.

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“Every time there’s a headline that says there’s potential violence, it sends shockwaves through these neighborhoods,” Anthony said. “It’s been traumatizing for lots of businesses and residents.”

Lansing Councilmember Patricia Spitzley said her “constituency is nervous.”

“They’re concerned, not only for their own personal safety but for the destruction of downtown,” Spitzley said. “If there was a large crowd, and all evidence is pointing to there wasn’t, thank God, you also have the spectre of Covid transmission.”

For now, Spitzley said she is relieved there was no large crowd and no violence downtown.

“We were ready, and I think that was the key,” she said. “We did a really good job of conveying to whomever thought of coming down to Lansing that we were prepared. We respect the right to protest and of free speech, but we will not tolerate lawlessness and violence and vandalism.”

More than 25K National Guard members from 50 states headed to D.C.

Elizabeth Peasley, a young professional who has lived downtown for seven years, said she and her boyfriend have been “absolutely terrified” that something similar to the U.S. Capitol attack could happen in Lansing.

“I have had clients actually reschedule appointments for next week because they are scared to come into Lansing,” Peasley said. “I think the stress of living with COVID is enough without having to deal with people protesting a fair and democratic election. It makes me feel upset and emotional on top of an already stressful year.”

This past weekend, Peasley and her boyfriend considered leaving their home “so we couldn’t be subject to any violence.”

“We shouldn’t have to fear that,” she said. “It’s strange to be living in the middle of what feels like a battleground. I think we all are exhausted by the constant anxiety that we all feel from the pandemic, and then it’s in our face because we live downtown, where the National Guard is being called to protect our Capitol. Buildings are boarded up in preparation for violence. It just doesn’t even feel real. It constantly makes me feel the worst is coming.”