Protesters, some armed, enter Michigan Capitol in rally against COVID-19 limits

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Protesters, some carrying firearms, took their demonstration against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's stay-home order inside the Michigan Capitol on Thursday in a confrontational showdown with authorities.

Dozens of protesters gathered outside the House chamber and demanded to be allowed in as Michigan State Police troopers stood in a line. The protesters chanted, "Let us in."

Protesters let out a cheer as they watch the proceedings on a monitor outside the House of Representatives inside the Capitol in Lansing.  The Michigan House approved a resolution on April 30 that authorized Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, to file a legal challenge against unilateral efforts Gov. Gretchen Whitmer took to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The state has long allowed guns inside the Capitol building — a policy that's previously drawn criticism from Democrats.

Sen. Dayna Polehanki, D-Livonia, posted a photo of people in the Senate gallery Thursday with firearms. She said some of her colleagues "who own bulletproof vests are wearing them."

Outside the Capitol, 800 to 1,000 protesters participated in the American Patriot Rally throughout the day, according to Michigan State Police Lt. Darren Green. It was the second time in less than a month there's been a large demonstration against restrictions to combat COVID-19.

But the event was much smaller than the one on April 15 that drew thousands of vehicles to Lansing.

"Just being here makes a real difference,"  said Keith Mieczkowski, 42, of Grand Rapids, who carried an American flag and a sign that read, "Free MI."

Protesters gathered at the Michigan Capitol on Thursday, April 30, 2020, to demonstrate against Gov. Gretchen  Whitmer's stay-at-home order.

The protest took place as the Michigan Legislature allowed her emergency declaration to expire and approved resolutions authorizing potential lawsuits against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

On April 15, thousands of people participated in another protest called "Operation Gridlock" outside the Capitol. In that event, vehicles blocked off roadways surrounding the Capitol.

On Thursday, there were fewer people participating overall, but more people left their vehicles and gathered outside the Capitol.

Health experts currently recommend that people not gather in large crowds in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19, a disease that's been linked to 3,789 deaths in Michigan.

Some protesters were wearing masks on Thursday morning. But many of them weren't.

Dennis Sigler, 66, of Mason was wearing a mask. But he said he was doing so out of respect for others and not because he was worried about getting the virus. 

"I love freedom," Sigler said. "In America, we should be free. Don't let them try to protect us from ourselves."

As to why some protesters were carrying guns Thursday, John Parkinson, 47, of Macomb Township, said his weapon is like a piece of clothing to him, and he carries it for personal protection.

"It is our constitutional right," he said. "It is not that we are trying to say, 'Look at me. Look at me.' This is what we do. This is how we do things. This is our way of life. I openly carry my handgun daily."

Many protesters say they are frustrated by orders from Whitmer that have forced residents to stay inside their homes and have shuttered businesses to prevent the spread of the virus.

Most of the demonstrators' signs focused on that subject Thursday. But a few signs were more violent in tone. One attached to a truck outside the Capitol said, "Make treason punishable by hanging." Another person held a sign that said, "Tyrants get the rope."

Protesters are seen arriving at the American Patriot Rally on Capitol Lawn, at the State Capitol in Lansing, Mich., Thursday, April 30, 2020.

Green of the Michigan State Police said there was one arrest during the event: a highly intoxicated person who allegedly tried to rip a flag out of someone's hands.

Also Thursday, the Michigan House authorized Speaker Lee Chatfield to file suit against Whitmer over her use of emergency powers and the Senate was scheduled to vote on a similar measure.

The governor was pressed at a virtual town hall Thursday night held by Flint-area television stations on the protesting and actions taken by lawmakers.

"So everyone's entitled to their opinion," she said. "But I am not going to make decisions about our public health based on political games. I am going to make them based on the best science, the best data, what are epidemiologists and public health experts are telling us.

"...We're not going to play politics when people's lives are on the line."

After the April 15 protest, Whitmer said she respected protesters' right to free speech but questioned those who mingled outside their cars and ignored social distancing requirements.