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Whitmer: Thursday protests make reopening economy 'more precarious'

Craig Mauger Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — Police and state officials are bracing for what's expected to be another large protest at the state Capitol Thursday as the national fight over restrictions to combat COVID-19 again focuses on Michigan.

A group called Michigan United for Liberty has organized the latest protest against the state's stay-at-home order and vowed it would be attended by "peaceful, law-abiding citizens." Its event is scheduled to include stops at the Capitol and the offices of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel, both Democrats.

Whitmer criticized the planned protests Wednesday. Nessel and Michigan State Police Col. Joe Gasper warned participants that police officers would more strictly enforce state laws than they did at a protest on April 30, when demonstrators — some carrying guns — rallied outside the House chamber.

Protesters with rifles watch outside the State Capitol in Lansing, Mich., Wednesday, April 15, 2020, to show their displeasure with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's orders to keep people at home and businesses locked during the new coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak.

“We’re not trying to scare people,” Nessel said. “We just want people to be safe and secure. And if people aren’t confident the law is going to be enforced, I’m concerned about what might happen at the Capitol.”

The state plans to issue warnings and, if necessary, arrest and prosecute individuals who brandish weapons in a threatening manner, trespass into legislative chambers or resist and obstruct police officers, Nessel said.

Both the Republican-controlled Michigan House and GOP-led Senate decided not to have session on Thursday. The Michigan State Police announced Wednesday evening the Capitol building would be closed.

In a video posted on Twitter, Lt. Brian Oleksyk of the Michigan State Police asked protesters to wear face masks and adhere to social distancing recommendations, which have not been followed by some demonstrators at past events.

"You’re going to see a lot of police presence," he said in the video. "You’re going to see troopers who are going to be walking around on the grounds. You’re going to see some of us on bicycles. If you’re lucky enough, you might even see a canine or two."

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks during an appearance on "The View" Wednesday, May 13, 2020.

The new protest will take place two weeks after hundreds of demonstrators rallied in Lansing on April 30, gaining national attention. In front of a line of Michigan State Police troopers, the protesters chanted, "Let us in" outside the House chamber as lawmakers met inside. Some of them openly carried firearms, setting off a push to ban guns in the Capitol building.

Whitmer criticizes protests

Whitmer pushed back Wednesday against protests at the Michigan Capitol, saying the events make it "much more precarious" for the state to reopen more of its economy.

Whitmer issued the warning on ABC's "The View" a day before the next planned protest against her stay-at-home restrictions and as the Michigan State Police took to social media to detail plans for heightened security.

"The fact of the matter is these protests, in a perverse way, make it likelier that we are going to have to stay in a stay-home posture," Whitmer said. "The whole point of them, supposedly, is that they don’t want to be doing that.”

Michigan United for Liberty said it expects "demonstrators to be the peaceful, law-abiding citizens that we are."

The group's purpose "is to convey to our lawmakers, state officials and the public that the people of Michigan will passionately defend our freedom and prosperity," Michigan United for Liberty said in a Wednesday statement. 

"Additionally, in light of Gov. Whitmer's repeated attempts to bully and browbeat demonstrators, and her supporters' attempts to silence us, it is our purpose to demonstrate that we will not be bullied, browbeaten or silenced," the group added.

Officials urge prudence

On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, called on law enforcement to act when people improperly brandish weapons in the Capitol. But he hasn't called for a ban on firearms in the building.

Still, some in Lansing fear the Thursday protest and a counter demonstration being organized on Facebook could continue to escalate tensions.

Lansing Mayor Andy Schor said in a text message that Lansing police will be monitoring the protest Thursday, working in conjunction with state police in charge of law enforcement on the Capitol grounds.

While some protesters in late April appeared to be assembling peaceably, Nessel suspected militia and white supremacy groups also were woven in and aggravated the issue. 

“All it takes is a few people who are well-armed who can be a great security risk to everyone else,” she said. 

The governor's current stay-at-home order, which usually requires people to stay inside their residences to prevent the spread of COVID-19, is in place through May 28.

While Nessel urged protesters to wear masks and give police a six-foot berth, she said there is some legal gray area regarding whether she could prosecute such violations. 

“We’re not sure if we can enforce social distancing, unfortunately, while you are in the commission of a protest or rally or exercising your First Amendment rights,” the attorney general said.

Protesters weigh in

Michigan United for Liberty maintained on its Facebook page Thursday that the "Judgement Day" is meant "to give a voice to the voiceless." 

"The media is here to run a smear campaign," the post said.

"We have had two of these demonstrations now and it’s been fine," said Adam De Angeli of Milan, a volunteer with Michigan United for Liberty.

"I don’t think any of this is very likely at all," De Angeli said of concerns about violence. "I think it’s overblown. ... We can all be civil."

A counter protest is also planned for Thursday, according to a Facebook event page called "Stand Up to Rightwing Extremists and White Supremacy." The page says an organization will provide "armed security for our elected representatives" and "there is potential for armed conflict."

The protests come as lawmakers and the governor have denounced threats of violence over Whitmer's restrictions, and there has been a debate about whether to continue to allow guns in the Capitol after earlier protests.

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

Armed men weapons in the Senate gallery on Thursday, April 30.

Lawmakers eye gun changes

Discussions also have focused on enforcing existing laws. Under Michigan law, brandishing a weapon is described as pointing, waving about or displaying "in a threatening manner with the intent to induce fear in another person."

"I am calling upon, right now, our governor and our attorney general, if those situations, where it appears they have breached the line of brandishing, that those individuals be properly handcuffed ... fingerprinted and given a very longstanding photo that they can frame at home," Shirkey said.

Sen. Mallory McMorrow, D-Royal Oak, called for action on Tuesday in her own Senate floor speech, mentioning protesters carrying weapons who stood above lawmakers in the Senate gallery on April 30.

"That is damn intimidating," she said during her speech. "That is intimidation, and it is not welcomed. My question back is: What the hell are we going to do about it? Or do we wait until something happens?"

The Michigan Capitol Commission has formed a special committee to study whether weapons should be banned.

A day after the April 30 protest, President Donald Trump tweeted that Whitmer should "give a little" and "put out the fire."

Lawsuits have sought to curb Whitmer's emergency powers, and she has countered that legal action and moves by the Republican-led Legislature are a power grab.

cmauger@detroitnews.com