Lansing police: Sunday riot damage cost 'thousands of dollars'

Beth LeBlanc Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — The city of Lansing estimates a Sunday demonstration protesting police brutality resulted in thousands of dollars in damage to private and public property after the peaceful protest devolved into a riot in the later hours of the day. 

The protest turned violent late Sunday afternoon when a woman's car was overturned and set on fire, setting off an escalating riot in the downtown, according to the Lansing Police Department.

"The rioters also overturned another vehicle in the area and began smashing the windows of multiple businesses, looting, assaulting police with rocks, bottles and started several dangerous dumpster fires," Lansing Police Department Public Information Director Robert Merritt said in a statement.

Those interactions prompted police to deploy "chemical agents" into the crowd and make more than a dozen arrests, Merritt said.

Protesters revel after they turned over and ultimately set it ablaze in the 100 block of S. Washington Avenue in downtown Lansing, Mich., Sunday May 31, 2020. The protest against police violence began at 11 AM at the Capitol and was mostly peaceful without incident. Ralliers then walked to the East Lansing Police Department where an ELPD vehicle was extensively damaged.

"LPD officers will maintain a visible presence in the downtown area with MSP and the National Guard," while assessing damage to businesses, Merritt said. 

Protesters joined other demonstration around the country in decrying the death of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police on Memorial Day after video emerged of a police officer kneeling on Floyd's neck while he gasped, "I can't breathe."

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Monday she walked around the city's downtown that morning to survey the damage and met with Lansing Mayor Andy Schor. 

"We need to seek to understand one another," Whitmer said.  "We need to give people hope and listen and be true allies."

Schor said Monday that what began as a peaceful event, for which the city didn’t want to have a “show of force,” turned violent later Sunday. 

“Yesterday started out very positive,” Schor said. “There was a rally. They are angry and frustrated, and they got to express that in a peaceful way. I don’t like what I am seeing in terms of racial injustice and police brutality either.” 

Business owners in Lansing, many of whom supported the original focus of the Sunday rally, were upset Monday as residents met to clean up the downtown, said Schor, who toured the area. 

The city doesn’t expect a demonstration to take place Monday night, but will be monitoring the situation, the mayor said. 

Whitmer said she was troubled by the escalation of tensions and rioting at night after what were mostly peaceful protests during the day in Lansing, Detroit and Grand Rapids. 

"It's by and large not the peaceful demonstrators who are upset about George Floyd and all of our nation's history around police brutality," Whitmer said. "It's people with different agendas who are abusing someone else's pain in order to inflict damage on a community."

Thirty-five Michigan National Guard members were deployed to Lansing as a "peaceful presence" during the protest and will remain as long as needed, said Capt. Andrew Layton of the Michigan National Guard. Lansing and Grand Rapids are the only cities where the guard has deployed. Members in both locations are being paid by the state, not the federal government. 

The damage to state-owned or leased buildings over the weekend cost $20,000 in materials and labor just to board up and secure the buildings, said Caleb Buhs, a spokesman for the Department of Technology, Management and Budget. It's not clear yet how much full repairs will cost, he said.

A total of three buildings housing state operations in Lansing were damaged during the protest, including the George R. Romney building, where Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's office is located; the Lottery Building; and the Roosevelt Ramp. Most of the vandalism involved broken windows, but the Romney building also had destroyed flower planters, minor interior damage and graffiti, Buhs said.

In addition, a state-leased facility in Grand Rapids had windows broken out, interior damage and graffiti, he said.

The Michigan State Capitol Commission is expected to spend roughly $1,500 to remove graffiti from the east Capitol steps and to restore some damaged landscaping, said Robert Blackshaw, executive director for the Michigan State Capitol Commission. 

"We were more fortunate than our neighbors who experienced more damage," Blackshaw said.

In all, Lansing police arrested 13 people after the car was overturned and burned Sunday afternoon, Merritt said. The woman was pulled from her car by Michigan State Police to protect her before it was overturned, Merritt said.

Police move to block off an intersection in downtown Lansing near S. Washington Avenue and E. Michigan Avenue Sunday, May 31, 2020, as a car burns in the background.

Some protesters said the woman whose car was overturned and set aflame had threatened to run over protesters or even attempted to hit some with her vehicle.

The agency is aware of the allegations surrounding her behavior, Michigan State Police Lt. Brian Oleksyk said. No alleged victims have come forward, however, and the incident remains under investigation, he said.

Michigan State Police arrested three people during the riot, including a 23-year-old Okemos man on a charge of malicious destruction of property to the Capitol, Oleksyk said.

A second person was arrested on a charge of malicious destruction of property of a building and another on charges of arson and inciting a riot. Oleksyk had no further details on the individuals charged. 

He said police are likely to investigate additional instances of vandalism by reviewing security camera footage. 

Many protesters did not observe social distancing rules during the demonstrations, including during the peaceful speeches earlier Sunday at the Capitol. They also disregarded the calls by Whitmer and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II, who said in a Sunday video that "Relief will not come from smashing windows" and encouraged them to "be home for Sunday dinner."

Staff Writer James David Dickson contributed.