Whitmer activates National Guard ahead of armed protests: 'We are ready'

Craig Mauger Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has activated the Michigan National Guard to help protect the state's Capitol as law enforcement officials prepare for armed protests spurred by President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration.

Boards were placed over windows of a state building, legislative session was canceled and fencing went up around the Capitol and Lansing City Hall on Friday in preparation for the demonstrations.

During a Friday press conference, representatives of the Michigan State Police, the Lansing Police Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation vowed they are ready for the demonstrations.

The Michigan State Police has increased its presence at the state Capitol and has had conversations with legislative leaders about changing their meeting schedule next week, said Col. Joe Gasper, the director of the agency.

On Sunday, an "unknown" number of protesters is expected to gather at the Capitol in Lansing, Gasper said. Lansing Police Chief Daryl Green encouraged his city's residents to avoid the downtown area Sunday unless they have an "intentional purpose" to be there.

"The city of Lansing is prepared," Green said. "We are very confident about our preparedness.”

Gasper and other law enforcement officials provided few details Friday about their strategies for protecting the capital city. The purpose of the press conference was to ensure the state that law enforcement agencies "have a plan and are working together to ensure that we don’t see a repeat of those dangerous, illegal and disgraceful actions at our Capitol," he said.

On Jan. 6, supporters of President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., as Congress met to count electoral votes. Lawmakers had to evacuate their chambers, five people died, dozens of people were arrested and the Federal Bureau of Investigation continues to probe the insurrection.

The House and Senate on Friday announced they would cancel sessions next week "out of an abundance of caution" over "credible threats" regarding events scheduled to take place at the Capitol. 

Dakota Pitz, of National Construction Rentals, puts up fencing around the Michigan State Capitol in preparation for possible protests over the weekend in Lansing, Michigan  on January 15, 2021.

“As we have said before, the riot at the U.S. Capitol last week was a terrible moment for our country," Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, and House Speaker Jason Wentworth, R-Farwell, said in a joint statement.

"We must be better than this as a nation, and that begins this week with what will hopefully remain peaceful protests and demonstrations in Washington, D.C., Lansing and around the country.”

On Sunday, another round of armed demonstrations is expected to take place at state capitals across the country.

The plan for handling the event in Michigan includes boarding up the George W. Romney Building in downtown Lansing, installing fencing in front of Lansing City Hall and constructing an additional 6-foot-high fence around the state Capitol. The Romney building, which is across the street from the Capitol, houses the governor's offices.

Maj. Gen. Paul Rogers of the Michigan National Guard said "elements" of the guard had been activated to help protect people, facilities and key infrastructure. Rogers declined to identify the number of personnel participating.

"I will ensure you that our response is significant," Rogers said.

The Michigan State Police is leading security efforts in coordination with the Michigan National Guard and other public safety agencies, Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said.

"The MSP has the governor's full confidence in their ability to safeguard the Capitol building, the Capitol complex, and the greater Lansing downtown area," Brown said.

Workers install plywood across glass windows at the Romney Building in downtown Lansing, across the street from the state Capitol, ahead of expected armed protests at the Capitol.

The FBI warned of plans for armed protests at all 50 state capitals and in Washington, D.C., earlier this week. Fliers sent to lawmakers indicated there would be an armed march on the Michigan Capitol Sunday.

Special agent Tim Waters of the FBI's Detroit Division appeared at Friday's press conference. Waters said the agency has opened "numerous investigations" in Michigan related to people involved in the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

"We expect the number of investigations to grow as tips continue to be reviewed and new information is reported," Waters said. "The FBI is using all tools at our disposal to identify those who took part in the violence at the Capitol."

On Tuesday, Lansing Mayor Andy Schor asked Whitmer to activate the National Guard for the expected armed demonstrations. He specifically requested the National Guard be activated on Sunday and Jan. 20 — which is Inauguration Day — to provide "additional security," help with "crowd control measures" and "ensure that our historic Capitol building as well as the businesses and offices that surround it are safe."

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Michigan Capitol is only open to the public when there is official business taking place inside. On Monday, the Michigan Capitol Commission voted to ban the open carry of guns inside the building, which has experienced a series of protests over the last 10 months.