Nessel: Protesters breaking the law Thursday will be charged

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel is warning protesters ahead of Thursday’s demonstrations at and around the Capitol that “there are going to be changes" from the way enforcement was handled at an April 30 protest. 

The Attorney General's office is prepared to prosecute actions that may not have received the same treatment during the April 30 protest, Nessel said. Among the potential violations her office will address are the brandishing of weapons, trespassing into the legislative chambers, restricting and obstructing police officers, disorderly conduct and disturbing the peace of ordinance violations. 

Michigan State Police, in medical masks, on the sides of the lawn of the Michigan Capitol.

“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 protest Thursday will involve demonstrations in front of the Capitol, Whitmer's office and Nessel's office as well as a counter protest called "Stand Up to Rightwing Extremists and White Supremacy." The protest occurs roughly two weeks after hundreds of protesters gained national attention when they protested inside the Capitol. 

The protesters chanted "let us in" in front of a line of Michigan State Police troopers barring access to the House chamber while session continued. Some of those protesting carried firearms in the Capitol and into the Senate gallery above lawmakers during session. 

The state Senate is expected to hold session Thursday, but the state House hasn't decided whether it will. 

Individuals coming to Lansing Thursday have the right to peaceably assemble and protest, Nessel said, but “we need to make sure people are safe, responsible and abiding by the law.”

The Capitol, she said, “is not a sanctuary for illegal activity.”

“We’re going to try to issue warnings to people,” Nessel said. 

“But the next step after that is not ignoring them. The next step after that is to either issue a citation or make an arrest.”

Nessel is working in collaboration with the Michigan State Police and Ingham County Prosecutor Carol Siemon to ensure violations are addressed.

“While our desire is to interfere as little as possible in demonstrations, we will not allow unlawful, threatening or intimidating behavior," Michigan State Police Col. Joe Gasper said in a statement. "Based on safety concerns expressed following previous demonstrations, attendees can expect to see an increased MSP presence on Thursday.” 

Brandishing a weapon usually involves the possession of an openly carried firearm with the intent "to create fear in another person," Nessel's office said in a statement. 

While Nessel urged protesters to wear masks and to give police a six-foot berth, she said there is some legal gray area regarding whether or not 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,” she said.

Attorney General Dana Nessel answers questions from reporters during a press conference Feb. 21 in Lansing.

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.

Detroit News Staff Writer Craig Mauger contributed