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Michigan Lawmakers, Civil Rights Advocates Decry Extremism at Capitol Protests

Written by Erik Shelley

SPLC research reveals links to right-wing militias, anti-government extremists

Civil rights leaders joined Detroit-area legislators who witnessed extremism and racism in Lansing during protests of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Stay Safe, Stay at Home order. The legislators shared their specific experiences being confronted by angry epithets, while the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan discussed civil rights issues related to recent anti-government protests.

Howard Graves, a senior researcher with SPLC Action Fund said, “Many in the far-right “Patriot” community view public health and safety measures as proof-positive of a long-feared plot to strip Americans of their rights.” Their beliefs are being spread among a community that has become increasingly strident in its calls for violent reprisals against those who they believe are imposing on their “liberties,” particularly public officials like Gov. Whitmer.

Following the April 30 incident in which protesters brought firearms into the gallery of the house chamber, several lawmakers called for restrictions to the state’s open carry law to ban weapons from Capitol grounds. While State Attorney General, Dana Nessel said it was within their power to do so, the Capitol Commission declined to make a decision on the matter, in effect, permitting the intimidation tactic to continue.

“As the leader of the Detroit Caucus, I cannot, in good conscience, stay silent while my members are subjected to this level of dangerous harassment,” said Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo (HD-8 Detroit). “If the previous protest is any indication, the actions of these individuals will only continue to escalate. We cannot wait for tragedy to act.” Rep. Gay-Dagnogo is calling on the Governor to reinforce capitol police with the National Guard and state police tactical units to protect public servants. “Legislators and staff should not fear for their lives while performing their duties on behalf of the people of this state.”

“Speech that constitutes a true threat of violence is not protected by the First Amendment,” said Mark Fancher, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan's Racial Justice Project. “But as a practical matter that has meant speech or expressive conduct that is a true threat to black people will nevertheless be protected simply because it does not feel threatening to white people. White officials with power may not feel threatened by white men with guns, but black people do. However, their fears are not acted upon by law enforcement or the power structure generally because the power structure does not see these armed people through black eyes.”

The recurring sight of swastikas and Confederate flags on Capitol grounds has been shocking to many in the legislature. “The racially charged, white supremesist imagery is trying to say that we’re not fully human. That they believe in a time period where we weren’t fully citizens and that is problematic,” said Sen. Erika Geiss (SD-6, Taylor). “I refuse to be intimidated and I’m going to keep speaking up for our community at large and for the right thing.” Sen. Geiss submitted a resolution calling for the capitol commission to ban images of white supremacy that they also failed to act upon.

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