In Michigan alone, as of Thursday, there were 41,379 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and it had killed 3,789 people. The state reports that cases are doubling in Western and Northern Michigan every six days, or faster. Yet as stay-at-home orders issued by Governor Gretchen Whitmer were set to expire Thursday night, hundreds of people demonstrated inside and outside the Lansing statehouse, many with firearms in tow. Whitmer, who had ignored an earlier April protest (and President Trump’s “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” tweet) to stay steadfast on her strict orders, was not in sight, but the Michigan Legislature was in session. Using their unmasked mouths and their guns, the demonstrators sought to return things back to “normal.”
Somehow, it felt all too familiar already, if still startling. A tweet from Democratic state senator Dayna Polehanki, posted live from the statehouse floor, read: “Directly above me, men with rifles yelling at us. Some of my colleagues who own bullet proof vests are wearing them. I have never appreciated our Sergeants-at-Arms more than today.” Per Lt. Brian Oleksyk of the Michigan State Police, demonstrators were “allowed to go anywhere in the Capitol that is open to the public.” According to Polehanki’s photo, that includes the statehouse gallery. And they can bring their long guns.
Directly above me, men with rifles yelling at us. Some of my colleagues who own bullet proof vests are wearing them. I have never appreciated our Sergeants-at-Arms more than today. #mileg pic.twitter.com/voOZpPYWOs
— Senator Dayna Polehanki (@SenPolehanki) April 30, 2020
Oleksyk clarified that the so-called “American Patriot Rally” was nonviolent, save the one incident in which one demonstrator was arrested for assaulting another. But the implicit threat of bringing weapons of war and mass murder into any legislative center fits the definition of political terrorism. Both because of their guns and their disregard for their safety protocols of the pandemic, the Michigan militia men forced the public and legislators alike to choose between physical safety and political agency.
It seemed that the Republican-led Michigan Legislature agreed with them, however, rejecting the renewal of Whitmer’s coronavirus emergency declaration. The governor remained undeterred, signing executive orders authorizing three new executive orders extending a state of emergency for Michigan residents through May 28th, keeping theaters, bars, and other establishments closed. There was no reason for her to do otherwise. All that NRA bombast may have had a different impact before, but not after a virus has killed 64,000 Americans in a couple months.
Perverting the Second Amendment and using firearms in lieu of a good argument is an American tradition at this point, particularly for white men. I mean, anyone arguing this is an “age of Trump” development needs to pick up a history book. This is some antebellum stuff here, some things that date back to before America was America. Violence or the threat thereof has been a method of political intimidation since time immemorial, and whiteness helps many escape legal or fatal punishment that others do not.
I note the racial disparity there not merely to denote the privilege of the armed demonstrators in Michigan and elsewhere. It’s just something that should be taken into account, since this is a disease that is killing black and brown people disproportionately.When we see the vociferous demonstrations of virtually monochromatic white crowds urging the “re-opening” of America well before any credible medical professionals, never mind politicians, have advised it to be safe, that doesn’t look like “freedom” to me. It looks like a threat. Frankly, it shouldn’t really look like freedom to them, either; Republicans have sold them a poor facsimile of normality as an excuse to get the worker bees churning the cogs again, helping to rise those poll numbers and keep them in power. The sooner things look right, the better it is for the people who want things to stay just how they are.
Whitmer’s action comes as Georgia’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp, ignores the experts and lifts restrictions in his state today — without consulting Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who runs the state’s capital and largest city.
Bottoms writes in an essay for The Atlantic that there is nothing essential about getting a haircut or going to a bowling alley during a pandemic. No one needs a tattoo, or to get their nails done. Now, neither she nor I forget those whose livelihoods rely upon such trades, but a recent survey of COVID-19 patient beds in Georgia found that more than 80 percent of them were filled by African American patients. Given such statistics and such monochromatic, vitriolic right-wing demonstrations to prematurely “re-open” America, we all should pause to question what is truly behind the animus and urgency of this nascent and reckless movement. If we are to believe that folks like these armed Michigan demonstrators really dislike the closures of small businesses, where is their anger over the sloppy government restitution program that has failed in its stated goal of helping those businesses? Where is their ire for lawmakers like Kemp, Trump, and the Republicans in Michigan who sought to thwart Whitmer’s orders, likely sacrificing lives to save their political skins? Moreover, these are fairly solid arguments. Why do they need guns to make their point?
It is understandable why those people in Michigan might be tired of all this quarantining and the inability to shop or socialize where they please, and not because they’ve exhausted their Netflix queue. The state has already reached its highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression, per a statement from Whitmer’s office. Between March 15 and April 18, Michigan had 1.2 million initial unemployment claims. Yet is this the fault of Whitmer, who repeatedly took Trump to task earlier this spring for seeking federal help obtaining protective equipment? “I’m just frustrated,” she said on CNN on March 20th. “I don’t want to be in a sparring match with the federal government, but we are behind the eight ball because they didn’t do proper planning.”
Trump weighed in with considerably less revolutionary rhetoric than his “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” talk on Friday morning, evoking his Charlottesville mantra with a tweet that read, “The Governor of Michigan should give a little, and put out the fire. These are very good people, but they are angry. They want their lives back again, safely! See them, talk to them, make a deal.”
Putting out the “fire” is a fascinating construction, since all Trump does is fan flames, including those of his own creation. But the point here is that he is calling Whitmer to solve a problem for which he is responsible, to be a president in his stead. Perhaps it is why she and every single other governor have higher statewide ratings than he does on the coronavirus response, and his poll numbers versus Joe Biden are suffering mightily. Perhaps it is also why Whitmer, as opposed to Democrats of the past, fears zero political reprisal from bucking the demonstrators, Republicans in her statehouse, and Trump himself.