Armed protesters entered Michigan’s state capitol during rally against stay-at-home order

Hundreds of demonstrators — some of them heavily armed — crowded into Michigan’s state capitol Thursday afternoon to protest against Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s shelter-at-home order.

The demonstration began outside the capitol early in the day in heavy rain, but later in the afternoon, police allowed several hundred protestors — many not wearing masks — inside the building itself.

Protestors stood in the gallery while others attempted to gain access to the House floor, cramming themselves into the entryway chanting “Let us in!” They were held at bay by the chamber’s Sergeant-at-Arms.

While not all protestors were armed, there were some armed men in the crowd inside. Michigan is an open-carry state, and people are allowed to openly carry inside the state capitol, though signs and banners are banned from the building to prevent potential damage to the architecture.

Democratic State Sen. Dayna Polehanki tweeted that some of her colleagues had worn bullet-proof vests to cast their votes.

Journalist Anna Liz Nichols of the nonprofit news organization Michigan Advance tweeted that she was hit by the butt of a protestor’s rifle, later clarifying that she’s “completely fine.”

As the protests progressed, chants of “lock her up,” and “heil Whitmer,” broke out inside the capitol.

The “American Patriot Rally” was organized in response to a vote being debated in the state legislature Thursday on whether to continue Michigan’s state of emergency, which was declared March 10 to address the coronavirus pandemic.

The Republican-held legislature ultimately voted to revoke the emergency declaration Thursday as protestors looked on. Republican state legislators are now preparing to sue the governor over her shelter-at-home order, despite a state court ruling Wednesday that said the order was constitutional.

As of April 30, Michigan has over 41,300 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and over 3,700 deaths, according to state government data.

Whitmer’s shelter-at-home order has been in place since March 23, but she loosened the order’s breadth in her latest extension last Friday, allowing landscapers, lawn-service companies, plant nurseries, and bike repair shops to reopen under strict social distancing measures. The order also allows some outdoor recreational activity to be resumed.

According to NBC News, a group called Michigan United for Liberty organized Thursday’s rally. The same group organized the first protest against social distancing in the state, on April 7.

MUFL’s Facebook event group for Thursday’s protest was taken down by Facebook last week, according to VICE News. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told Good Morning America on April 20 that groups organizing social distancing protests classify as “harmful misinformation” and said the company would take down posts promoting such events.

Michigan has been a hotspot of right-wing protests against the governor’s social distancing policies. On April 16, a different conservative group, Michigan Conservative Coalition, along with the US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos-linked group Michigan Freedom Fund, organized “Operation Gridlock” to protest Whitmer’s executive actions.

Operation Gridlock was initially supposed to consist of protestors driving around in their cars and trucks, honking their horns and creating noise to protest the shelter-at-home order.

But some protestors eventually left their vehicles, snarling traffic and preventing health care workers from getting to work on time, turning the event into a makeshift political rally. Some attendees wore “Make America Great Again” gear while others displayed confederate flags. As with Thursday’s protest at the capitol, some heavily-armed men gathered on the steps of the state capitol.

The next morning, President Donald Trump tweeted in support of the protest.

The Michigan protests are part of a larger series of conservative protest campaigns against shelter-at-home orders and other social distancing policies that have spanned multiple states. Many of the protest groups rely on a small pool of conservative financiers, organizers of the actual protests are typically locally-based.

As Vox’s Jane Coaston explains, these protests in Michigan and elsewhere are partly about the specifics of the lockdowns put in place in the various states and the economic hardship they’ve created. But, Coaston says, “many of those involved in the protests are connected not by mere concern” over these policies, “but by their efforts to reelect the president.”

“Trump’s political gambit requires that the coronavirus becomes a pandemic of Democratic governors and the fault of blue states while other states get right back to business as usual,” Coaston writes.