LANSING, Mich. – A large group of demonstrators – many not wearing masks and some carrying rifles on their shoulders – crowded into the lobby outside the state House chambers Thursday, shouting to be allowed onto the House floor, during a protest at the Capitol against Michigan’s state of emergency.
Michigan State Police troopers, wearing face masks, formed a line between the demonstrators and the entrance to the House floor, which is off-limits to the general public.
“Let us in,” the protesters shouted, in some cases within a few inches of the police officers’ faces.
At least one state senator expressed worry when she saw demonstrators shouting and carrying firearms in the public gallery.
“Directly above me, men with rifles yelling at us,” Democratic state Sen. Dayna Polehanki posted on Twitter, along with a photo. “Some of my colleagues who own bullet proof vests are wearing them. I have never appreciated our Sergeants-at-Arms more than today.”
Open carry of firearms is allowed both on Capitol grounds and inside the Capitol, said Lt. Brian Oleksyk of the Michigan State Police.
“There’s always a risk, but we were prepared for it,” he said. “People are allowed to exercise their right to freedom of speech and their right to open carry. We always kept an eye on it.”
He said “people were just venting their frustrations in a loud manner” outside the House chamber, but “once they were able to do that … people were pleasant and polite.”
Earlier, a few hundred demonstrators gathered under light rain outside the Capitol, urging lawmakers not to extend Michigan’s state of emergency related to the coronavirus pandemic.
They carried signs that read “Impeach Whitmer,” “You’re Killing Small Businesses,” and “Liberty or Death.” Many also wore hats or carried other paraphernalia touting Republican President Donald Trump and his 2020 reelection campaign.
The demonstrators got their wish in that the Republican-controlled Legislature did not vote to extend Michigan’s state of emergency, as requested by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. However, Whitmer says the state of emergency continues by executive order.
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A large number of vehicles blocked most of Allegan Avenue, which runs by the side of the Capitol.
There were also a few counterprotesters. One man drove a large truck by the Capitol, shouting: “Go home, rednecks – go home!” into a loudspeaker.
Overall, the rally was considerably smaller than an April 15 event that drew thousands to the Capitol to protest Whitmer’s stay-at-home order, which is currently scheduled to run through May 15.
House Speaker Lee Chatfield, a Republican, said every American has the right to protest and that is what happened Thursday. He said he was disappointed, though, that not all of the demonstrators observed social distancing guidelines and that a few apparently carried signs advocating violence.
One sign carried by a demonstrator said: “Tyrants get the rope.”
Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, a Democrat, said he could not “condone physical intimidation or causing chaos in the middle of a global pandemic.”
The state of emergency should not be confused with the stay-at-home order, which shut down businesses not deemed essential and requires people to stay home except for essential purposes.
Whitmer said Wednesday that Michigan’s stay-at-home order, and the willingness of the vast majority of Michiganders to follow it, has helped the state significantly flatten the curve of COVID-19 infections. But she warned that reopening the economy too quickly risks a second spike of infections that would be even more economically damaging than the first outbreak.
As of Thursday, more than 41,000 Michigan residents had tested positive for COVID-19 and close to 3,800 had died from the disease, according to state officials.
The Michigan State Police arrested one protester for assaulting another protester on the Capitol grounds early in the afternoon, Oleksyk said. Neither was injured, he said.
Dubbed the “American Patriot Rally,” Thursday’s demonstration brought together members of conservative groups, militias, proponents of open carry of firearms, people protesting abortion rights, and anti-vaccination protesters, plus many Michiganders who said they were not associated with any group but believe the stay-at-home order goes too far.
“I’m basically just for common sense,’ said Angela Lowry, 24, of Waterford, who was wearing a cloth mask and carrying a sign that read, “Liberty or Death.”
Lowry, an insurance specialist, said she was deemed an essential worker and has remained employed, but does not like the fact she has been unable to visit relatives, for example.
“I feel strongly about the Constitution,” Lowry said. “It doesn’t matter what is going on – we always have our liberties.”
Lowry said she is not associated with any group, did not vote for Trump in 2016, and does not expect she will vote for him this year, either. “I’m liking Justin Amash,” she said in reference to the west Michigan congressman who left the Republican Party and is exploring a presidential run, possibly with the Libertarian Party.
John Moehlman of St. Clair, an insulation contractor, said he has lost work as a result of the stay-at-home order and Whitmer’s Wednesday announcement that construction can resume May 7 will not rectify his problems with permits and other issues.
“This is flat-out tyranny,” said Moehlman, who was not wearing a mask. “They’re robbing our freedom right from under our eyes.”
Moehlman said he will vote for Trump in 2020 and generally approves of the president’s handling of the pandemic.
“He’s going to allow these governors to hang themselves” by issuing overly restrictive stay-at-home orders, he said. “I think that was a smart move.”
Tom Scillian, 59, of Utica, a member of the Michigan Liberty Militia, was guarding the steps that led to the podium in front of the Capitol and said he had been designated by organizers to provide security. He carried what he said was a loaded AR-15 rifle.
“Let everybody go to work,” said Scillian, who cuts lawns for Huron-Clinton Metroparks and said he was called back to his job last week.
Contributing: Kara Berg, Lansing State Journal
Follow Paul Egan on Twitter: @paulegan4.