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Phil Power | Legislating at gunpoint takes protest too far

Events sometimes crystalize into focus arguments that otherwise are often abstract and sterile.

Case in point: The “American Patriot Rally” that took place at the state Capitol last week.  Hundreds gathered to protest Gov. Gretchen Witmer’s emergency stay-at-home rules promulgated in the face of the COVID-19 virus.  Some demonstrators carried long guns, including what looked like assault-style weapons.  They were identified by organizers as “militia members” acting as “security detail” for the protesters.  Some entered the public gallery overlooking the Senate chamber, where they heckled lawmakers.  Many protested “tyranny” by the governor.  

It’s helpful to remember that such demonstrations happen more or less annually in Lansing.  Michigan is one of few states where there are no metal detectors at the entrance to the state Capitol building, no weapons checks and no specific policy prohibiting loaded weapons inside the buildings, although (oddly)  longtime rules prohibit carrying banners and signs into the building.   Michigan is Constitutionally an “open carry” state that permits citizens to carry weapons, openly or concealed, inside the Capitol.

I remember the melee against “Right to Work” laws in 2012, when thousands of demonstrators crowded the Capitol grounds, blocking traffic and tried to barge their way into legislative chambers.  Many demonstrators were very angry, and some violence broke out.

It’s different this time around.  One reporter said she was “slammed in the head” by a gun butt while trying to cover the story.  Some lawmakers, both Democratic and Republican, said armed demonstrators shouted at them as they debated on the floor below whether to authorize a lawsuit against Gov. Whitmer’s claim to emergency authority.  Others said they felt intimidated by armed protesters inside the legislative chamber while members were trying to transact public business. 

The image of armed men overseeing a legislature trying to carry out the public’s business strikes me at minimum, unseemly. 

I’d feel intimidated, too, if I were trying to exercise the public’s business under the oversight of armed protestors, which reminds me of the way politics work in banana republics.  

Last Thursday, Sen. Sylvia Santana (D-Detroit) wore a bulletproof vest at her desk.  “It makes the work environment very, just temperamental when you’re trying to work with colleagues on both sides of the aisle,” she told Bridge reporter Jonathan Oosting.

Other lawmakers wondered with Sen. Santana whether “we do need to reconsider how we support open carry in the Capitol” in light of the disruption in the galleries.

Rep. Matt Maddock (R-White Lake) told The Detroit News he agreed with the protesters’ rights.  “People are tired, angry, broke and protesting.”  He said he didn’t find the protesters to be intimidating.  “I like being around people with guns.”  

Others pointed out that the presence of armed protesters carrying arms at the Capitol dates to the 1930s, according to John Truscott, who sits on the Capitol Commission that sets rules for the building. He said, armed protesters inside the Capitol have “started conservations about what can be done or if anything can on our end.  We have always tried to keep the building as accessible as possible but safety measures are the most important.”

Sen. Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) told Bridge reporter Oosting he supported safe and responsible protests but condemned those who “used intimidation and the threat of physical harm to stir up fear and feed rancor.  Their actions hurt their cause and steal from the rights of others by creating an environment where responsible citizens do not feel safe enough to express themselves.”

Sen. Jeremy Moss from Oakland County said, “You can’t carry a gun into a courthouse, and yet we are literally operating with people hovering over us with their weapons”.

Over the weekend, the event and its news coverage drew nearly 200 vitriolic (on both sides) reader comments to the Bridge website.  Tom Lambert, legislative director of Michigan Open Carry Inc. has lobbied against limits on guns in the state Capitol opposes changing the rules, even if some lawmakers felt threatened.  “If that’s the standard we use for things, where does that stop?  Do we limit constitutionally protected assembly based on a subjective fear, especially one where no one has ever been harmed?” 

Although I’m normally on the side of peaceful protests, there is something deeply disturbing at the sight of armed protesters overseeing lawmakers trying to accomplish public business inside a legislative chamber.  

Philosophers teach there is no right — as in free speech— without a corresponding duty that limits and thereby validates  that right – as in the prohibition against crying “fire” in a crowded movie theater. 

Protest is one thing, and it’s precious.  But armed intimidation goes starkly against the grain of the democratic society.

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