Increasingly chaotic protests in Lansing and around the country seem to be careening toward violence. This frenzy is fueled by racism and white supremacy.
LANSING, MI — Last week, the second major protest of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s policies designed to protect Michiganders from the novel coronavirus pandemic stormed the Capitol Building with assault weapons.
Legislators prepared by wearing bullet-proof vests.
The group carried nooses and swastikas as props.
This was a sequel, of sorts, to a protest in which Confederate flags flew in front of the statue of Michigan’s civil war governor, who was very much a Union governor.
Though the protests are ostensibly about the small but vocal minority of Michiganders who aggressively resist responses to the pandemic, the way these protests have expressed themselves has been as a broad and radical coalition of the most ardent fringes of President Donald Trump’s base.
We break down why these protests are as much about racism as they are the lockdown.
How Race Found a Place in These Protests
On “State of the Union” Sunday, Whitmer called out one of those fringe ideologies energizing protesters: racism. Specifically, Whitmer cited the Confederate flags, Nazi iconography and nooses that she saw as symbols of racist hate prominently featured at protests.
“Some of the outrageousness of what happened at our capitol depicted some of the worst racism and awful parts of our history in this country,” said Whitmer.
Even protesters were somewhat concerned that the highly political atmosphere, twinged with elements of white supremacy, were distractions from their message. As The ‘Gander reported, commenters on Facebook in the run-up to the event were worried that other similar protests looked like partisan rallies.
That iconography is not a distraction from the message but a major part of it, argues Alisa Parker, activist and co-founder of Michigan-based ANP Consulting.
“Not much has changed in the way most folks view race,” Parker told The ‘Gander. “This isn’t about having to stay home in the COVID-19, this is about white men wanting to show that they have power and control.”
Parker thinks that Whitmer being a woman and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist being black absolutely play a role in why protesters are so outspoken and leaning so severely on symbols of violence. As evidence she points to a comparison The ‘Gander recently made — how the coronavirus compares to the Flint Water Crisis.
If, the thought goes, both protests of former Republican Gov. Rick Snyder and protests of Whitmer were based around the same notion of state leadership mismanaging a public health emergency, why does only the current protest feature men with guns storming the Capitol building and demanding to be let in?
But while she says sexism is at play, she characterized racism as something of an original sin of American prejudice, from which all other prejudices have drawn justification.
“Racism is kinda like the original -ism in this country that allows other things like sexism to emerge,” Parker said. “Until we really have a reckoning of recognizing the impact that racism as a structure has had in our society, this stuff is gonna continue.”
Even a Michigan legislator got in on the racist iconography with his apparent Confederate flag face mask, for which he issued a strange defense before a stilted apology, reported The ‘Gander.
Only White Men Can Imply That Kind of Violence Without Risk
But it wasn’t just a matter of the symbolism and iconography of the protesters. Just the fact that they were there at all was a symptom of a pandemic of racism and systematic oppression, because the only people who could storm the Capitol Building were the kind of people that did.
“I’m a Muslim man, and if I were to walk into any building with a weapon like that, I would have been treated very differently,” Dr. Abdul el-Sayed, former Executive Director of the Detroit Health Department, told CNN. “Let’s also say that the same hall where those folks were able to walk in with weapons of war, they’re barred from bringing in, people are barred from bringing in posters or bullhorns.”
Both those sentiments were echoed by Parker.
“Had these protesters been black men, specifically, it would have been a very different response,” Parker said. “And it’s not lost on anyone that the response would’ve been different.”
And to prove that, Parker pointed to the Black Panther Party.And like el-Sayed indicated, there are many communities of color that would be treated far differently if they marched on a government building armed.
“Think about how harshly #BlackLivesMatter & #AbolishICE activists were debased, called rioters, & treated as a threat to society,” tweeted Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York), responding to a video of armed Michiganders in the Capitol building. “Now watch & examine how this MAGA-armed rushing of a state legislature is treated. This is for those who still think racial privilege is a fantasy.”
Not only does Parker think protesters of color wouldn’t have met with state troopers so peacefully, she doubts they’d have even made it into the Capitol.
“I think that there’d have been tear gas or some other form of crowd control used before they even got to the Capitol,” she said. “I’ve heard other folks who’ve protested at the Capitol with signs who were denied those signs because they could’ve been used as a weapon.”
Dr. el-Sayed called out this disparity not only as racist, but as a favoritism of the Second Amendment’s implicit threat over the First Amendment’s right to peacefully assemble in an odd endorsement of intimidation.
“You don’t even have to ask, you know,” said Parker. “I could not imagine black men walking around with assault rifles in the Capitol Building unharmed.”
The violent rhetoric did take special aim at Whitmer, with one placard threatening to have the governor hanged.
“Whether you agree with me or not, I’m working to protect your life if you live in the state of Michigan,” she said. ”I am going to continue to do my job regardless of what tweets come out or what polls come out or what people think makes sense.”
True to her words, after the protesters stormed the Capitol with guns, Whitmer continued crafting executive orders, The ‘Gander reported.
An Era of Increasingly Violent Rhetoric
And while these protests continue to play out as political symbols of sound and fury, the New York Post reports Michigan’s fatality rate is the highest in the nation.
Of course, these protests exist on a national stage as well, largely following the model laid out by the first Lansing protest, “Operation Gridlock”. Michigan exported its rally formula across the United States, and other armed protests ostensibly about stay-at-home pandemic protections sprung up nationwide.
“You’re going to see some massive protesting going on,” Matt Seely, a spokesperson for the Michigan Conservative Coalition, told BuzzFeed. “We’ve been asked to basically share our template with other groups to do the same thing, and we’ve done that.”
But even that larger trend of violent protest is itself part of a larger trend of events like tiki-torch Nazis in Charlottesville.Right-wing domestic terrorism has also been on a sharp rise, reports the Washington Post.
“It’s easy to dismiss the anti-lockdown protests as business per usual in the land of right-wing Trumpism,” wrote Maia Niguel Hoskin for Vox. “But there is a much larger issue at play that existed long before President Donald Trump took office, and that he has learned to artfully exploit. It’s why it’s not surprising that in some areas, protesters waved Confederate flags or held signs that read, ‘Give me liberty or give me COVID-19.’
“The protests are symptomatic of the profound presence of whiteness and white supremacy in America.”
Hoskin explained that even where there wasn’t conscious racism and white supremacy at play, there was a callous disregard for black lives. Black Americans, as The ‘Gander reported, are far more likely to die from the coronavirus than other demographics due in part to issues like medical bias and a long history of environmental racism contaminating black communities.
“I think time and time again the Trump presidency has given permission to people who are not even implicitly but explicitly racist,” Parker said. “‘We are in control, we want to be in charge, we have the right to be so we’re gonna do it.’”
President Trump has specifically supported Michigan protesters, calling them “responsible” and tweeting a call to “LIBERATE MICHIGAN” in the past weeks. Following protesters storming the Capitol with assault weapons, Trump encouraged Whitmer to negotiate with a group classified as terrorists by people like activist and military veteran Charlotte Clymer.
“The Governor of Michigan should give a little, and put out the fire,” he tweeted. “These are very good people, but they are angry. They want their lives back again, safely! See them, talk to them, make a deal.”
Michigan remains one of the farthest states from meeting federal guidance for when states should reopen.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.