Republican leaders have excused groups who have used racist symbolism while attacking the state capitol. Women of color won’t let that slide.
LANSING, Mich.—When armed white men stormed Michigan’s Capitol building last April, intimidating lawmakers with brandished assault weapons and racist symbols, it shocked the nation. But even after a similar incident happened on a much larger scale at the US Capitol in January, Michigan Republicans have failed to address a core factor in these attacks. And Democrats are calling them out for it.
State Rep. Sarah Anthony (D-Lansing) grew up in the state capital, and found it a melting pot of cultures connected by socioeconomic status. She explained to Michigan Advance that Confederate flags were, to her, the subject of black-and-white documentaries on America’s past.
Then, in April of 2020, the reality of America’s present came knocking. She describes the events of the “American Patriot Rally” as traumatic.
“Never in a million years could you have told me that there would be a day when I’d be walking through an angry mob with nooses, Confederate flags and folks dancing around in blackface,” Anthony said.
Racist Elements of State Capitol Protests
“Not much has changed in the way most folks view race,” Alisa Parker, activist and co-founder of Michigan-based ANP Consulting, told The ‘Gander. “[The protesting] isn’t about having to stay home in the COVID-19 [pandemic]: this is about white men wanting to show that they have power and control.”
She explained that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s gender and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist’s race played a role in the brewing violence that escalated to a plot to kidnap and possibly kill the governor. Protests around the Flint Water Crisis, by contrast, never led to the same level of intimidation and planned violence.
“Racism is kind of 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 going to continue.”
But so far, Michigan Republicans have avoided the racial context of the attacks on the state Capitol.
On a national level, the conversation Michigan’s Republican leaders are avoiding is one President Joe Biden is taking head-on. Biden is committed to making strides on racial equity following a year where the outpouring of grief over racist policing and the murder of Black Americans by law enforcement sparked widespread calls for change .
State Rep. Kyra Harris Bolden was present on the day armed men attempted to physically force their way onto the House floor in Lansing as well.
In a conversation with The ‘Gander, Bolden highlighted the way that underlying insecurities and fears have taken hold due to conspiracy theories, misdirected anger, and the undercurrents of political tension in American society. And sometimes that misinformation has come from members of the Legislature.
“We have seen a number of instances where misinformation has led to violence,” she said. “Enough is enough.”
The Struggle to Make Change
But with the current Republican leadership, Bolden doubts real change, like reforms to policing and passing laws to limit the threats posed by self-styled militia groups, can happen. Though she doesn’t like to look at problems through a partisan lens, she said that the state legislature has to turn blue to see real change.
State Sen. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor) shares that doubt. She singled out the state’s Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clark Lake) as a roadblock to addressing the racism at the heart of the far-right protests that have gripped Michigan. Shirkey did not respond to request for comment, but has defended these groups in past media appearances.
“I choose to do something the state police have told me has never been done before and that is asked to meet with the leaders of the militia groups,” Shirkey said to JTV’s Bart Hawley Show. “The leaders, the so-called leaders of three of the groups met in my office and we talked about their messaging, their purpose, what are they trying to accomplish.”
His meeting with those men, who he says “get a bad wrap” after their attack on the state Capitol, has Geiss questioning his fitness for leadership.
“I’m concerned that Senate Majority Leader Shirkey is not even willing to examine the things that he says and does as it relates to reinfecting trauma on people of color,” Geiss told the Advance.
She added that there are others in the Republican caucus who could be strong leaders in Shirkey’s place. “There are folks there who are thoughtful legislators … people who have the moral compass to be leadership,” said Geiss.
The particular criticism of Shirkey comes as a result of his support of the self-styled militia groups that have been involved in intimidation and domestic terrorism in the last year, from the storming of the Capitol to their foiled efforts to possibly assassinate Gov. Whitmer and overthrow Michigan’s government.
After the plot to kill Gov. Whitmer had been announced, Shirkey told a rally opposing her “we need to be strong … and not be afraid of those who are taking our freedoms away from us.”
The fact that, despite the repeated calls from legislators of color to address the racist roots of these conflicts, the only result has been Shirkey choosing to engage directly with and stand up for the capitol’s attackers has left Geiss demanding action.
“We have a responsibility to call out injustice when we see it and to address it, not just call it out,” she said. “I suppose it’s the height of disrespect when an injustice is brought up by a colleague and it is ignored.”