It took three weeks from the moment Whitmer signed her new stay-at-home order for hundreds of white citizens to show up at the State Capitol, many of them with guns. The American Patriot Rally, as it was called, was organized by Michigan United for Liberty, a group formed to oppose Whitmer’s shutdown, arguing in part that the state was exaggerating the virus’s death toll. Members of Michigan militia groups were invited to provide “security.” The rally started on the Statehouse steps, but soon moved into the building itself. The Legislature was in session. Armed protesters were effectively occupying the Senate gallery as lawmakers debated below. The following morning, the president tweeted his support for them. “The Governor of Michigan should give a little, and put out the fire,” he wrote. “These are very good people, but they are angry.”
The lawmakers were debating a resolution to allow the Legislature to sue the governor over her latest shutdown order. It was widely supported by Republicans and opposed by Democrats. Two black Democratic legislators from Detroit had contracted the virus; another Detroit legislator, Isaac Robinson, who was 44, is believed to have died from it. Their constituents were not only the ones getting sick and dying in incomprehensibly large numbers; they would also be the first ones asked to return to work — in service-industry and manufacturing jobs — when the state started reopening, whether it was safe to or not.
Whitmer was home during the protest, but she heard about what was happening inside the Capitol after a few militia members posted a picture of themselves on social media posing in front of her office with military-style rifles. When I spoke to her the next day, she told me that she’d been hearing from a number of black legislators who were not only angry but frightened. “They told me they didn’t feel safe,” she said. “And why would they? I have sat in those seats. The gallery is open, and it’s one floor above you. You’re a sitting duck. That would be a very, very scary place to be if you were one of those legislators.” They were urging Whitmer to call in the National Guard before the next protest or, better yet, ban guns inside the Capitol. Whitmer was again confronted with the limits of her own power; she did not have the authority to make policy for the Capitol Building. That responsibility falls either to the Legislature or to a body of political appointees called the Capitol Commission.
A week after white protesters descended on the Capitol, a black state representative from Lansing, Sarah Anthony, brought her own security guards to the Legislature, most of them black, many of them armed. “When traditional systems, whether it’s law enforcement or whatever, fail us, we also have the ability to take care of ourselves,” she told The Guardian.
Whitmer was concerned about the escalating tensions and was hoping that someone — either the Legislature or the Capitol Commission — would defuse the situation. “There’s talk of another big protest, and there’s talk of an armed counterprotest,” Whitmer told me. “I’d just as soon keep that from happening.” The public had been subject to restrictions before: In 1999, when large numbers of Detroiters were coming to Lansing to protest the state’s plan to take over their city’s schools, metal detectors were used on people entering legislative galleries. The state’s Democratic attorney general, Dana Nessel, wrote a letter to the Capitol Commission, urging them to do something similar now.
On its face, it did not seem like a controversial request. But a majority of the Capitol Commission was appointed by state Republicans. There are more registered Democrats than Republicans in Michigan, but the Republicans nevertheless control the Legislature, thanks in part to an aggressively partisan gerrymandering effort. In the 2018 election, Democrats won all the top statewide offices and earned more combined votes in all the legislative races, but still wound up with fewer seats. This has enabled the Republican Party to set the state’s agenda for years.