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Armed protesters provide ‘security’ on the steps of the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, demanding the reopening of businesses. Photo: AFP

Armed militia at US virus protests a constitutional right, supporters say. Critics say they intimidate

  • Gun-carrying protesters outside state capitols are a regular occurrence in many states, especially in Republican-leaning ones
  • Trump calls armed protesters at the Michigan state capitol ‘very good people’

Gun-carrying protesters have been a common sight at some demonstrations calling for coronavirus-related restrictions to be lifted. But an armed militia’s involvement in an angry protest in the Michigan statehouse last Thursday marked an escalation that drew condemnation and shone a spotlight on the practice of bringing weapons to protest.

The “American Patriot Rally” started on the statehouse steps, where members of the Michigan Liberty Militia stood guard with weapons and tactical gear, their faces partially covered. They later moved inside the Capitol along with several hundred protesters, who demanded to be let onto the House floor, which is prohibited. Some protesters with guns – which are allowed in the statehouse – went to the Senate gallery, where a senator said some armed men shouted at her, and some senators wore bulletproof vests.

For some observers, the images of armed men in tactical gear at a state Capitol were an unsettling symbol of rising tensions in a nation grappling with crisis. Others saw evidence of racial bias in the way the protesters were treated by police.

For some politicians, there was fresh evidence of the risk of aligning with a movement with clear ties to far-right groups.

Prominent Michigan Republicans on Friday criticised the showing, with the Republican leader of the state Senate referring to some protesters as “a bunch of jackasses” who “used intimidation and the threat of physical harm to stir up fear and feed rancour”.

US President Donald Trump, who has been criticised in the past for condoning extremist views, called the protesters “very good people” and urged Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer to “make a deal”.

Michigan has been the epicentre of the political showdown over how to contain the spread of the deadly virus without decimating the economy. About a quarter of the state’s workforce has filed for unemployment and nearly 4,000 people have died.

Rally organiser Ryan Kelley said the event was intended to pressure Republicans to reject Whitmer’s plan to continue restrictions on work and travel. He called the protest a “huge win”, noting the Republican-controlled Senate refused to extend Whitmer’s coronavirus emergency declaration – though she said Friday her stay-at-home order remains in effect.

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Kelley, a 38-year-old property broker, said he and other organisers are not part of a formal group but represent people who have been harmed by the stay-home order. He said he invited the Michigan Liberty Militia, which is listed as an anti-government group by the Southern Poverty Law Centre, to serve as “security”. He suggested anyone who had a problem with their presence should read the Constitution and “live life without fear”.

An armed protester wearing a mask at the Michigan Capitol Building in Lansing, Michigan. Photo: Bloomberg

Gun-carrying protesters outside state capitols are a regular occurrence in many states, especially in Republican-leaning ones. But rarely do such protests converge at the same time around the country like they have during the coronavirus pandemic.

In Wisconsin, about a dozen men, several wearing camouflage, carried what appeared to be assault rifles and other long guns and stood around a makeshift guillotine at a protest attended by about 1,500 people. In Arizona, a group of men armed with rifles were among hundreds of protesters who demonstrated at the Capitol last month demanding Republican Governor Doug Ducey lift his stay-home order. Many in the crowd also carried holstered pistols.

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Gun groups have been involved in organising several of these protests – which drew activists from a range of conservative causes. Gun rights advocates believe the restrictions on some businesses and closure of government offices are a threat to their right to own a gun, said Michael Hammond, legislative counsel for Gun Owners of America, a group that bills itself as the “no compromise” gun lobby.

Hammond said he routinely gets messages and emails from people around the country, complaining that authorities are making it impossible to exercise their Second Amendment rights. In some cases, that has meant orders closing gun shops or gun ranges or offices shutting down that process permits.

But Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action, a gun-control group, considers these protests organised by the ultra-right and not necessarily reflective of most gun owners.

US President Donald Trump. Photo: AFP

While it’s legal to openly carry firearms inside some state capitols, Watts called it “dangerous to normalise this. Armed intimidation has no place in our political debate.” She said those carrying guns at protests are almost always white men, and are “a vocal minority of the country” that opposes the stay-at-home orders.

An overwhelming majority of Americans support stay-at-home orders and other efforts to slow the spread of the virus, according to a recent survey from the Associated Press-NORC Centre for Public Affairs Research.

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The visual of heavily armed protesters, mostly white men, occupying a government building to a measured response by law enforcement is a particularly jarring one for many African Americans.

It draws a stark contrast to the images that emerged from Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, when crowds of unarmed, mostly black men, women and children took to the streets in protest after a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown. Police shot tear gas to disperse the crowds, further inflaming the tensions between predominantly black community and law enforcement. It worsened when members of an armed militia group called the Oath Keepers arrived, some of them armed and sitting on rooftops. Jon Belmar, who was then St Louis County’s police chief, said at the time that the presence of the group, whose members wore camouflage, bulletproof vests and openly carried rifles and pistols, was “unnecessary and inflammatory”.

Trump, meanwhile, suggested it was Whitmer who should be moved to action.

“The Governor of Michigan should give a little, and put out the fire,” the president tweeted Friday. “These are very good people, but they are angry. They want their lives back again, safely! See them, talk to them, make a deal.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: lockdowns fire up debate on guns