MI Reopen Protest Organizers Not Encouraging Armed Protestors

Hundreds of protestors are expected to gather in Lansing, Michigan on Thursday in opposition to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order, but organizers say that they’re not encouraging any attendees to carry firearms. A protest early last week saw dozens of armed protestors, angry legislators on both sides of the aisle, and a push from the governor and several lawmakers to ban the carrying of firearms in the capitol building.

On Monday, the Michigan State Capitol Commission voted to form a committee to study the issue of banning firearms at the state capitol itself, but for now the carrying of firearms is still legal, and undoubtably some of the protestors on Thursday will be armed. Erica Pettinaro, one of the co-founders of the group Michigan United for Liberty, which is organizing the event on Thursday, says she understands that protestors have a Second Amendment right to carry a firearm, but she’s also concerned about the effect its having on legislators and supporters.

Pettinaro said Thursday’s so-called “Judgement Day” rally was intended to draw attention to what she called Whitmer’s “hypocrisy” and inconsistencies in setting and enforcing the stay-at-home order, which has been relaxed somewhat in recent weeks as the increase in the number of cases has declined.

She said the group has never encouraged violence or that any protesters come to rallies with guns.

While recognizing the Second Amendment right of protesters, Pettinaro said, “People do look at it as intimidating, even some of our members are turned off… It is our constitutional right, so we can’t stop people. But at the same time, we just want things to be peaceful.”

Pettinaro said that while her group — which has filed a lawsuit against Whitmer’s order — encourages people to protest, she said it wants them to be peaceful. “Don’t be threatening, don’t be intimidating,” she said.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey’s been critical of both the behavior of some of the armed protestors and the stay-at-home order that has led to the protests that have taken place over the past few weeks. While Shirkey says he doesn’t support a ban on carrying firearms in the capitol, he announced on Tuesday that any protestor brandishing a firearm to threaten or intimidate others should be “properly handcuffed, properly taken in, fingerprinted.”

“Law enforcement needs to take this upon their own hands,” Shirkey said. “When those brandishing activities occur, they need to be addressed and I’m calling on the attorney general and the governor to do so with the cooperation of the Michigan State Police.”

He also condemned social media posts — including those reported by the Detroit Metro Times as appearing in private Facebook groups — with “crude, violent and threatening messages about our governor,” calling the people who make such comments “thugs.”

If I had to put odds on a gun ban at the state capitol actually being approved by the capitol commission, I’d say it’s about 60/40 against the ban, at least at the moment. If there are any arrests of armed protestors for brandishing, I think the odds of a ban go up considerably.

It’s important to note that during the protests in late April, as heated as things may have become, no arrests were made by the Capitol Police.

On April 30, several hundred people — including some with firearms — gathered inside the Capitol in front of the House chamber, shouting to be let in. Others went to the Senate gallery, where some legislators said they felt threatened.

Lt. Darren Green, commander of the state police unit overseeing security in the Capitol, said it was “a very boisterous and vocal crowd but we were never too concerned with it getting out of control. They’re very passionate about their views… We try to let them get their frustrations out as long as they aren’t hurting anyone.”

That’s a good response from Green. Whether you agree with the position of any protest, we have the right to peaceably assemble. Peaceable doesn’t mean quiet. It doesn’t even mean polite. It just means non-violent. Americans are still allowed to be passionate about their views, and I hope that Green’s level-headed position is displayed by every officer working in the Capitol on Thursday.

I also hope that those planning on going to the protest on Thursday to exercise their Second Amendment rights alongside their First Amendment rights think about how and why they’re doing so. What’s being accomplished by the armed protests of the stay-at-home order? This isn’t a question about whether you have the right to carry, it’s about the tactics of exercising your Second Amendment rights at a protest to re-open the economy.

I’m going to be completely pragmatic and look at this purely from a political perspective for a moment. Based on the comments by Shirkey and Pettinaro, it sounds like the tactic of arming up to protest may be doing more harm than good, and causing folks who should be allies to take a step back and maintain some social distance from the armed protestors. If the goal of the armed protestors is to persuade people to their side, there’s not much evidence that it’s having the intended effect.

In fact, there’s some evidence that the reopen movement is shrinking as the weeks pass. In Raleigh, North Carolina on Monday, the number of protestors at a reopen rally in front of the state capitol was just a fraction of what it was a few weeks ago.

The Reopen NC group had drawn more than a thousand in earlier protests but saw its numbers dwindle last week and again Tuesday, with about 200 people each week.

“We don’t have the numbers we thought we were going to have,” said organizer Adam Smith, “but God bless every one of you. Every one of you is worth 50 men.”

Unfortunately, that’s not the way it works when you’re counting heads at a protest. Even as Americans are slowly coming to the inevitable conclusion that we can’t remain locked down forever, attendance at most reopen rallies and protests is steady at best, and the large crowds of a few weeks ago have been considerably subdued (though more than 1,000 people did turn out for a reopen protest in Huntington Beach, California over the weekend). One of the reasons we may be seeing a decline in attendance is the fact that more states are beginning to reopen, so those who support reopening the economy don’t see a reason to protest. Another reason might be that not every reopen supporter is comfortable hanging around with a tactically-clad guy carrying an AR-15.

I understand that one of the reasons why armed protestors are carrying is to normalize gun ownership and the exercise of a Second Amendment right. I won’t say you can’t ever have a positive impact on people by doing so, but in this case, what most Michiganders are hearing about armed protestors is something like “They had confederate flags, and nooses, and Nazi stuff, and guns.” It’s a gross generalization, to be sure, but I’m afraid that’s the takeaway for a lot of folks who won’t ever read beyond the headlines.

To that end, I think Pettinaro needs to talk a little more about effective messaging to the Michigan United for Liberty folks. Yes, openly carried AR-15’s may be turning off some erstwhile allies, but so are posters comparing Gretchen Whitmer to Hitler, confederate flags, and nooses.

Most Americans are not at “angry mob” stage, and hopefully things will get better before we ever get there. If you want to grow the reopen movement, here are a few things I’d do.

  • Make it aspirational, not angry. Screaming faces make for good press, but not particularly helpful press. Talk about your hope for a reopening, and what it could mean to your family. Talk about your fears of what might happen if the reopening is done so slowly that your town’s economy never recovers, that your job disappears, that you don’t know how you’ll feed your family. You’ll get the same point across, but much more effectively than yelling.
  • Make it personal. Nobody cares about you comparing Gretchen Whitmer to Hitler. Or rather, they care about the comparison, but not about why you’d make it. It just feeds the outrage machine. Short circuit that thing instead by discussing the stay-at-home measures and their impact on your life in personal terms. A sign that says “I’m a (fill in the blank) and I need to go back to work” has an impact. “I’m a salesman.” “I’m a mom.” Let the press and politicians know that you’re not just a face in the crowd.
  • Be reasonable. Acknowledge that the coronavirus poses a threat, especially to at-risk populations. Acknowledge that even as the economy reopens, there’ll likely be social distancing measures put in place. You’re not asking that the governor flip a switch and things go back to the way they were on January 1st of this year. You know that’s not possible. At the same time, point out that numbers of new cases have been steadily declining since early April, and the state currently has an ICU occupancy rate of about 66-percent, and only about 33-percent of the state’s available ventilators are currently in use. There is no crisis in the state’s healthcare system, other than the fact that hospitals are going bankrupt because of the lack of patients. You’re not trying to kill grandma. You’re trying to do what’s best and right for Michigan, which is to begin to reopen the state for business safely and responsibly now.

As for the issue of armed protestors, the ones who do so at the state capitol in Lansing this Thursday have every right to lawfully carry firearms if they wish, and I would strongly disagree with any decision to try to take away that right. Personally, however, if I were looking to build allies instead of enemies, I’d carry concealed. Sure, it’s less of an overt political statement, but I think it’s the better political tactic.