With memories of 2020 armed protests, Michigan lawmakers fear weekend violence at state Capitol

LANSING, Mich. (Reuters) - In the shadow of a towering cast-iron dome, dozens of state police patrolled the perimeter of Michigan's state Capitol as lawmakers returned to work on Wednesday morning, a sense of calm masking the looming threat of violence this weekend.

The south side was enclosed in a 7-foot-high (2.1 meter) chain-link fence due to ongoing construction. But pedestrians were not barred from its snow-covered lawn or ascending the same front steps that served as an entry point for the hundreds of armed right-wing demonstrators who last year staged what many now see as a trial run https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-michigan/trump-backers-protest-michigan-stay-at-home-orders-at-state-capitol-idUSKCN21Y0BA for the Jan. 6 incursion on Washington.

Just inside the main doorway was a sign that informed visitors of a new rule, enacted on Monday, aimed at easing some concerns about safety at the state Capitol in Lansing: "Open carry of firearms is prohibited in the Capitol," it read.

Laurie Pohutsky, a Democratic state representative from Livonia, said she was a little nervous, noting that visitors could still take concealed weapons inside.

"We need to be aware of the landscape and be honest about the fact that there are people who want to do harm," she said after entering the building ahead of Wednesday's first legislative session of 2021.

The nerves in Lansing mirror the sense of crisis building across the country in the wake of last week's siege on the U.S. Capitol in Washington and an FBI warning https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-inauguration-fbi/fbi-warns-of-armed-protests-ahead-of-bidens-inauguration-abc-news-idUSKBN29G28I that armed protests are being planned in all 50 U.S. state capitals in the run-up to President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration on Jan. 20.

But more than anywhere, officials in Lansing know the risks.

In April, days after President Donald Trump tweeted "LIBERATE MICHIGAN" in protest of Governor Gretchen Whitmer's stay-at-home order to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, men with long guns rushed the Capitol, crowding its halls in an effort to pressure lawmakers to end the lockdown.

Some fought to access the floor of the legislative chamber, shouting "Let us in!", and one group entered the gallery, looking on menancingly at lawmakers below. At least two of the protesters were among those charged in a failed plot to kidnap Whitmer, a Democrat and frequent critic of Trump.

The commission that manages the Capitol voted on the open carry ban in a hastily convened session on Monday prompted by the Washington attack. The Michigan State Police have also stepped up security in anticipation of unrest.

Yet noting that the commission stopped short of an outright gun ban, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel has said she considers the Capitol unsafe. Speaking to CNN on Tuesday, Nessel called lawmakers "sitting ducks" and Michigan "ground zero" for extremists seeking to overtake a state government.

ALARM BELLS

Indeed, experts say Michigan's troubling history as a hotbed for militia groups should be ringing alarm bells.

Stephen Piggott, a program analyst for the Western States Center, a Portland, Oregon-based nonprofit that tracks extremists, says many people who traveled to Washington last week are now "re-energized" with an aim to sow chaos in their home state. He sees the capitals of Michigan, Washington, California, Arizona and Pennsylvania as among the potential flashpoints for violence, and reckons Inauguration Day poses the biggest risk.

"That's Trump's final day in office," he said. "I think that may really push folks over the edge."

Much of the focus of law enforcement has been trained on Sunday, Jan. 17, when the anti-government "boogaloo" movement, whose adherents seek to bring about a second civil war, had previously flagged plans to hold rallies in all 50 states.

Alex Friedfeld, a researcher with the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism, said he was concerned about post-Jan. 6 social media posts by "boogaloo" followers revealing a sort of envy that they, unlike Trump supporters, were not credited with playing a central role in the mayhem. That envy could be a motivator for some to take future action, he warned.

But Friedfeld also noted a lack of mass organizing on the scale seen ahead of other large protests, which he said could be linked to crackdowns on conservative social media platforms or concerns about a stronger law enforcement presence. Even so, he warned against officials letting down their guard.

"It's possible that extremist elements latch on to a protest and use it as cover to commit violence in some way," he said.

In Lansing, the House session on Wednesday opened at noon with an invocation and the Pledge of Allegiance. Aside from media, the gallery above the chamber was largely empty, and there were no protesters outside. 

Donna Lasinski, the Michigan House's Democratic minority leader, does not believe the threat of violence will truly subside until lawmakers who have propagated falsehoods about election fraud disavow those efforts. She has called for the disciplining of state Republicans who have made such claims.

"Until we stop giving it oxygen it will continue to flame," she said after recalling a bomb threat at the Capitol last week.

(reporting by Michael Martina in Lansing, Mich., and Nathan Layne in Wilton, Conn.; Editing by Matthew Lewis)

01/13/2021 23:25

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