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Despite driving rain and a heavy police presence, hundreds of protestors once again descended on the steps of the Michigan Capitol Thursday morning to protest Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home orders during the coronavirus pandemic.
The protest, which is one of many organized by the conservative activist group Michigan United for Liberty since early April, indicated that tensions over Whitmer’s lockdown orders were unlikely to subside anytime soon.
“Don't do what she says," said Erica Pettinaro, a co-founder of the group, which has sued Whitmer. “She doesn't care about the Constitution of the United States of America.”
People held signs declaring “Every worker is essential," “Make Michigan work again” and “Reopen schools,” along with others like “Free Flynn, Free MI,” “Let Me Go To Doggy Daycare,” “Open The Damn Salons,” and some arguing the use of face masks weakens the immune system. Numerous protestors were carrying assault weapons as well as anti-abortion signs and “Don’t Tread on Me Flags.”
While the protest was mainly peaceful early on, a scuffle did break out when one demonstrator carrying a garbage can filled with a sign, an ax and an American flag removed the flag from the can. Attached to the flag was an unclothed doll with brown hair who was hanging from a noose.
Protest organizers took offense to the man’s display – calling it “hate speech,” according to MLive.com – and tried to take the flag and doll from the man before a fight broke out before Michigan State Police intervened. No arrests were made and no injuries had been reported.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in Michigan have been critical of the protests against Whitmer’s orders – especially when demonstrators openly come heavily armed with assault rifles – with Democrats calling for a ban on guns in the statehouse.
The Republican-led legislature was not in session Thursday — the Senate had planned to be, but changed course — and the Capitol was closed to the public. A court will hear arguments Friday in GOP lawmakers' lawsuit challenging the governor's ability to extend an emergency declaration, the underpinning of her restrictions, without their blessing.
Despite the mounting unrest in her state, Whitmer has held firm on her stay-at-home orders – telling ABC’s “The View” on Wednesday that the protests make it more likely that her orders will have to be extended past the May 28 deadline.
"The fact of the matter is, these protests -- in a perverse way -- make it likelier that we are going to have to stay in a stay-at-home posture," she said.
Whitmer has also been highly critical of the nature of the protests, which she says have been political in nature and not always focused on just the lockdown measures. In an interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd on Wednesday, she specifically mentioned the pro-life protestors who have joined the demonstrations and the fact that many of the protestors are heavily armed.
The Michigan Democrat has also slammed some of the demonstrators for carrying Confederate flags and signs bearing swastikas.
"There were swastikas and Confederate flags and nooses and people with assault rifles," Whitmer said on CNN's "State of the Union” earlier this month. "Some of the outrageousnesses of what happened at our capitol depicted some of the worst racism and awful parts of our history in this country."
Whitmer, however, added that those people represented a small portion of the demonstrators at the state capital and that, for the most part, the protest was peaceful.
"When you think about the fact that this is a state of almost 10 million people, the vast majority of whom are doing the right thing," she added, "the behavior you've seen in all of the clips is not representative of who we are in Michigan."
The state police director and Michigan’s attorney general said laws would be enforced at the rally, including if protesters “brandish” their guns or ignore police directives. Under the governor’s stay-at-home order, people don't have to wear masks outside. But they are required to stay 6 feet (nearly 2 meters) from those who don't live in their household. Many flouted the distancing requirement at the previous rallies and didn't wear face coverings inside while yelling at security guards.
“I don’t particularly want to see people congregating, period. We know that contributes to spread,” Whitmer said Wednesday. “But if people are going to come down and demonstrate, do it in a responsible way. That’s what we ask.”
She pointed to modeling showing a median estimate that her order had prevented at least 3,480 additional deaths. More than 4,700 people have died in Michigan from complications related to COVID-19, which is the fourth-most of any state and the sixth-most on a per-capita basis.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.