LANSING, Mich. — Dozens of heavily armed militiamen crowded into the Michigan Statehouse last April to protest a stay-at-home order by the Democratic governor to slow the pandemic. Chanting and stomping their feet, they halted legislative business, tried to force their way onto the floor and brandished rifles from the gallery over lawmakers below.
Initially, Republican leaders had some misgivings about their new allies. “The optics weren’t good. Next time tell them not to bring guns,” complained Mike Shirkey, the state Senate majority leader, according to one of the protest organizers. But Michigan’s highest-ranking Republican came around after the planners threatened to return with weapons and “militia guys signing autographs and passing out blow-up AR-15s to the kiddies on the Capitol lawn.”
“To his credit,” Jason Howland, the organizer, wrote in a social media post, Shirkey agreed to help the cause and “spoke at our next event.”
Following signals from President Donald Trump — who had tweeted “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” after an earlier show of force in Lansing — Michigan’s Republican Party last year welcomed the support of newly emboldened paramilitary groups and other vigilantes. Prominent party members formed bonds with militias or gave tacit approval to armed activists using intimidation in a series of rallies and confrontations around the state. That intrusion into the Statehouse now looks like a portent of the assault halfway across the country months later at the U.S. Capitol.
As the Senate on Tuesday begins the impeachment trial of Trump on charges of inciting the Jan. 6 Capitol rioting, what happened in Michigan helps explain how, under his influence, party leaders aligned themselves with a culture of militancy to pursue political goals.
Michigan has a long tradition of tolerating self-described private militias, which are unusually common in the state. But it is also a critical electoral battleground that draws close attention from top party leaders, and the Republican alliance with paramilitary groups shows how difficult it may be for the national party to extricate itself from the shadow of the former president and his appeal to this aggressive segment of its base.
“We knew there would be violence,” Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., said about the Jan. 6 assault. Endorsing tactics like militiamen with assault rifles frightening state lawmakers “normalizes violence,” she told journalists last week, “and Michigan, unfortunately, has seen quite a bit of that.”
Six Trump supporters from Michigan have been arrested in connection with the storming of the Capitol. One, a former Marine accused of beating a Capitol Police officer with a hockey stick, had previously joined armed militiamen in a protest organized by Michigan Republicans to try to disrupt ballot counting in Detroit.
The chief organizer of that protest, Meshawn Maddock, on Saturday was elected co-chair of the state Republican Party — one of four die-hard Trump loyalists who won top posts.
Maddock helped fill 19 buses to Washington for the Jan. 6 rally and defended the April armed intrusion into the Michigan Capitol. When Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., suggested at the time that Black demonstrators would never be allowed to threaten legislators like that, Maddock wrote on Twitter, “Please show us the ‘threat’?”
“Oh that’s right you think anyone armed is threatening,” she continued. “It’s a right for a reason and the reason is YOU.”
The lead organizer of the April 30 armed protest, Ryan Kelley, a local Republican official, last week announced a bid for governor. “Becoming too closely aligned with militias — is that a bad thing?” he said in an interview. Londa Gatt, a pro-Trump activist close to him was named last month to a leadership position in a statewide Republican women’s group. She welcomed militias and Proud Boys at protests, posting on the social media site Parler: “While BLM destroy/murder people the Proud Boys are true patriots.” Prosecutors have accused members of the Proud Boys of playing a leading role in the Jan. 6 assault.
Two weeks after the Statehouse protest, Shirkey, the Republican leader, appeared at a rally by the same organizers, onstage with a militia member who would later be accused of conspiring to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
“Stand up and test that assertion of authority by the government,” Shirkey told the militiamen. “We need you now more than ever.”
After the riot in Washington, some argue such endorsements endanger the future of the party. “It is like the Republican Party has its own domestic army,” said Jeff Timmer, a former executive director of the Michigan party and a vocal Trump critic.
A Long History
A quarter-century before the mob rampaged through the U.S. Capitol, a paramilitary leader from Michigan sat in the same building and delivered an early warning shot.
Norman Olson, founder of the Michigan Militia, appeared in June 1995 before a Senate committee investigating the growth of the anti-government movement after the Oklahoma City bombing that April. Dressed in military fatigues with a “Commander Olson” patch on his shirt, he spoke with contempt.
“We stand against oppression and tyranny in government,” Olson said, “and many of us are coming to the conclusion that you best represent that corruption and tyranny.”
For many Americans, it was jarring to listen to self-appointed defenders of the Constitution justify taking up arms in a paranoid vision of government overreach. But back in Michigan they were used to it.
Roughly a dozen to 18 armed groups are scattered across Michigan in mostly rural counties, their membership fluctuating with political and economic currents. Estimates of active members statewide are generally in the hundreds.
The state’s lenient gun laws — it is permissible to openly carry a firearm in public — also make it a welcoming place for other armed extremists. Members of the Proud Boys or Boogaloo movement routinely showed up at protests in Michigan last year and sometimes got into fights with Black Lives Matter activists.
For many of the more traditional militias, socializing is often as much a priority as drilling. Firearms training is mixed with camping and family outings. Last fall, members of the Southeast Michigan Volunteer Militia gathered for a picnic in a park where children tossed beanbags, mothers grilled cheeseburgers and AR-15 rifles leaned against lawn chairs. Some have websites where they sell T-shirts and carry ads for gun shops.
But woven through Michigan’s militia timeline is a persistent strand of menace. In the early 20th century, the Black Legion, a paramilitary group that included public officials in Detroit and elsewhere, began as an offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan and was linked to numerous acts of murder and terrorism.
Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, who killed 168 people in the Oklahoma City bombing, were reported to have associated with militia members in Michigan, though Olson said they had been turned away because of their violent rhetoric. In the aftermath, militias were largely exiled to the fringes of conspiracy politics, preparing for imagined threats from the New World Order.
But in recent years, as the Republican Party has drifted further to the right, these groups have gradually found a home there, said JoEllen Vinyard, an emeritus professor of history at Eastern Michigan University who has studied political extremism. Much of their cooperation is centered on defending gun ownership, she said.
“I think there is a fair amount of sympathy in the Republican Party for these people that wasn’t there in the past,” Vinyard said. “It’s a much closer relationship now.”
The COVID-19 Revolt
If Michigan Republicans and militant groups had increasingly found themselves sharing the same ideological space, their common ground became literal last year, as an escalating series of events drew them together for protests and rallies. They began with objections to the governor’s lockdown orders.
Republicans have controlled both houses of the Michigan Legislature for a decade and held the governor’s mansion for the eight years before Whitmer took office in 2019. Trump’s brash nationalism had alienated moderate Republicans and independents while pushing the party to the right.
By last April 1, COVID-19 had killed more than 300 people in Michigan, primarily in Detroit, and Whitmer ordered all nonessential businesses closed. Maddock wasted no time rallying opposition, calling for a protest on April 15.
A national advisory board member of the Women for Trump wing of the president’s reelection campaign, she appeared often with Trump and his surrogates on their many visits to Michigan. Her husband, Matt Maddock, the owner of a bail bond business who has boasted of personally apprehending bail jumpers, is a state lawmaker from a Detroit suburb.
In the first major protest in the country against stay-at-home orders, thousands of cars, trucks and even a few cement mixers jammed the streets around the Statehouse in Lansing, in what Meshawn Maddock called Operation Gridlock. About 150 demonstrators left their vehicles to chant “lock her up” from the Capitol lawn — redirecting the 2016 battle cry about Hillary Clinton against Whitmer. A few waved Confederate flags. About a dozen heavily armed members of the Michigan Liberty Militia turned up as well.
Maddock declared Michigan a “tyranny” that night on the Fox News Channel, though she later distanced herself from the armed men. “Of course the militia is disappointing to me, the Confederate flag — look, they’re just idiots,” she later told Bridge Michigan, a nonprofit news organization.
Trump tweeted “LIBERATE MICHIGAN” two days later, and Maddock’s protest inspired a wave of others around the country.
When local armed groups in Michigan began discussing more demonstrations, most Republicans shunned them at first. “They were scared of the word ‘militia,’ ” recalled Phil Robinson, a member of the Liberty Militia.
But his group found eager promoters in Kelley, a real estate broker and Republican planning commissioner in a suburb of Grand Rapids, and Howland, a local sales consultant who had been posting online videos minimizing the pandemic. They called the stay-at-home restrictions “unconstitutional” and formed the American Patriot Council “to restore and sustain a constitutional government,” Kelley said in an interview.
As the Legislature met April 30 to vote on extending the governor’s restrictions, Kelley and his militia allies convened hundreds of protesters, including scores of armed men, some with assault weapons. One demonstrator hung a noose from the back of his pickup. Another held a sign warning that “tyrants get the rope.” Dozens entered the Capitol, some angrily demanding entrance to the lower chamber.
“We were harassed and intimidated so that we would not do our jobs,” said Rep. Donna Lasinski, leader of the Democratic minority. Lawmakers were terrified, she added.
Matt Maddock, the Republican legislator and Meshawn Maddock’s husband, recognized some of the intruders and left the House floor to confer with them. “I like being around people with guns,” he later told The Detroit News.
Trump sided with them, too. “The Governor of Michigan should give a little, and put out the fire,” he tweeted. “These are very good people.”
Other Republicans also came to accept the presence of armed activists. Gatt, who took part in protests organized by Kelley and Meshawn Maddock, said she felt “intimidated by the militia when I first started getting involved,” but soon changed her mind.
“I was able to see that they are patriots that love their country like the rest of us,” she said, adding that they are “all Republicans.”
Shirkey, the Senate leader, was initially more cautious. The founder of a manufacturing company who is known for singing hymns from the podium, Shirkey issued a statement on April 30 criticizing “intimidation and the threat of physical harm” and calling the armed protesters “a bunch of jackasses.”
Yet he had mingled with them in the gallery. Surrounded by militiamen about two weeks later in Grand Rapids, at an event also organized by Howland and Kelley, the senator said in a speech that they had taken him to task for his “jackasses” comment and he effectively retracted it.
He also met privately in his office that month with a handful of militia leaders — to establish a “code of conduct,” he explained in an interview. “Do you tell your people to make sure that there’s not a live round in a chamber?” he said, recounting the conversation. “That’d be a good start.”
In May, armed men stood watch for days outside a barbershop in Owosso, defending the proprietor from the police so he could cut hair in defiance of the lockdown.
Meshawn Maddock, following suit, then arranged for hairdressers to offer their services on the Capitol lawn, again watched over by armed men.
The state GOP quickly jumped into the fight. In June, a nonprofit group linked to the Republican Party began providing more than $600,000 to a new advocacy group run in part by Meshawn Maddock that was dedicated to fighting coronavirus restrictions. A charity tied to Shirkey kicked in $500,000.
Racial Tensions Erupt
Critics argued that race was an unstated factor in the battle over the stay-at-home order. The Republicans who rallied against the rules were mostly white residents of rural areas and outer suburbs. But more than 40% of the deaths in Michigan early on were among African Americans, concentrated in Detroit, who made up less than 15% of the state’s population.
Those tensions spilled into the open last summer when police killings of African Americans set off protests against the country.
The Black Lives Matter protests in Michigan were rarely violent or destructive, and the largest took place in Detroit. But Republicans in the rest of the state reacted with alarm to the flashes of violence elsewhere around the country, and Trump reinforced their fears with his warnings about “antifa.”
Calls to stand up to the feared rioters brought the party and its militant allies even closer together.
“Liberals look for trouble and civil unrest and conservatives PREPARE for it,” Gary Eisen, a Republican state legislator and owner of a concealed-weapon training business, wrote on his Facebook page. “I thought maybe I would load up a few more mags,” he added, later saying he had been joking.
In June, about 50 militiamen called together by Kelley squared off against a few dozen Black Lives Matter protesters over a statue of a Confederate soldier in his town, Allendale. “There were children there, and militia members were pointing guns at people,” said Ali Bates, 20, an activist with the Black Lives Matter movement.
Kelley said he feared what was coming to Allendale. “Statues all over the country were getting torn down, people were lighting things on fire, there were riots everywhere,” Kelley said in an interview, echoing Trump. “You are not going to come here and destroy public property.”
He accused Democrats of encouraging violence. “The Democrats have got antifa; they have got BLM,” he said. “The Democrats championed all of this stuff from a leadership level.”
More prominent Michigan Republicans portrayed the Black Lives Matter movement as a looming threat, too. Meshawn Maddock told the news site MLive.com that the “destruction” caused by the protests was “absolutely devastating” and “inexcusable.”
Armed militiamen responded by turning up at some protests as vigilante guards. In August, dozens of Proud Boys marched in Kalamazoo, Michigan, the site of several Black Lives Matter demonstrations, saying they wanted to support the police. They took pepper spray and used it in fist fights with activists.
At the peak of the protests against police violence, Kelley’s American Patriot Council aimed its sharpest attacks at Whitmer at her stay-at-home order. It released public letters urging the federal authorities to arrest her for violating the Constitution. “Whitmer needs to go to prison,” Kelley declared in a video he posted on Facebook in early October that was later taken down. “She is a threat to our Republic.”
A few days later, federal agents arrested more than a dozen Michigan militiamen, charging them in a plot to kidnap the governor, put her on trial and possibly execute her.
At least two of the suspects had participated in the April 30 protest at the Capitol, as well as the gathering with Shirkey in Grand Rapids. Prosecutors said that the men had tried to recruit other conspirators at an American Patriot Council rally. (Kelley and Shirkey denied any knowledge of the plot.)
It was the culmination of months of mobilization by armed groups, accompanied by increasingly threatening language, and Trump declined to condemn the plotters. “People are entitled to say, ‘Maybe it was a problem, maybe it wasn’t,’ ” he declared at a rally in Michigan.
‘Stop the Steal’
Hours after the Nov. 3 election, Meshawn Maddock wrote on Facebook: “35k ballots showed up out of nowhere at 3 AM. Need help.” She urged Trump supporters to rush to “monitor the vote” at a ballot-counting center in Detroit. “Report to room 260 STAT.”
As the counting showed Trump had lost the pivotal state, Michigan Republicans began a two-month campaign to overturn the result and keep him in power, channeling the momentum of the previous year’s battles over Black Lives Matter and COVID-19.
Kelley, with Howland and their militia allies, showed up with weapons for a rowdy protest outside the ballot counting. Later that month Kelley told a rally outside the Statehouse that the coronavirus was a ruse to persuade the public to “believe Joe Biden won the election,” The Lansing State Journal reported. One woman held a sign saying “ARREST THE VOTE COUNTERS.”
When attempts to stop the counting in Michigan failed, Meshawn Maddock in December led 16 Republican electors trying to push into the Michigan Capitol to disrupt the casting of Democratic votes in the Electoral College. During a “Stop the Steal” news conference in Washington the next day, she vowed to “keep fighting.”
Marching toward the Capitol on Jan. 6, Maddock tweeted that the throngs were “the most incredible crowd and sea of people I have ever walked with.”
She pushed back on Twitter against an observer urging Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, to take control of his party. “That’s where you’re very wrong,” she said. “It’s Trump’s party now.”
Maddock has condemned the violence and said she took no part. “When it comes to militias or the Proud Boys, I have no connection whatsoever to them,” she wrote in an email.
Kelley and Howland were filmed outside the U.S. Capitol during the riot. Both men said they did not break any laws and argued that the event was not “an insurrection” because the participants were patriots. “I was there to support the sitting president,” Kelley said.
Gatt, the Republican activist, had posted a video on Facebook of herself in Washington for a rally in December talking with members of the Proud Boys, saying: “I hang out with the Michigan Proud Boys.”
During the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol, she climbed scaffolding set up for the inauguration: “I made it to the top of the Capitol,” she bragged on Facebook.
Shirkey, the Michigan Senate leader who came around to work with the militias, declined to follow the movement behind Trump all the way to the end. Summoned to the White House in November, Shirkey refused the president’s entreaties to try to annul his Michigan defeat.
But in an interview last week, the lawmaker said he nonetheless empathized with the mob that attacked Congress.
“It was people feeling oppressed, and depressed, responding to what they thought was government just stealing their lives from them,” he said. “And I’m not endorsing and supporting their actions, but I understand where they come from.”