Near the capitol steps, one man had strung an American flag onto a fishing rod. Below the flag, a brunette doll dangled from a noose tied to the pole. When another protester reached to grab the doll, a fight broke out. A video captured people wrestling over the flag and doll, shoving one another and shouting. Nearby, two people struggled over an ax.
“Where is capitol police right now?” a woman can be heard shouting into a microphone in a video published by MLive. “We have an issue, can we have the police come up to the steps please? Where are the cops?”
Violent rhetoric appears to be increasingly common among people protesting stay-at-home orders amid a coronavirus pandemic that has killed 85,000 and sickened 1.4 million people in the United States. At another Thursday protest in Commack, N.Y., Long Island protesters waved Trump 2020 banners and one held a sign that read, “Hang Fauci. Hang Gates. Open all our states.”
Michigan State Police eventually responded to the fight over the hanging doll. They said no injuries were reported, and troopers did not make any arrests. Officers said they confiscated an ax.
State lawmakers had already canceled their legislative meetings for the day, in anticipation of armed protesters storming the capitol. Similar demonstrations disrupted the state’s legislature on April 30, as people, some armed with rifles, staged an occupation of the state capitol building.
Policymakers’ anxieties over safety had been heightened in recent days by reports of physical threats within private Facebook groups where the protests were planned.
The naked doll hanging from the noose reflected recent threats against Whitmer. The Detroit Metro Times reported dozens of posts that called for the Michigan governor to be hanged.
The Long Island protest also grew heated when a reporter for News 12 Long Island walked through an aggressive crowd. People jeered “you are the virus” as the journalist walked past. A group broke out into a chant: “Fake news is not essential.” One man followed reporter Kevin Vesey as he tried to keep six feet between himself and the unmasked protester.
“I think you need to back away from me, sir,” Vesey said from behind the camera.
“No, I’ve got hydroxychloroquine, I’m fine,” the man answered, referencing an anti-malaria drug President Trump had promoted in the early weeks of the pandemic. The protester, wearing a red Make America Great Again hat and a Trump campaign T-shirt, continued to move closer to Vesey, following the reporter as he backed away.
The anti-press sentiments echoed the president’s war on the media, which he has long waged on his Twitter account, at his news briefings and in his campaign speeches. This week, he sparred with reporters asking questions about his pandemic response, calling a question “nasty” and even stalking off after two female journalists challenged him at a news briefing on Monday.
Trump has also thrown his support behind the anti-lockdown protesters, who often sport flags, signs, banners, hats and T-shirts promoting his reelection campaign. With his campaign rallies suspended for the time being, some of the protests have become pseudo-rallies for his most devoted followers.
As the president has done, some of the protesters in Michigan questioned the scientific merit of shutdown restrictions. In interviews Thursday, some protesters said the outbreak is milder and less dangerous than public officials made it out to be, and that hospitals were inflating death tolls to get money.
Kassandra Cochrane, 25, drove four hours from Oscoda, Mich., to attend the Lansing rally.
“I think it’s awesome that [Wisconsin] is opened back up and I think Michigan should do the same thing,” she said. “I believe that the virus is real but it’s not as bad as they make it out to be.”
On May 1, Trump called the armed protesters who took guns into the Michigan Capitol building “very good people.” He has often challenged the governors who have implemented stringent social distancing policies, calling to “LIBERATE” states like Michigan, Virginia and Minnesota.
Trump has also cheered on states that have chosen to partially reopen, despite not meeting federal guidelines that call for a phased-in return to normalcy as the outbreak eases over time.
“Good numbers coming out of States that are opening,” Trump said on Twitter Thursday morning. “America is getting its life back! Vaccine work is looking VERY promising, before end of year. Likewise, other solutions!”
On Thursday, the president retweeted a video of a Florida man ranting against “blue states” that still have restrictions on restaurants and bars as he ate a meal with friends, without masks, in a crowded public dining area.
“While the rest of the country is still freaking out, especially in blue states, look at this,” the man said in the video shared by the president, “Look at this. I’m at a bar/restaurant. We’re all having a good time. Not a single face mask.”
Moriah Balingit reported from Lansing, Mich.