After threats and armed protests, BIPOC lawmakers still struggle to get GOP leaders to address racial justice

Rep. Sarah Anthony (Governor Gretchen Whitmer office photo)

By Anna Gustafson, Michigan Advance

State Rep. Sarah Anthony (D-Lansing) grew up during the 1980s and 1990s and remembers watching in astonishment the awarding-winning PBS documentary series, “Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Movement.”

The African American lawmaker was raised in a Capital City community where whites and people of color interacted, for the most part, without incident.

“What bound us together was being either poor or middle class,” recalled Anthony, now the House Democratic caucus chair.

She never thought that she would, in person, see the same Confederate flag — a symbol of American slavery and Black oppression — that was captured on grainy, black and white video during the 1950s and 1960s in the aforementioned PBS series. 

But the Millennial lawmaker did on April 30, 2020, at the state Capitol during an armed, right-wing protest of Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s COVID-19 restrictions. As a result, Anthony believes that the building is unsafe and uses the word “trauma” when she talks about that day.

“Never in a million years could you have told me that there would be a day when I’d be walking through an angry mob with nooses, Confederate flags and folks dancing around in blackface,” Anthony said. 

As Anthony and other Black lawmakers attended a House and Senate session that day during the early part of the COVID-19 pandemic, a raucous group of right-wing demonstrators gathered outside the Capitol and some swarmed in the building. Some were armed with semi-automatic weapons; others carried violent signs calling for Whitmer’s murder and hoisted Confederate flags. The protesters proceeded to storm the Capitol building and, with assault rifles draped across their chests, intimidatingly stood over lawmakers in the Senate gallery while the session carried on.

The event, which in many ways set the stage for the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, was one of a number of anti-Whitmer demonstrations attended by gun-toting, Confederate-flag-waving white supremacists and militia members at the State Capitol and throughout Michigan over the past year. 

In October, 13 men, including members of the self-described militia called the Wolverine Watchmen, were charged by state and federal law enforcement for a far-right plot to allegedly kidnap and execute Whitmer. The Wolverine Watchmen’s goal was to instigate a “civil war leading to societal collapse,” including taking over the Capitol and holding hostages, according to a state affidavit.

The April event was one of a series of incidents over the past year rooted in racism, white supremacy and violent rhetoric rarely condemned by Michigan Republican leadership.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake), for example, met with some armed protesters in the Senate gallery but denounced others who “used intimidation” afterward. But he attended other armed anti-Whitmer protests, including some alongside men arrested in the Whitmer plot,  has not supported banning the symbol of slavery and violence in the state capitol, and never said, nor did, anything in response to Rep. Dale Zorn (R-Ida) wearing a Confederate-flag patterned mask during a legislative session.

And not long after armed demonstrators, including militia members, waved their symbols of the Confederacy, against which about 90,000 Michiganders fought during the Civil War, and cheered on violence against the state’s top elected official, the Senate majority leader met with three Michigan-based militias. Shirkey has not made public which militias he met with.

During an interview with JTV, Shirkey said militias have gotten “a bad rap” and said he and militia leaders in that meeting “talked about their messaging, their purpose, what they are trying to accomplish, and how they could improve their message.” He laters said he was only meeting with them to discuss security.

The Senate majority leader’s summer meeting with the militias came a month before the plot against Whitmer was announced.

Hours after news broke of the militia plot to kidnap and kill the governor, Shirkey and then-state House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering), who is no longer in office, attended a right-wing anti-Whitmer rally. At that time, Shirkey told the crowd that, “we need to be strong … and not be afraid of those who are taking our freedoms away from us.”

And after the November election, GOP activists tried to stop vote-counting in heavily African American Detroit. President Joe Biden won Michigan by more than 150,000 and defeated President Donald Trump, But the GOP-led Legislature held a series of hearing on debunked election conspiracies centering on Detroit in the months that followed, continuing into the new term.

Who can lead other than Shirkey? ‘I can easily think of two’

In the wake of heavily armed white supremacists storming the Capitol and Shirkey’s consequent meeting with militias, Black and Latino legislators, who have feared for their lives and worn bulletproof vests to work following the April 30 event, say Republicans need to do some serious soul-searching. 

State Sen. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor), who is Afro-Latinx, said in an interview with Michigan Advance that the Republican caucus needs to “step up” and hold an election to determine whether Shirkey can remain, or be ousted from, his position as majority leader, as a referendum on his past actions.

“I’m concerned that Senate Majority Leader Shirkey is not even willing to examine the things that he says and does as it relates to reinfecting trauma on people of color,” Geiss said.

The Senate is currently divided with 18 Republicans and 16 Democrats, with two vacancies. An email to Shirkey spokesperson Amber McCann seeking a response was not returned.

Geiss emphasized that she doesn’t “have an issue with the entire Senate Republican caucus.”

“There are folks there who are thoughtful legislators … people who have the moral compass to be leadership,” she said.

But, Geiss said, Shirkey is not one of them. When asked if there are other members of the Republican caucus who would provide better leadership than Shirkey, Geiss responded, “I can think easily of two.”

Geiss is certainly not alone in wanting a shift in GOP leadership. The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee has called for Shirkey’s resignation. 

Anthony, Geiss, state Rep. Tyrone Carter (D-Detroit), state Sen. Adam Hollier (D-Detroit), and state Rep. Cynthia A. Johnson (D-Detroit) have stopped short of calling for him to step down but they are critical of his actions. 

Hollier, who also serves in the U.S. Army Reserve, has called for a stronger legislative remedy to address right-wing demonstrators.

“As a state we need to have a real conversation about what we will tolerate from our citizens and especially our leaders,” Hollier said. “After the civil war we created the justice department. After 911, the Patriot Act was passed to go after terrorists. I think Michigan should address the violent extremist and give the attorney general and local law enforcement the tools to investigate these terrorists.”

‘I saw the fear on some of my colleagues’ faces’

Following the highly visible display of white supremacy and racism seen at Lansing demonstrations this year, and the hesitancy, or outright opposition, from Republican leadership to address it, lawmakers of color are deeply shaken. 

They watched as demonstrators unfurled imagery of nooses, swastikas and the Confederacy. They saw white men carrying Confederate flags and assault weapons pour into their legislative session. They have feared for their lives.

These incidents have, Black lawmakers said, changed their lives and been constant reminders that, even when they explain they have worried their lives are in danger, some of their colleagues turn a blind eye to, or even engage in, a deeply rooted white supremacy in Michigan.

“We have a responsibility to call out injustice when we see it and to address it, not just call it out,” Geiss said. “I suppose it’s the height of disrespect when an injustice is brought up by a colleague and it is ignored.”

A number of Black lawmakers shared that they now feel as though they need added layers of protection to safely navigate their lives following the armed protests.

State Rep. Tyrone Carter (D-Detroit), a retired Wayne County sheriff deputy, has gone from carrying a five-shot .38 handgun, which he is licensed to have, to a 9 millimeter caliber firearm with multiple magazines. He also sports a bullet-proof vest.

“What I’m seeing is the firepower that some of these protesters have. I saw the fear on some of my colleagues’ faces,” Carter said about the April 30 demonstration. “I said to them, ‘Don’t get in the line of fire. Get behind me.’”

Anthony told Michigan Advance in January that her “life in many ways changed” after April 30.

“You look at the similarities of what happened in our U.S. Capitol and what happened in Michigan, and the most frustrating thing about this time is myself and other leaders in the House, particularly on the Democratic side, have been calling for increased safety procedures,” she said. “We have been highlighting the rise of these militia and white nationalist groups; it’s taken bloodshed at our nation’s Capitol to start to take some of these conversations seriously.”

After Democratic lawmakers, including Black and Brown lawmakers who said they feared for their lives, repeatedly called for a ban on guns in the Capitol following the April 30 demonstration, action was finally taken after the Jan. 6 insurrection in Washington, D.C. The Michigan State Capitol Commission voted unanimously on Jan. 11 to ban the open carry of guns inside the state Capitol.

However, new Speaker Jason Wentworth (R-Clare) came out against the action. And a number of elected officials said that still wasn’t enough to make the building safe.

On Jan. 12, Attorney General Dana Nessel tweeted that the Capitol remained unsafe, despite the ban.

“My job is not to provide state employees & residents or other visitors to our Capitol with a false sense of security, especially given the current state of affairs in Michigan and around the nation,” she wrote. “I repeat-the Michigan Capitol is not safe.”

Carter said the open carry ban did not go far enough.

“It was like they said, ‘Here, we’ve done something. Now go away.’” said Carter, suggesting that the commission vote was a half-hearted measure designed to appease those who have called for action for months.

During the lead up to Biden’s Jan. 20 inauguration, a six-foot fence was erected around the state Capitol and Lansing City Hall. The Romney Building, which holds Whitmer’s office, and downtown buildings were boarded. The House and Senate canceled session for the week due to security concerns.

Johnson received life-threatening voice mail calls in December amid House and Senate Oversight committee meetings that featured unproven allegations of voting fraud in Detroit during the presidential election. One caller threatened to lynch her. She later had her committee assignments stripped last term after an edited video of her calling out Trump supporters circulated in right-wing social media.

Johnson described the situation as an eye-opening experience. Several weeks later, however, Johnson remains determined to carry out her work.

“I have a job to do, and I cannot live my life, nor can I represent my constituents in fear, so I just keep doing what I have to do,” Johnson said.

Banning the Confederate flag and the fight for justice

In the wake of a turbulent sea of white supremacy, Democratic lawmakers are setting their sights on destroying a racist infrastructure that allows people to don Confederate flags and carry assault weapons into the state Capitol as lawmakers are in session.

As Black History Month began at the start of February, state Sen. Sylvia Santana (D-Detroit) introduced bills to ban the Confederate flag from the state Capitol and declare Juneteenth a state-recognized holiday. Juneteenth is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States. It dates to June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers announced in Galveston, Texas that the Civil War was over and those who were enslaved were now free.

“The ending of this dark period of our nation’s history should be celebrated,” Santana said in a statement. “But it should also serve as a somber reminder that Black and Brown people in America continue to feel the vestiges of this barbaric system, and we still have a long way to go to end systemic racism and ensuring equal rights for all.”

That racism and racial inequities were on full display when white supremacists gathered for various demonstrations in Lansing, the Rev. Charles Williams II, a Detroit-based civil rights activist and Michigan National Action Network chair, said. He noted that if the demonstrators, particularly those who carried arms, were Black, they would have been dealt with by force — and perhaps deadly force.

“That’s the hypocrisy in this whole conversation,” the African American leader said. “There is no need to have guns at the Capitol.”

And there’s no need for what is one of the most recognizable symbols of systemic violence and racism, slavery, and traitorship in the country —  the Confederate flag — in the Capitol, Santana said.

“The Confederate flag is synonymous with hatred and racism and solely used to intimidate, all of which have no place at our Capitol,” Santana said. “Historically sighted at lynchings and anti-civil rights marches, this flag has more recently been seen at white supremacist rallies and the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. It’s past time for us to ban it from our State Capitol, which is a place that should represent free speech and debate by all.”

A spokesperson for Shirkey told WKAR that Shirkey is opposed to limits on free speech, even if he disagrees. In other words: it is unlikely Shirkey will go to bat for banning the Confederate flag from the Capitol.

While Michigan’s Republican leadership seems mostly uninterested in addressing the racism that has surfaced time and again at demonstrations this year, Geiss said the general public has taken an opposite stance. And that, she said, buoys her spirits.

“In terms of fighting for justice, whether it’s racial or economic or reproductive or environmental, I feel optimistic,” she said. “I’m seeing those issues, especially in the wake of Covid, really resonating with the general public, the folks we work for.”

There is, Geiss said, pressure from the public for the Republican majority to take up these issues. 

“I suppose the only silver lining of the pandemic is that a lot of things many of us have been talking about and working on for a long time have become painfully obvious even to folks who are not usually affected,” she said. 

Still, she said, she’s not sure that “short of a change in the leadership in the majority that we’ll see meaningful action this year.”

“But, sometimes the policymaking and the lawmaking process is a long one, and we just have to keep plugging away at it and chipping away at the things that harm our people and our communities until we get it right.”

Michigan Advance is part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Michigan Advance maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Susan Demas for questions: info@michiganadvance.com. Follow Michigan Advance on Facebook and Twitter.