MONDAY, Jan. 19 — Detachments of dozens of Michigan State Police troops marched into buildings surrounding the State Capitol building at 9 a.m. Sunday. Along Ottawa Street, several more were loading up with bulletproof vests and wooden batons, tear gas canisters tucked into their bags.
Rows of National Guard Humvees lined the promenade from the Capitol to Constitution Hall — engines running, ready to go. A police helicopter circled overhead, at times hovering over the Capitol lawn to keep watch over what totaled fewer than three dozen demonstrators who showed up. Soldiers and cops were stationed on nearby rooftops. Several roads were closed.
Lansing Mayor Andy Schor maintained the show of force was necessary ahead of expectations of large and potentially violent protests. He’s just thankful that the scene remained peaceful after Jan. 6’s insurrectionist riots in the U.S. Capitol.
“It’s better to be over-prepared than underprepared,” Schor said Sunday. “We felt we needed to be prepared. It’s always better that we’re over-prepared and then not see acts of violence.”
An FBI bulletin released this month warned of the possibility that hordes of armed right-wing protesters would arrive on Sunday in Lansing and at state capitals across the U.S., possibly staying through President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration at noon Wednesday.
That intel triggered a massive law enforcement response involving at least seven police agencies, including the FBI and the Michigan National Guard. It also dominated media coverage throughout the week as Schor, among others, warned residents to avoid the city.
Chain link fences were erected around City Hall and the Capitol building. Nearby businesses and state office buildings boarded up their windows days. Airbnb reportedly screened guests for extremist ties before allowing rentals over the weekend.
The Lansing and Michigan chapters of the Black Lives Matter movement also released a bulletin last week specifically advising Black and Hispanic residents to take the weekend off work and to shelter in place amid fears of growing white supremacist sentiments tied to Sunday’s protests.
Few predicted the small turnout.
The Michigan State Police counted fewer than 20 demonstrators. The Lansing Police Department tallied up to 75. Some were legally armed, but no violence was reported. No riots. No shattered windows. No insurrection. News reporters outnumbered protesters.
The few activists who showed up carried mixed messages: Some carried Trump 2020 flags. At least six people claimed to represent the “boogaloo” movement, which is focused on stirring up a second iteration of the Civil War. Others claimed to represent Black Lives Matter. One man meandered the streets with a toy Nerf gun, a satirical play on other right-wing militia groups.
Two protesters wore skeleton face masks, garb known to be worn by members of the Michigan Proud Boys. At least one member of the Detroit Motorcycle Club was also there, hoisting up a “Bikers for Trump” yard sign. Another man pedaled a bike with styrofoam cutouts of a cross.
One middle-aged man carried a Betsy Ross flag, apparently celebrating an era in which slavery was commonplace and women didn’t have the right to vote in the U.S. He told a reporter that he was “too busy” for an interview as he shouted and waved at a helicopter circling overhead.
“If you have to ask what this flag means, then you can just keep walking,” he said.
Cost estimates for Sunday’s sweeping law enforcement response — which began in early January — were not available this week. Schor said those will continue to be tallied this month. A spokeswoman for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office said the state will cover the uncertain tab for the National Guard. U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin said she’ll also pursue federal cash assistance.
“Our finance team will work with any departments involved to assess the cost, then apply for a variety of federal grants,” Schor said today. “And we will seek dollars from the state.”
Police agencies wouldn’t share details about the number of officers or their specific operational plans even after the small crowds dispersed on Sunday afternoon. MSP Lt. Brian Oleksyk said an “increased response” near the Capitol will also continue over the “next couple of weeks.”
Lansing remains cautious but optimistic that violent protests won’t yet happen.
“I wish I had a crystal ball that could anticipate when an attack will occur,” Lansing Police Chief Daryl Green said Sunday. “We have to be prepared based on the threat picture. It would be difficult for me to not respond to that with some type of operational plan moving forward.”
“Life is our most precious thing we have. We were here and our response was here — and present and effective,” Green added. “And it does have costs, but we were there to save lives. I think we did a good job here today. And I don’t know if you can put a monetary value on that.”
Schor started his Sunday morning at about 8:30 a.m. at a makeshift command center tucked into a conference room on the second floor of the Lansing Police Department. One wall was dominated by video feeds from dozens of cameras positioned throughout the Capitol complex.
He also made at least two trips back and forth from MSP’s Emergency Operations Center in Dimondale — referred to by law enforcement as the “bunker” — before returning to City Hall at noon. Schor, Green, Slotkin and City Council President Peter Spadafore were among those spotted in the crowd downtown, keeping watch over the scene as it unfolded on Sunday.
The media response was also fierce. Downtown Lansing hosted journalists from dozens of local and statewide outlets, BBC and CNN, as well as an outfit of journalists from the Netherlands.
The angry mob of protesters never materialized.
Officials suggested the snowy conditions that developed in Lansing Sunday may have played a role in deterring large crowds. Weeks of cautionary media coverage and the massive law enforcement response also likely played a role in keeping things peaceful, Schor suggested.
Some protesters had also backed out. The Southeast Michigan Volunteer Militia directed its members to avoid the city amid expectations of “maximum chaos” from extremists like the Proud Boys and other groups.
Research from the media intelligence company Zignal released this week also showed that online misinformation about unproven claims of election fraud plunged 74% after several social media sites suspended Trump and key allies earlier this month — helping limit the spread of false conspiracy theories that have only contributed to growing tensions ahead of Biden’s inauguration Wednesday.
Still, Lansing was prepared for a potential calamity.
Schor faced criticism — including a call for his resignation — over the summer after local cops lobbed tear gas at protesters and bystanders at a protest-turned-riot April 30. But that didn’t mean the mayor was prepared to handle crowd control any differently this week.
On Friday, Schor confirmed that chemical agents — like tear gas — would be deployed on Sunday’s crowds if needed. Like last year, that was a decision that Schor chose to leave in the hands of the Police Department.
“They will use whatever tool, and tear gas is one of those tools,” Schor explained ahead of Sunday’s expected protests. “It’s not something that we want to use, but it’s a tool to clear out violent actions. And it’s a way to get people out of that situation without having to physically engage with them and risk getting coronavirus and also risk police brutality and other things.”
Added Schor: “I let the police chief and the folks on the ground make the call.”
Meanwhile, MSP Col. Joseph Gasper said a coordinated law enforcement response to anticipated protests will continue throughout the week. State lawmakers have also proactively postponed their scheduled legislative sessions on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.