On April 30th, Michigan lawmakers reconvened to vote on extending Whitmer’s state of emergency a second time, and protesters again converged on Lansing. Many were armed. Michigan is an open-carry state, and no law prohibits licensed owners from bringing guns inside the capitol. Dozens of men with assault rifles filled the rotunda and approached the barred doors of the legislature. Facing a police line, they bellowed, “Let us in!”
A widely circulated photograph of the confrontation showed a man with a shaved head and a blond beard, his gaping mouth inches away from two young police officers in blue masks, who gazed stonily past him. The historian Heather Richardson, in her popular political newsletter, summed up what the image represented for liberal audiences: “This is a man who punches down, not up, and who wants to have the power to decide whether his neighbors live or die.”
In fact, the man was yelling not at the police but at the chief sergeant at arms for the Michigan House of Representatives, David Dickson, who stood outside the picture’s frame. The previous afternoon, Dickson and two of his colleagues had forcibly removed three female protesters—Michelle Gregoire among them—from a public gallery overlooking the House chamber. Access had been curtailed in order to maintain social distancing; when Gregoire and her friends refused to leave, Dickson dragged Gregoire through the doors, telling her, “Stay out.” One of the women filmed the encounter and posted the video on Facebook, alongside the caption “We are living in NAZI Germany!!!” Many of the protesters inside the statehouse the next day had watched the clip. When the bearded man was photographed, he was shouting at Dickson, “You gonna throw me around like you did that girl?”
Various protesters, arguing that Dickson had been the one punching down, characterized the photograph to me as proof of the media’s bad faith. “Camera angles are a bitch,” one man said. But the image also omitted another piece of information. Whereas all the women in the gallery—like most of the protesters in the rotunda—were white, two of the three men who ejected them, including Dickson, were Black. When I met Dickson, in June, he declined to assign importance to this detail. “I don’t play the race card,” he told me. He said of his expulsion of Gregoire, “I didn’t sleep for weeks. You don’t feel good about those kinds of things.” Yet, Dickson added, he was duty-bound to enforce the statehouse rules. In his opinion, the armed white men who had screamed at and insulted him had simply failed to grasp that.
Others saw a more pernicious force behind the rage. Protesters had displayed a Confederate flag and a noose. The state representative Sarah Anthony, who is African-American and could hear the yelling demonstrators from inside the House chamber, told me, “Those symbols mean something very, very clear to a Black woman. No one can convince me that the Confederate flag or a noose means something different now. It just felt like, if they had rushed that door, I’d be one of the first to go down.”