A political rally supporting gun rights was interrupted Thursday evening by counter protesters speaking out against police brutality and racism. A few tense, confrontational moments at the state Capitol building ended peacefully, but without any resolution of the differences in opinion between the two groups.
Jason Howland, one of the organizers of the “American Patriot Rally,” says he’s not a member of any group calling itself a militia, but that the rally was meant to urge people to learn more about militias across Michigan.
“What we want is for people…. to understand (militias) aren’t wrong. It’s not evil or violent. It’s here to create peace,” Howland said. “We started originally when the government said we couldn’t gather and couldn’t go to church. We were upset about that so we came together,” Howland said.
Speakers at the rally said they oppose lawmakers who favor various gun control policies, like so-called “red flag” laws allowing authorities to take firearms away from someone deemed to be dangerous.
“Trucker Randy” Bishop, who has ties to the Republican Party in Michigan and two felony convictions, urged people to vote against Democrats in upcoming elections.
“We have got to stop them, folks,” Bishop said. “If they get back the majority in the (Michigan) House this November … Then God help us, you know what we’ll be relying on? The Republicans and Mike Shirkey in the Senate to stop it. The same one that’s placating to Governor (Gretchen) Whitmer over the China virus (novel coronavirus)."
Midway through the rally, a group of counter protesters silently walked into the crowd in front of the Capitol steps with their arms up. Then the diverse group of 20-30 mostly younger people laid down on the cement with their hands behind their backs – an homage to victims of police brutality.
Some in the crowd at the rally hurled insults at the counter-protesters. Paul Birdsong, a Lansing resident who’s become a leader of daily protests in the city, led the group. It's been calling for police reform and the resignation of Lansing Mayor Andy Schor.
Mt. Pleasant resident Taylor Stalter, a member of a group called the “Michigan Militia of Love,” defended Birdsong’s group of protesters. He yelled at members of the crowd that the protesters too were simply there exercising their rights.
With an AR-15 style pistol slung across his chest, Stalter tried to convince Birdsong’s group that the goals of militia groups and their protest weren’t in conflict. Stalter said he’s been traveling to Detroit to support protesters against racism and police brutality in that city.
“I went down (to Detroit) to help and make sure that everybody down there got their 1A (First Amendment right) by exercising my 2A (Second Amendment right).” Stalter said. “I found some guys down there that felt the same way, and we started a militia. You can’t label all militias the same in the same way that people try to label all Black people the same. Or all gay people the same. Or anything. We can’t divide ourselves. We’ve got to come together.”
As Birdsong started to talk with Stalter, another man who came to support the rally yelled to Birdsong and the counter-protesters that, “every one… who fought for our country is ashamed of you.”
The jeer helped Birdsong illustrate his point even as Stalter yelled at the heckler to stop.
“That’s exactly why we feel how we feel,” Birdsong said, saying his group heard homophobic slurs, threats, cursing, and other insults from people at the rally.
“In my city… you don’t threaten anybody," Birdsong said. "And that’s exactly why we’re here. So, for the few of you that are here that are actually humans, I agree with you. But when we got here, you’re the only one to talk to us like (humans).”
One of the rally organizers, Ryan Kelley, later grew frustrated at the interruption from counter-protesters. From the podium, Kelley told the counter-protesters to be respectful.
Birdsong, a Black man, told Kelley his group would stay quiet if they weren’t insulted and interrogated by the crowd.
“Leave us alone,” Birdsong said. “We won’t respond.”
“Then, don’t talk,” Kelley said. “Then, don’t talk.”
“Stop talking to me,” Birdsong said. “You say something, I’m going to respond. I’m a man just like you.”
Visibly agitated, Kelley left the stage.
Later in the evening, Kelley and Birdsong had a conversation away from the main podium. Speaking face to face, Birdsong tried to explain his experiences seeing Black people treated unfairly by law enforcement and the criminal justice system.
Kelley said the two groups share common interests, and offered to meet with Birdsong on a Zoom call to “continue the conversation.” Their meeting on the edge of the crowd ended with a half-hug, half-handshake, despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“We are good American citizens that want peace,” Kelley said.
At the exact moment Birdsong and Kelley were making peace, Mike Detmer, a Republican candidate for Michigan’s 8th Congressional District, and a vocal advocate of Second Amendment rights, was speaking to the crowd at the podium.
“Let me just say this, I want to address this whole race nonsense,” Detmer said during his speech. “It is fake."
"If you are someone of faith you understand that all lives matter and was decided by Jesus Christ 2,000 years ago, but there are elements in our nation that are trying to distort and change our young people’s view of reality," Detmer told the crowd.
Detmer also encouraged people wearing face masks because of the coronavirus to remove their masks, urging them to “live in faith and not in fear.” Health officials urge the use of masks to slow the spread of the virus.
The chair of the Michigan Republican Party, Laura Cox, recently said that Black people are treated unfairly by law enforcement all too often.
Asked if he agrees with the statement by Cox, Detmer said, “The biggest problem we have with racism in this country is race and class warfare instigated and promoted by the left. However, we do need to root out the bad apples in our police departments.”