For the past decade, gun owners dressed in flak jackets and camouflage fatigues have brought their rifles into the Michigan Legislature at least twice every year, asserting their vehement support for gun rights by displaying weapons in the hallways.
This spring, those gatherings intensified as participants turned what had been a declaration about the Second Amendment into a protest over how far the government could go in limiting individual behavior amid the pandemic. Hundreds turned out to demand an end to lockdowns, social distancing and mask wearing.
Among the demonstrators who stormed into the Capitol to protest those measures were two brothers who have now been charged as part of an extremist plot to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and to commit other violence. The brothers subscribed to a larger anti-government movement that has evolved in Michigan and throughout the United States over decades, but was spurred on this year by the pandemic, social justice protests and the presidential election.
With its fervent gun culture and its gaping differences between urban and rural populations, Michigan has seen its divisions grow ever wider since at least the 1990s, when armed groups on the right adopted increasingly extreme positions on limiting the government’s power.
The brothers are among 13 men who face a variety of charges related to the kidnapping plot, including terrorism, conspiracy and weapons possession. The authorities said the men were also affiliated with an extremist group called the Wolverine Watchmen, which court documents called “an anti-government, anti-law enforcement militia group.” Such groups have existed in Michigan for decades, most notably in 1994 with the formation of the Michigan Militia.
“There have been militia-type groups in Michigan even before we started using the phrase domestic terrorism,” said Bill Ballenger, a former Republican state senator who represented a rural area. “Before it never got to armed insurrection or an attempt to overthrow the government or assassinate people or anything like that.”
In a sense, experts said, the fight over measures like mask requirements to contain the spread of the virus was the latest example of what these groups see as government overreach. “It is really the perfect issue for far-right conspiracy theorists to rally around,” said Daniel Levitas, a lawyer and the author of “The Terrorist Next Door,” a history of extremist groups.
In the early 1990s, armed groups in Michigan, and around the country, were formed in reaction to bloody federal sieges against Randy Weaver and his family in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992 and against an armed cult in Waco, Texas, in 1993. The latter ended with the death of 76 people. The new far-right organizations accused the government of tyranny and began conducting paramilitary training and obtaining military equipment.
Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, later convicted of bombing a federal office building in Oklahoma City in April 1995, killing 168 people, attended some of the earliest meetings of the Michigan Militia. The gory details from the trial diminished the appeal of such groups, but they continued to exist.