White supremacy has long history in Michigan

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Capital News Service

LANSING — Michigan residents’ participation in the white nationalism movement has put the state on the national stage.

It was the first state to protest stay-at-home orders in April 2020. 

A planned kidnapping of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer by those with ties to militia groups was exposed by law enforcement agencies in October. 

Most recently, the state drew attention as people asked Grand Traverse commissioners to denounce the extremist group the Proud Boys.

Other recent events include the arrest of Michigan residents for their alleged roles in the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol and the guilty plea of Ty Garbin, an airline mechanic from Hartland, to federal charges stemming from his participation in the kidnap plot. 

Two weeks after the invasion of the Capitol, President Joe Biden used his inaugural speech to denounce white supremacy. Since then, he has signed mulltiple executive orders pertaining to civil rights issues such as racial equity, discrimination and immigration. 

Many politicians and experts have pointed to Donald Trump as a major influencer in the resurgence of white supremacy, but he’s not the only one, says Javed Ali, a counterterrorism expert at the University of Michigan and a former senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council.

“The events at the Capitol didn’t happen in a vacuum. There were a lot of factors that brought us to Jan. 6,” Ali said.

According to Ali, a number of factors contributed to this phenomenon. 

The first was COVID-19. The pandemic and the economic uncertainty that followed, combined with the government-mandated shutdowns and stay-at-home orders, scared and angered people, he said.

Trump’s impeachment and trial went on and, as the summer began, Black Lives Matter demonstrations spread across the country. As fall neared, the Trump administration stirred up distrust in the presidential election and the accuracy of its results. 

All of these moving parts furthered the social and political divide between Americans, said Ali.

2020 was also a year of misinformation. 

Conspiracies typically reserved for the dark web and QAnon were pulled into the mainstream media and amplified by the White House. Social media served as an echo chamber for these ideals and gave them more followers, he continued.

Each of these elements united behind Trump’s calls to “stop the steal” and manifested into protests at state buildings and the insurrection in Washington, Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), said in the organization’s call for Trump’s removal from office. 

“White supremacists and far-right extremists marauding through the hallowed halls of one of our nation’s most sacred institutions. This was incited by President Trump and organized on social media for all the world to see,” Greenblatt said.

Michigan has long had a reputation as a hospitable environment for racist groups.

Historian Craig Fox documented “The Realm of Michigan” as one of the leading states for Ku Klux Klan membership during its resurgence in the 1920s in his 2011 book, “Everyday Klansfolk: White Protestant Life and the KKK in 1920s Michigan” (Michigan State University Press).

“As it had done elsewhere, the Klan swept across Michigan like wildfire,” Fox wrote. More than 60 Michigan counties had at least one KKK unit in that period.

In 1995, Michigan-based domestic terrorists planned and carried out the bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City, an attack that killed 168 people.

Right-winged extremist groups in Michigan fell quiet from 2002-15, according to data from the ADL. 

But in 2016, incidents of right-wing propoganda, violence and anti-semitism  reemerged and have been rising dramatically since. 

Most of that activity has come from the white supremacist group Patriot Nation, according to ADL’s data.

Professor JoEllen Vinyard, an Eastern Michigan University historian and the author of “Right in Michigan’s Grassroots: From the KKK to the Michigan Militia,” said in a 2020  interview with WEDT Radio, “Each of these movements have been a reaction to the times. Michigan has been the center for all kinds of activity.” 

Those militias start and see themselves as a barrier between the people and an overreaching government, according to Vinyard. 

When they feel as though their rights are being threatened, they radicalize into violent extremist groups, she said. 

“With President Trump, there’s a sense that they’ve been freed to act.” Vinyard continued. 

Ali said some militias involved in the insurrection came together long before 2020 but were radicalized by the culmination of the year’s events.

Those that weren’t radicalized are safeguarded by the First Amendment until they openly incite violence against someone or something, he said. 

The struggle ahead, according to Ali, lies in the unique circumstances for the United States.  “We’re also dealing with Americans who can have these views. That activity is protected under the Constitution.”

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