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Armed militia members, other protesters demand 'freedom' from Michigan Gov. Whitmer's stay-home order

The anti-lockdown gathering at the state Capitol was smaller than previous ones, which drew widespread national attention.
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A protester carries a rifle during a rally against stay-at-home orders at the state Capitol in Lansing, Mich., on Thursday, May 14, 2020.Paul Sancya / AP

Dozens of demonstrators took to the Michigan Capitol in Lansing for a rain-soaked protest Thursday — the third such event in the past month — demanding their "freedom" from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's stay-at-home mandates.

Whitmer, who launched the reopening process in the state earlier this month, has started to relax her orders in recent weeks. Michigan was one of the states hardest hit by COVID-19, but its case counts have begun to subside recently.

Thursday's protest was smaller than previous ones, which drew widespread national attention. Gun-toting militia protesters spilled inside the Capitol late last month, confronted police and insisted on being allowed onto the House floor as lawmakers debated whether to extend Whitmer's emergency powers.

The Republican-led House and Senate were not in session Thursday, and the Capitol was closed to the public.

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More police were at the rally this time, and State Police said they stopped a fight. Police said that there were no injuries and that they made no arrests, although one man had an ax that was turned over to law enforcement.

Several militia members were present at the rally, where a large banner reading "FREEDOM" was spread at the entrance to the Capitol. Some demonstrators waved "Don't Tread on Me" flags and wore President Donald Trump's campaign gear. While some protesters wore masks, most did not distance themselves from others.

The rally was organized by the conservative group Michigan United for Liberty, which has sued Whitmer and organized or participated in past demonstrations. The Michigan nonprofit publication Bridge reported that several of the group's organizers are tied to the anti-vaccine and "medical freedom" movement.

Protesters hold signs during a rally against stay-at-home orders at the state Capitol in Lansing, Mich., on Thursday, May 14, 2020.Paul Sancya / AP

In an interview last week, Whitmer said that the protesters were not representative of her state and that the rallies have had a "definite political component."

Whitmer, a first-term Democrat in a key swing state, has seen her profile rise amid the pandemic. Joe Biden, the apparent Democratic presidential nominee, has named her as a potential running mate, while Trump — who has both derided and praised her — has encouraged the protests and called on Whitmer to "make a deal" with demonstrators.

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Whitmer said she feels "intense pressure to reopen, whether it's coming from the White House or the people of our state, and that's playing out all across the country."

"We are Americans," she said. "We are used to having our freedoms, and I think in this moment we've had to ask people to make sacrifice, and people are getting weary of it."

A Washington Post-Ipsos poll published this week found that 72 percent of Michigan adults approve of Whitmer's handling of the pandemic, compared to just 25 percent who disapprove.

Whitmer, like governors in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and other neighboring states, has seen her orders come under intense scrutiny by state and national Republican lawmakers. U.S. Rep. Paul Mitchell, R-Mich., and state GOP lawmakers have sued, but she told NBC News that she believes her mandates are "always on the right side of the Constitution."