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Protesters at the Michigan Capitol can't just play politics with a pandemic or we'll all lose

The cacophony this week was just the most public expression of a movement driven by well-organized right wing groups and egged on by the president.
Image: Lansing Michigan protest
Protestors try to enter the Michigan House of Representative chamber and are being kept out by the Michigan State Police after the American Patriot Rally organized by Michigan United for Liberty protest for the reopening of businesses on the steps of the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, Mich., on April 30, 2020.Jeff Kowalsky / AFP - Getty Images

You may have seen photos and videos of heavily armed men with large rifles at our state Capitol in Lansing, Michigan, on Thursday, some screaming in the faces of state police officers wearing simple cloth surgical masks, and wonder what in the world is happening in Michigan. I don’t blame you.

Certainly, you would if you had seen the photo of a noose hung on the back of a truck, or a sign referring to our governor, Gretchen Whitmer, as a tyrant with the text “Tyrants Get the Rope,” or if you had seen images of protestors with a swastika, Confederate flags or a massive Trump “bridge” float.

And if you have seen a photo, tweeted out by Michigan state Sen. Dayna Polehanki, of four men carrying rifles standing in the gallery above the Senate chambers, you’d be right to wonder what this country is coming to.

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I sit right next to Polehanki on the Senate floor; I saw it, too. And, after the events of this week, I’m angry, exhausted and deeply sad for our state and our country as we face unprecedented public health and economic crises simultaneously.

On March 10, the first two positive cases of coronavirus in Michigan were detected. One was in Oakland County, where I live and serve nearly 280,000 people in Michigan’s 13th Senate District. Even then, it didn’t feel real. Seven days later, Michigan had its first COVID-19 death, a man in his 50s.

Within 11 days, state Rep. Isaac Robinson, my colleague from Detroit, died from the virus. He was 44.

By the end of March, Michigan — despite being only the 10th largest state — had the third-highest fatality rate in the nation, behind only New York and New Jersey. At the time, it felt like our residents, our legislature and our governor had put politics aside and that we were all united around the need to do what was necessary to defeat this pandemic together.

In early April, however, President Donald Trump vaulted Michigan to the epicenter of a political battle over the pandemic, referring to Whitmer as “that woman in Michigan” and telling reporters he’d advised Vice President Mike Pence not to return the calls of governors who weren’t “appreciative.”

State-level attacks quickly followed, as my colleagues in the Republican-majority state Legislature began to mimic Trump’s rhetoric against the governor. Calls to my office — a district nearly evenly split between Democrats and Republicans — similarly grew increasingly vile and abusive. My hardworking staff, who spent the past two months trying to make sure people in our district could access unemployment, find food banks, get connected with small-business resources and receive accurate information were now spending their day being verbally abused by callers referring to them as “b-----,” “c---,” “Nazi” and (though it’s hard to imagine) worse.

Many of those calls and the majority of our emails were not our constituents; right-wing groups had simply organized to flood legislative offices around the state and they were drowning out the people from my district who desperately needed real help from elected officials.

And there are many people who do really need our help. Michigan was hit disproportionately hard by this virus, especially here in the Metro Detroit area. On Thursday, under the watchful eye of those protesters carrying rifles during a tense nine-hour Session, Sen. Marshall Bullock shared that he’s personally lost 27 people — family and friends — in an emotional, moving speech.

But, now, as we finally start to take some control of the rate of new cases in our area, we’ve seen the virus spread farther across our state than ever before. Four rural counties, with much smaller hospital systems, now report 100 percent ICU capacity and have warned that any increase in coronavirus cases would be devastating to their systems.

And it’s true that people are also hurting financially: Michigan’s unemployment claims have surpassed 1.26 million, which is more than 10 percent of our total population, in only six weeks. Many small-business owners saw big companies like Ruth’s Chris, Shake Shake, Potbelly’s and the L.A. Lakers receive millions of dollars from the federal small business Paycheck Protection Program while their own requests were denied.

People are scared, frustrated, angry and tired. Many people are suddenly at home trying to work, feed their kids and be teachers all at once — with no idea when their kids will go back to school. Small-business owners who have spent lifetimes building their businesses have seen them all but evaporate overnight. Others just want to be able to go Up North — from Metro Detroit to stunning Northern Michigan — to spend time on the lakes as the weather warms up like they normally would do.

Still, polling shows that an overwhelming majority of Michiganders trust the governor’s direction and support her stay home orders, and more than half are willing to follow it for “as long as it takes.” They understand that none of what we want for ourselves or for our state can happen if millions more of us get sick.

But then, there I was sitting at my desk on Thursday while protesters with rifles sat up in the gallery above us, yelling and trying to intimidate us as our sergeants-at-arms watched to ensure fingers weren’t on triggers, and as Michigan’s speaker of the House said “ ... there’s nothing more American … ” and as the president of the United States tweeted, “these are very good people” — with no acknowledgment or condemnation by either of the swastikas, Confederate flags, noose, misogyny or threats of violence.

Everyone has a right to express themselves and let their voices be heard, and I will defend that right to my dying day. But this was different. It was dark, it was threatening and it was hate-filled. The more we allow such extreme, hate-driven views to speak with the loudest voice, the further away we move from fighting through this thing together.

To be clear, this was a few hundred people out of 10 million Michiganders. They don’t represent even close to all of us — they just want you, state Republican leaders and the president to believe that they do.

What we desperately need now in my state is to unite around supporting our front-line workers, protecting families and fighting this virus together for the long haul. Instead, political leaders from the president of the United States to state Republican leaders fan the flames of fear to give voice to hatred, intimidation and threats of violence — and to gear up for November, instead of fighting this virus now.