SUNDAY, JANUARY 17, 2021, LANSING, MICHIGAN — Six hundred miles from the nation’s capital, where 25,000 National Guard troops are on high alert, guarding against violence at Joseph Biden’s inauguration, the highway from Detroit to Lansing slices through a light, wet snow. Billboards looming over Interstate 96 display an FBI hotline — “Seeking Information: U.S. CAPITOL VIOLENCE.”
The snow forms a gray slush on the streets of Lansing in front of the state’s landmark Capitol building, made of sandstone and steel. A demonstration planned for noon begins to gather. The building has been ringed with a six-foot, wire-mesh fence. Businesses are boarded up. Bomb-sniffing dogs work a perimeter while National Guard Humvees move to block off all entrance routes. Approximately four dozen state police officers march in pairs, encircling the building. A state police helicopter hovers overhead.
A few days before, my colleague Seth Herald, a Detroit-based freelance photographer, received a text from a member of the Michigan faction of the Boogaloo Bois: “It’s gunna be bad man. We are going out but if I was press I would stay away.”
But on the ground, there’s an unsettling quiet to the thinly attended rally. An estimated 100 protesters are outnumbered roughly three to one by police and National Guard, as well as members of the national and international media. For those paying attention to the rise of violent extremism in Michigan, what is most notable this Sunday is not who is there, but who is not.
Where are the Proud Boys? Where are the storied local militias? Where are the known faces of leaders of both of those groups, who marshaled hundreds of Trump loyalists back in April to come to Lansing and occupy the Capitol building, dozens of them leering down on lawmakers from the gallery while shouldering long guns? Where are the unmasked and unhinged foot soldiers of this movement, shouting into the faces of police, venting their rage at what they perceived as excessive lockdown orders?
Back then, Trump had urged them all on with a rallying cry on Twitter: “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” They took it seriously, and soon after the April occupation a local militia known as the Wolverine Watchmen allegedly plotted to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Now, 13 men face federal and state charges in Michigan for the thwarted plot.
Since the attack on the Capitol on January 6, and the ensuing arrests and unprecedented crackdown on the extremist social media sphere, the forces behind organizing these demonstrations have been thrown off course. Experts on far-right extremism say that the broad movement, emboldened and energized by Trump and fueled by conspiracy theories that ricochet around the internet, is going underground.
“There is a deep paranoia coursing through online communities containing extremists,” says Jared Holt, a research fellow studying disinformation and extremism for the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. “They are kind of in a holding pattern right now, trying to figure out how to recover from such a disastrous move and figure out their next steps forward.”
On Sunday, the ragged camps that make up the broad-ranging anti-government movement trudge quietly through the slush around the state Capitol building. The only defined group is the Boogaloo Bois. They have come together with an eclectic mix of Trump supporters and deniers of the legitimacy of the election. But the stance of the Boogaloo Bois is notably more nihilistic: “We do believe that this election was fraudulent. But we believe the last election was fraudulent and the one before that, too,” said Timothy Teagan, a 22-year-old with long stringy hair and an AR-15 slung over his shoulder.
An FBI memo released late in December claimed that a member of the Boogaloo Bois, an outfit with a penchant for Aloha floral garb and accelerationist fantasies of ushering in a civil war, had planned on “using a gasoline-based device with a tripwire in Lansing, Michigan, to cause a distraction while other individuals ‘take’ the capitol”—carrying on the momentum of the riot that erupted in Washington, D.C., less than two weeks prior.
In Lansing, security forces were prepped to thwart an anticipated replay of insurrection. On Sunday, the Boogaloo Bois came with all of their intimidating street theater and open-carry weapons (in a state that allows them to do so). Some shouldered vintage World War II bolt action rifles, others carried modern assault-style weapons and wore tactical vests crammed with extra magazines. But the only shots came from a Nerf gun, fired by a counter-protestor, Wayne Koper, a northern Michigan resident in a Harley Davidson jacket and a clownish attitude, who said he was there to mock the posturing militias in his state.
I spoke to a Boogaloo Boi, who said his name was Duncan Lemp, when one of those styrofoam rubber-tipped bullets bounced off his knee and landed at his feet. Lemp is a fake name. The real Duncan Lemp, a martyr of the boogaloo movement, was shot and killed in March 2020 by a Montgomery County, Maryland, police SWAT team carrying out a no-knock raid seeking illegal firearms.
This ‘’Duncan Lemp’’ rested one hand on his AR-15, drawing on a cigarette through his American-flag neck gaiter with the other. He seemed eager to talk, and his narrative sounded well-rehearsed.
“This is about unity, it’s about coming together, left or right, and defending our constitutional rights as written,” he said quickly, when asked about their purpose at the demonstration.
But beneath the veneer of far-right jargon was the reality of one of the most sprawling federal manhunts in American history. So-called Lemp said he was taking out the trash at his job in northern Michigan, where he is a cook, when he was approached by two FBI agents in plainclothes. He said they asked him if he planned on being violent at Sunday’s protest.
“Do we look violent to you?” he asked me, still gripping his military-grade assault rifle.
He adds, matter-of-factly, that he is being unjustly targeted by the federal crackdown on far-right extremism that began after the storming of the Capitol Building, where five people died. The FBI is reportedly searching for some 200 suspects in that armed insurrection. In Michigan, six people have already been arrested for taking part.
Even at this small demonstration, four people said they had entered the Capitol Building on January 6.
One of those was Brian Cash. He became the symbol of Michigan’s anti-government crusaders when in April he was photographed screaming — and unmasked — into the faces of two police officers guarding the Michigan House of Representatives.
Cash represents those who started out with state-level agitation last year and carried that movement to the nation’s capital on January 6. He said he has considered traveling to D.C. to protest Biden’s inauguration and what he still believes was a fraudulently certified election. His hope is that members of Congress will be “arrested for treason.”
But for now, he said, he doesn’t have a plan, and is keeping an eye on the massive buildup of National Guard troops and reports of checkpoints and roadblocks into Washington, D.C.
“It’s all locked down, there’s no way in,” he said. “It would be a suicide mission.” ❖