‘Free MI’: Stay-home order protesters gather at Capitol

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**Correction: A video previously attached to this story included a preview of the April 15, 2020, stay-at-home protest, which at that point had not yet happened. A portion of the video mistakenly showed the Right to Work protest in 2012 without providing context. The clip was on the website the morning of April 15 before being replaced by video of the stay-at-home protest. News 8 apologizes for the error.

LANSING, Mich. (WOOD) — Thousands of protesters converged on Lansing Wednesday to show their opposition to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s extended stay-at-home order.

“Operation Gridlock” was scheduled to begin at noon, but many protesters were in Lansing hours before the scheduled start, clogging traffic and honking horns around the Michigan Capitol Building. One protester told News 8 they arrived at 9 a.m. to take part in the event.

At the protest’s peak, vehicles were parked the streets three cars deep for mile. Traffic was at a standstill. Many of the cars bore signs, including one that read “SHUT DOWN HALF WHITMER.”

Though things had quieted down a little after about 4:30 p.m., particularly in terms of people standing on the Capitol lawn, traffic was still backed up and honking could still be heard.

”She (the governor) can’t keep doing this. She has overstepped her bounds,” one protester told News 8. “The American people and Michigan people aren’t going to put up with this no more.”

Opponents to the stay-at-home order, which was extended last week through April 30, say some of Whitmer’s mandates are excessive and inconsistent.

“There should not be a stay-at-home order,” Grand Rapids resident Bryson Lawrence, who was among the protesters, said.

Owners of small businesses are fed up because they can’t work. Some said they can stay safe without staying home.

“Please release us. None of us work side-by-side. We don’t hold hands as landscapers,” one business owner from Dowagiac said.

Auto shop owner Tony Schepis said the shutdowns have cut his business by 80%.

“I want to be able to go back to work. The governor’s overstepping her bounds,” he said. “Whether it’s fixing cars or a beauty salon or whatever, you’re putting your heart and souls into that.

“I don’t want no money from the president. I don’t want no money from her. I want to go back to work. That’s what I want,” he continued.

Others were upset by what has been deemed essential and what has been banned.

“Dairy Queen is open but I can’t buy paint. It isn’t making much sense,” said Ruth Griffin, who is retired.

A West Michigan man who was in traffic on Allegan Street on the south side of the Capitol hauled his boat to the protest.

“I just don’t see why I can’t take my kids out fishing. I don’t see why that’s not essential. We are old enough to wash our hands, be safe about it and use some common sense — that’s all it takes,” he told News 8. “How am I going to spread the virus taking the boat out of my garage, taking it a mile down the road, putting it into Lincoln Lake and fishing five hours with my kids?”

Operation Gridlock protesters had been told to stay in their cars and that only people from the same household should share a car. However, many people were outside of their vehicles and some gathered on the steps of the Capitol Building, unbothered by cold weather. Some wore masks, but many did not.

One large sign across the lawn read “Security without liberty is called prison.” Individuals had signs that read “FREE MI” and “RECALL WHITMER,” among other things.

“I came out here to support the Michigan businesses and stand up for the rights of Michiganders. We believe the governor has overreached and overstepped her rights with our freedoms,” Joseph Dickson, who was protesting near the steps of the Capitol, said.

“I didn’t move back to Michigan to come home to tyranny,” Kristen Meghan said.

According to data released by the state Wednesday afternoon, Michigan has recorded 28,059 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 1,921 people have died after contracting it. But some said they thought the threat was being overblown.

A business owner from Hudsonville said, “I think a lot of it is hype. Just wash your hands and stay safe.”

Others said even if it’s not, it’s up to people to make their own decisions.

“Weigh the risk and decide for yourself. That’s what freedom is,” protesters John Baxter of Fruitport said. “Open Michigan. Get people back to work. Stop the tyranny.”

Protesters said they hope that the governor hears them and reacts. If not, they said they will continue to assemble.

In the afternoon, there was a fight near the Capitol and Michigan State Police took one person away in handcuffs. Other than that, there was little police action.

>>Photos: Operation Gridlock protest in Lansing

LAWMAKERS JOIN PROTEST

News 8 spoke to Michigan Republican Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield of Levering, who was in Lansing, about his views of Wednesday’s protest.

“I think we can be responsible and reasonable at the exact same time. We have to ensure that people’s constitutional liberties are protected and that is what we are seeing today. People are coming to the state Capitol to ensure their voices are heard and there is nothing more American than that,” Chatfield told News 8. “Unfortunately, we’ve had people across our state that had their livelihoods taken away and have been told that they can’t work, We have to ensure that we’re listening them and reenact common sense changes to our battle and COVID-19.”

State Rep. Michele Hoitenga, a Republican from Manton in northern Michigan, was on Capitol Avenue to show her support as protesters blocked traffic and honked horns.

State Rep. Michele Hoitenga, R-Manton, speaking to News 8 in Lansing Wednesday, April 15, 2020.

“I’m just here to support my people. I have a lot of constituents down here right now,” Hoitenga told News 8. “They want go back to work. If they can’t access the website to get (unemployment) benefits, then they want to go back to work. Nobody is suggesting we just go back to work willy nilly, we are recommending we adopt the federal guidelines and do it safely.”

WHITMER RESPONDS

At a Wednesday afternoon press conference, Whitmer acknowledged the protesters’ opinions and respected them, and understood their frustrations.

“I know that people are angry, and that’s OK, and if you want to take it out and send it my way, if it makes you feel better, that’s fine,” Whitmer said.

However, she said the gathering was “dangerous” and “put people at risk.” She noted people standing too close together and not wearing masks, handing out food to children without gloves and stopping at gas stations to fuel up, saying all those actions could have exposed protesters or others to the virus.

“We know that this rally endangered people,” she said.

She asked people to continue to stay home whenever possible, wash their hands frequently, and wear a mask and stand 6 feet apart when they must go out.

“We’re all in this together. I’m the governor for all 10 million people in this state whether you support all of the policies that I’ve championed or not. And we’ve got to all do our part for the sake of one another and for the sake of our economy,” she said. “…It’s not easy, but we will get through this together.”

She acknowledged the economic hardships her orders have caused, but said they had to be done to prevent a serious spike in cases and to prevent a second wave in coming months.

Saying all of her decisions have been about public health, she indicated she will not be reconsidering her orders. She did not yet have answers about when everything would be back to normal, but said she would keep everyone updated as things develop.

—News 8’s Leon Hendrix contributed to this report.

A previous version of this story included an incorrect amount of confirmed COVID-19 cases. The text has since been corrected.

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