GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A large crowd gathered at Rosa Parks Circle in downtown Grand Rapids Monday to protest Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home and other executive orders issued to help slow the spread of coronavirus.
“The way the governor has been ruling by dictate almost, that seems against the traditions of this country,” protester Antoine Theron said.
“I am very leery of people who say they’re taking my health in their control,” added protester Robin Laansma.
Some protesters carried American or “Don’t Tread on Me” flags. Protest signs read things like “New normal is not normal. Return our rights!” and “My constitutional rights are essential.” Some signs doubted the facts of the pandemic. Most attendees did not wear masks.
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Several out-of-state speakers were invited to what organizers dubbed the American Patriot Rally — Sheriffs Speak Out. The local headliner was Barry County Sheriff Dar Leaf.
Speaking to News 8 as the rally began, Leaf argued that the governor had overstepped her constitutional bounds in her orders telling people to stay home and shutting down many businesses. He said he would not enforce them, questioning their legality.
He acknowledged that the virus is a threat, but said it’s not going away and we must go back to work rather than “let the economy crash and still have the COVID come.”
“Did we take a dent in that curve that they were talking about with the COVID, well, we kind of stomped that down pretty good, didn’t we? And I don’t know if it was the stay-at-home, or the fact that we educated people on the masks, the hand sanitizers and all that,” Leaf said. “I think the people stepped up more than anything.”
News 8 did not see any other West Michigan sheriffs at the event. Kent County Sheriff Michelle LaJoye-Young told News 8 over the weekend that she would not be participating.
When it was his turn to address the crowd, Leaf praised law enforcement and first responders, plus militia members. He encouraged viewers to pray for government leaders, including the Whitmer. But he also called on her to reopen the state.
“We’re not stupid, governor,” Leaf said. “We know what to do. Can you hear us? Open us up, come on!”
Another in-state speaker, Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, led the protesters in singing “God Bless America.”
After other demonstrations in Lansing, he had used unflattering terminology to describe some armed protesters, but was more positive Monday about the armed militia group members in the crowd.
“When people are protesting to be seen and get attention and brandishing their weapons illegally, those are jackasses,” he said. “People who are protesting to hold the government accountable, they aren’t jackasses.”
Among the armed protesters at Monday’s rally were some from the Barry County-based Michigan Liberty Militia, whose members had previously attended similar rallies in Lansing.
“Just to make sure that everybody had a right to peacefully assemble and safely,” Phil Robinson, the leader of the group, explained their reasoning behind attending while armed.
Robinson said he understands why some may feel alarmed by seeing heavily armed strangers, but those urged people to come talk to him and learn about his group’s opinions before issuing judgment.
He also distinguished his group from other armed people who were wearing face coverings.
Grand Rapids police were at the protest to ensure safety and the Kent County Sheriff’s Department had mounted units on hand, but it was peaceful.
There were also a few people at the rally carrying signs in support of the governor and her orders.
“She’s actually saving people’s lives,” one of them, business owner Jerry Clay, said. “More people are worried about economics (than lives).”
There have been at least three similar rallies in Lansing with protesters calling on the governor to reopen the state. Another is scheduled for Wednesday. Monday’s protest marked the first in West Michigan.
—News 8’s Leon Hendrix contributed to this report.