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Policing protests: What goes into keeping people safe during events

Policing protests: What goes into keeping people safe during events. (SBG/Mikenzie Frost)

The Michigan State Capitol has played host to dozens of protests in 2020 ranging from people upset about Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s COVID-19 stay-at-home orders to a racial reckoning, pushing for police reform and racial equity.

Some events seemingly were treated without equity, however, after tear gas and other chemical agents were deployed one night in the streets in Lansing after a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest unraveled, escalated and turned destructive.

The Lansing Police Department made at least 13 arrests on the night of May 31. The statement released by the department cited destructive behavior by people as the driving force behind using tear gas.

Consistent with usual and customary police practice, LPD dispersed chemical agents in attempts to dissuade ongoing, intensifying and dangerous criminal activity, to protect public and private property from felonious assaults, looting, arson and most importantly to protect the lives of innocent citizens." — Lansing Police Department, statement from June 1, 2020.

Optically, it painted a stark difference compared to the protests that took place on the Capitol lawn months prior: people gridlocking the streets of surrounding the Capitol in April for Operation Gridlock; another protest that brought hundreds of people with assault-style rifles — legal under state law; and Operation Haircut with scofflaw stylists that illegally offered trimmings on the steps of the Capitol while salons and barbershops remained shuttered under the stay-at-home order.

No arrests were made. Seven stylists were ticketed during Operation Haircut for operating outside of their licensed jurisdiction.

Michigan State Police First Lt. Darren Green said Michigan State Police oversee the protection of the Capitol Complex grounds and want to ensure any group demonstrating and exercising their First Amendment right can do it safely.

“The goal is to allow everybody to come to the Capitol building to exercise their First Amendment or Second Amendment rights,” Green said.

On April 30, 2020, protesters spilled into the Capitol, sending shock waves through the House of Representatives Chamber during session as a group stood outside, in front of Michigan State Police troopers, demanding to be let inside.

On the other side of the doors, lawmakers were waiting to vote on extending Whitmer’s emergency declaration; they ultimately did not, though the governor extended it anyway, sparking another legal debate.

Nevertheless, the difference in approaches to handling large groups of people sparked some concern for Whitmer, who called for some clarity in policies.

“Whomever you are, you should be treated the same by any policing agency,” Whitmer said. “We really should have a standardized set of expectations, training and transparency.”

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