A terror plot and the need for journalists
Sometimes, you come across small details that are unimportant to the crux of a story, but, when added to the greater kaleidoscope of history, help us see the world around us a little more clearly.
Many such small details were uncovered last week, after the FBI and Michigan State Police announced they’d foiled an alleged plot by right-wing extremists to kidnap and “try” Gov. Gretchen Whitmer over her supposed crimes related to her response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Not only were Michigan journalists running around like bats on amphetamine trying to piece together the details of one of the weirdest plots in Michigan history, but they scoured their archives and their notebooks to piece together all the small truths that make this story so important to this moment in history.
First came the tweet from Kalamazoo Gazette reporter Samuel J. Robinson, recalling that he had recently interviewed one of the suspects, William Null, at a protest over a controversial Civil War statue in Allendale Township. Null was part of the counterprotest and blamed violence on the left.
“We’re peaceful. We’ve never harmed anyone. Groups like that have,” Null told Robinson, referring to those protesting the Confederate statue. “You give them the choice to be violent, they’ll burn a city down.”
(See the video here: https://youtu.be/JpUDV8LV7Ks).
Darcie Moran, of the Detroit Free Press, reported on an April photo taken by a state senator from the floor of the Senate chamber in Lansing. The photo shows two of the accused men up in the gallery, armed, looking down on the senators during a massive protest against Whitmer’s coronavirus-related executive orders (read the full story here: https://tinyurl.com/y6rzrj52).
Michigan Advance reporter Andrew Roth monitored the comment thread beneath the Facebook Live feed of Whitmer’s press conference on the arrests. Numerous commenters shrugged off or even supported the alleged kidnapping plot.
“Since Whitmer seems to want to pretend to be royalty and treat us all like peasants,” posted one, William Dwyer, “I’d say it’s time to bring back the guillotine.”
(See Roth’s complete tweet thread here: https://tinyurl.com/y5tbo36q).
The Free Press reminded readers of a New Yorker story about a May rally in Grand Rapids at which state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey shared the stage with at least one of the accused conspirators and told the armed men gathered in Grand Rapids, “We need you now more than ever.” (Shirkey and other politicians who spoke at the rally were unaware of what the men were allegedly planning).
(See the Freep’s story here: https://tinyurl.com/y66pyaqu and the New Yorker piece here: https://tinyurl.com/yy2tkrlc).
Aaron Parseghian, a reporter for Fox17 in Grand Rapids, interviewed Barry County Sheriff Dar Leaf, who also spoke at that Grand Rapids rally. In the interview, Leaf questioned whether the men were trying to “kidnap” Whitmer or merely “arrest” her.
“A lot of people are angry with the governor, and they want her arrested,” Leaf told the TV station. “So are they trying to arrest or was it a kidnap attempt?”
(See that interview here: https://tinyurl.com/y246gu4a).
The Free Press reminded readers that Whitmer is not the first Michigan governor whose life was threatened, recalling the time in 1950 that Gov. “Soapy” Williams was briefly abducted while visiting an Upper Peninsula prison (see the story here: https://tinyurl.com/y63uj6nh).
Finally, I was able to dig into my own archives and remind readers of two stories I had written for the Lansing State Journal — in 2015 (https://tinyurl.com/y69chp9q) and 2017 (https://tinyurl.com/yxdktlsp) — that showed threats against public officials at the Capitol are relatively common. Few of those threats ever lead to arrests, my reporting showed (what makes the current case different is that the men allegedly acted upon their ideas, going so far as to surveil Whitmer’s northern Michigan vacation home).
I wrote last week that folks ought to support journalists as the first chroniclers of history, and this week was as good an illustration of that as any. What if Robinson hadn’t been there in Kalamazoo to interview Null? What if the New Yorker hadn’t had a reporter at that Grand Rapids rally? What if a reporter hadn’t been around back in ’50 to ask Williams about being held at knifepoint?
How much more do we know now because Roth was screen-grabbing those Facebook Live comments? Because Parseghian was there to interview Leaf?
Taken individually, each of those stories are shocking but ultimately have little consequence on the alleged plot to kidnap Whitmer. Woven into the fabric of the bigger picture, however, each of those things help us understand that the alleged plot is part of a bigger resentment against the government brought on by the historic anxiety of the coronavirus pandemic and egged on by government leaders at all levels.
We can see that, perhaps, the alleged plot is not just something to be shrugged off as another bummer in this bummer of a world, but part of something bigger, more entrenched, to which we ought to pay attention.
Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-358-5686 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect that reporter Samuel J. Robinson interviewed William Null at a protest in Allendale Township. The location of the protest was incorrect in an earlier version of this column.