Gun provocation reveals tensions in Michigan vacationer haven

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TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — Some 90 minutes right into a routine assembly of the Grand Traverse County board, its agenda filled with mundane matters resembling roads and libraries, got here a stunning seven seconds that drew the type of nationwide consideration no native authorities needs.

The Jan. 20 proceedings had been livestreamed, with members becoming a member of from home due to the pandemic. As traditional, residents phoned in to pontificate. Among them was Keli MacIntosh, who complained about remarks to the board final spring by members of the Proud Boys on designating the county 4 hours northwest of Detroit as a “Second Amendment sanctuary.”

As MacIntosh urged the chairman to disavow the far-right group that was a number one agitator throughout the Jan. 6 riot on the U.S. Capitol, commissioner Ron Clous — seated in a room with deer heads mounted on a wall — briefly disappeared from view and returned holding a rifle. He brandished it for the webcam, then set it apart.

The chairman, Rob Hentschel, laughed onscreen. But many on this Lake Michigan bayside group, which prizes tourism and a pleasant picture, weren’t amused. To them, the provocative gesture that made nationwide headlines was one other signal of a deeper drawback on this woodsy, idyllic area that couldn’t be brushed apart.

Michigan’s northwestern Lower Peninsula is greater than a resort group with sandy seashores, cherry orchards and humanities festivals the place vacationers come to play. Beneath the cheery exterior lurk racial and cultural divides eerily related to people who have ignited protests and violence elsewhere.

“In this age, no place is an island,” mentioned Warren Call, president of a enterprise group in Traverse City, the county seat. The incident “goes against everything we stand for.”

This postcard-pretty patchwork of small cities, forests and fields is much faraway from the robust streets of city America and the South’s racial tinderboxes. But as northern Michigan turns into extra common and accessible, long-simmering conflicts boil over.

Income inequality is stark within the space, infamous for skimpy wages. Producers of the fruit for which Traverse City payments itself “cherry capital of the world” are struggling to outlive. Meanwhile, expensive condominium developments spring as much as accommodate an inflow of rich retirees and summer time residents whose yachts pack lakefront marinas, whereas 20-somethings who serve their meals in upscale eating places scramble for inexpensive housing.

Some aged newcomers from large cities — and youthful ones who can work remotely by way of wi-fi web — carry progressive concepts that conflict with Northern Michigan’s entrenched conservatism. The space stays solidly Republican, though Democrats have captured two county fee seats representing Traverse City, which has a homosexual mayor.

Leelanau County, adjoining to Grand Traverse and dotted with wineries and a nationwide lakeshore, was embarrassed final August when highway commissioner Tom Eckerle used the n-word throughout a gathering whereas blaming Blacks in Detroit for spreading the coronavirus. The 75-year-old farmer resigned beneath strain.

“I got calls about that from the East Coast to the West Coast,” Chet Janik, the county administrator, mentioned in an interview. “We had minority people asking if it was safe for them to come up here.”

Janik, 63, who immigrated to the world from Poland as a toddler and endured taunts about his heritage, mentioned Eckerle’s racial slurs do not symbolize his rural county. But he acknowledged the speedy tempo of change had unsettled some.

“It’s just that they want things to be the way they used to,” he mentioned.

But native residents of colour say discrimination — typically refined, generally blatant — is commonplace within the area, which is effectively over 90% white.

Members of Northern Michigan E3, an anti-racism group, described uncomfortable encounters with regulation enforcement, bullying in faculties, suspicious gazes in shops. A Native American pupil just lately was the goal of racist language and violent movies, mentioned Holly T. Bird, an activist and legal professional. A health care provider of Iranian descent wrote in an area newspaper {that a} sheriff’s deputy had knocked on his door after somebody apparently noticed him in his yard and reported a “suspicious person.”

“We agree it is a fantastic place full of fantastic folks but it surely has a racism drawback,” said Bird, who is Native American.

Tyasha Harrison, a Black woman who moved to nearby Benzie County eight years ago, said such experiences had made family and friends from elsewhere reluctant to visit.

“Some Black people that know what’s going on in Michigan don’t feel welcome, and for some reason we keep making national news for doing some crazy, off-the-wall, racist stuff,” she said in an interview.

Her organization formed after a Black Lives Matter rally along the Traverse City waterfront last summer. A handful of armed counter-demonstrators in camouflage garb showed up, but kept their distance.

Their presence came during a year of resurgent paramilitary activity in the state, with protesters angry over Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s pandemic policies carrying firearms into the Capitol in Lansing. Last fall, six men were charged in an alleged plot to kidnap the Democratic governor. Eight others were accused of planning terrorist acts, including storming the statehouse.

Northern Michigan was a hub of the self-styled “militia” movement a generation ago. Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, convicted in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people, reportedly met with activists in the state.

More recently, dozens of Michigan counties have declared themselves “Second Amendment sanctuaries,” pledging to resist gun control. Grand Traverse County’s board of commissioners did so last March.

The Jan. 20 incident involving Clous and his rifle vividly illustrated the region’s cultural and political schism. He and Hentschel, the chairman, rejected calls for their resignation, and the commission deadlocked on whether to censure them.

Clous didn’t returns calls and emails from The Associated Press. He told the Traverse City Record-Eagle he wanted to show support for gun rights and described the Proud Boys as “decent guys.”

Hentschel said during the meeting he knew some members of the all-male organization, which says it defends “western chauvinism.”

“I’ve met multi-racial, Puerto Rican Proud Boys, and they informed me they also have gay proud boys,” he said. “I don’t see how that’s a hate group.”

MacIntosh, who was speaking when Clous retrieved the firearm, said she was shaken by the gesture.

“I didn’t think he was going to shoot me, but I do think his whole point was to intimidate me,” she said.

The act prompted hours of phoned-in comments during subsequent meetings.

David Barr, a businessman, said in an interview that Clous should apologize but the matter had been “blown out of proportion.”

“People feel if somebody makes a mistake any more on an elected body that you need to manufacture outrage and scream and holler and carry on like it’s the end of the world,” he said.

Six years ago, lawyer Michael Naughton joined the wave of young professionals moving from a big city — Detroit, in his case — to Traverse City, where he had vacationed as a child.

Now 42, married and the father of two daughters, he wrote a letter seeking Clous’ resignation and shared it with others. Eventually more than 1,500 — including the mayor and city commissioners — signed on.

Naughton said he understood the mistrust of government shared by many in Michigan. But to shrug off the commissioner’s act would send a message that such behavior is acceptable, he said.

“The picture of Mr. Clous with the gun is not what should define us,” Naughton said.

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