Gun provocation reveals tensions in Michigan tourist haven

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — Some 90 minutes right into a routine assembly of the Grand Traverse County board, its agenda full of mundane subjects reminiscent of 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 residence 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 through 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 in 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 in this woodsy, idyllic area that could not 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 comparable to those 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 in opposition to all the pieces 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 standard and accessible, long-simmering conflicts boil over.

Income inequality is stark in the world, 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 massive cities — and youthful ones who can work remotely by way of wi-fi web — deliver 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 street 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 underneath stress.

“I received calls about that from the East Coast to the West Coast,” Chet Janik, the county administrator, mentioned in an interview. “We had minority individuals asking if it was secure for them to return up right 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 signify his rural county. But he acknowledged the speedy tempo of change had unsettled some.

“It’s simply that they need issues to be the way in which they used to,” he mentioned.

But native residents of shade say discrimination — typically refined, generally blatant — is commonplace in the area, which is nicely over 90% white.

Members of Northern Michigan E3, an anti-racism group, described uncomfortable encounters with legislation enforcement, bullying in faculties, suspicious gazes in shops. A Native American pupil lately was the goal of racist language and violent movies, mentioned Holly T. Bird, an activist and lawyer. A physician 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 individual.”

“We agree this can be a great place crammed with great individuals however it has a racism drawback,” mentioned Bird, who’s Native American.

Tyasha Harrison, a Black lady who moved to close by Benzie County eight years in the past, mentioned such experiences had made household and mates from elsewhere reluctant to go to.

“Some Black those who know what is going on on in Michigan do not feel welcome, and for some cause we maintain making nationwide information for performing some loopy, off-the-wall, racist stuff,” she mentioned in an interview.

Her group shaped after a Black Lives Matter rally alongside the Traverse City waterfront final summer time. A handful of armed counter-demonstrators in camouflage garb confirmed up, however saved their distance.

Their presence got here throughout a 12 months of resurgent paramilitary exercise in the state, with protesters offended over Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s pandemic insurance policies carrying firearms into the Capitol in Lansing. Last fall, six males had been charged in an alleged plot to kidnap the Democratic governor. Eight others had been accused of planning terrorist acts, together with storming the statehouse.

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

More lately, dozens of Michigan counties have declared themselves “Second Amendment sanctuaries,” pledging to withstand gun management. Grand Traverse County’s board of commissioners did so final March.

The Jan. 20 incident involving Clous and his rifle vividly illustrated the area’s cultural and political schism. He and Hentschel, the chairman, rejected calls for his or her resignation, and the fee deadlocked on whether or not to censure them.

Clous did not returns calls and emails from The Associated Press. He informed the Traverse City Record-Eagle he wished to show help for gun rights and described the Proud Boys as “respectable guys.”

Hentschel mentioned through the assembly he knew some members of the all-male group, which says it defends “western chauvinism.”

“I’ve met multi-racial, Puerto Rican Proud Boys, they usually knowledgeable me additionally they have homosexual proud boys,” he mentioned. “I do not see how that is a hate group.”

MacIntosh, who was talking when Clous retrieved the firearm, mentioned she was shaken by the gesture.

“I did not suppose he was going to shoot me, however I do suppose his entire level was to intimidate me,” she mentioned.

The act prompted hours of phoned-in feedback throughout subsequent conferences.

David Barr, a businessman, mentioned in an interview that Clous ought to apologize however the matter had been “blown out of proportion.”

“People really feel if any individual makes a mistake any extra on an elected physique that you’ll want to manufacture outrage and scream and holler and keep on prefer it’s the tip of the world,” he mentioned.

Six years in the past, lawyer Michael Naughton joined the wave of younger professionals transferring from a giant metropolis — Detroit, in his case — to Traverse City, the place he had vacationed as a toddler.

Now 42, married and the daddy of two daughters, he wrote a letter searching for Clous’ resignation and shared it with others. Eventually greater than 1,500 — together with the mayor and metropolis commissioners — signed on.

Naughton mentioned he understood the distrust of presidency shared by many in Michigan. But to shrug off the commissioner’s act would ship a message that such conduct is suitable, he mentioned.

“The image of Mr. Clous with the gun isn’t what ought to outline us,” Naughton mentioned.

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