Video of Michigan County gun meeting reveals tensions in tourist haven


TRAVERSE CITY, Michigan – About 90 minutes after a routine Grand Traverse County Board meeting began, with its agenda teeming with mundane topics such as roads and libraries, seven have passed. startling seconds that have garnered the kind of national attention that no local government wants.

The proceedings on January 20 were broadcast live, with members joining from their homes due to the pandemic. As usual, the citizens telephoned to ring the bell. Among them was Keli MacIntosh, who complained about remarks made to the board last spring by members of the Proud Boys about designating the county four hours northwest of Detroit as a “Second Amendment sanctuary.” .

As MacIntosh urged the president to disown the far-right group that was one of the main agitators in the January 6 riot on the U.S. Capitol, Commissioner Ron Clous – sitting in a room with deer heads mounted on a wall – briefly disappeared from view and returned holding a rifle. He held it up for the webcam, then put it aside.

President Rob Hentschel laughed onscreen. But many in this Lake Michigan bay community, which values ​​tourism and a friendly image, were not amused. For them, the provocative gesture that made national headlines was another sign of a deeper problem in this wooded and idyllic region that could not be dismissed.

Northwestern Michigan’s Lower Peninsula is more than a seaside resort with

sandy beaches, cherry orchards and art festivals where vacationers come to play. Beneath the cheerful exterior lie racial and cultural divisions eerily similar to those that have sparked protests and violence elsewhere.

“In our time, no place is an island,” said Warren Call, president of a business organization in Traverse City, the county seat. The incident “goes against everything we stand for”.

Conflicts that have simmered for a long time: This postcard patchwork of small towns, forests and fields is a far cry from the rough streets of urban America and the racial powder kegs of the South. But as northern Michigan becomes more popular and accessible, long-simmering conflicts spill over.

Income inequality is glaring in the region, known for its meager wages. The fruit growers for whom Traverse City prides itself as “the cherry capital of the world” are struggling to survive. Meanwhile, expensive condominium complexes are springing up to accommodate an influx of wealthy retirees and summer residents whose yachts fill lakeside marinas, while the 20-plus-year-olds who serve their meals at top restaurants. range are scrambling for affordable housing.

Some older newcomers to big cities – and the younger ones who can work remotely over the wireless internet – bring forward progressive ideas that clash with the entrenched conservatism of northern Michigan. The region remains firmly Republican, although Democrats won two county committee seats representing Traverse City, which has a gay mayor.

County Leelanau, adjacent to Grand Traverse and dotted with vineyards and a national lake, was embarrassed last August when Highways Commissioner Tom Eckerle used the N word in a meeting while accusing black people in Detroit for spreading the coronavirus. The 75-year-old farmer quit under pressure.

“I have received calls about this from the east coast to the west coast,” Chet Janik, the county administrator, said in an interview. “Minorities have asked us if it is safe to come here. “

Janik, 63, who immigrated to the area from Poland as a child and suffered taunts about his heritage, said Eckerle’s racial slurs did not represent his rural county. But he acknowledged that the rapid pace of change had unsettled some.

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

A mural adorns the wall of a downtown Traverse City, Michigan chocolate factory on February 13, 2021. The controversy over a local official's display of a gun in an online meeting has made concern that the seemingly quiet north of Michigan, a major tourist destination in the Midwest, presents some of the same racial and cultural divisions that have sparked protests and violence in major cities.  (AP Photo / John Flesher)

Racial discrimination: But local residents of color say discrimination – often subtle, sometimes blatant – is common in the region, which is home to well over 90% white.

Northern Mich members­igan E3, an anti-racist group, described uncomfortable encounters with law enforcement, bullying in schools, suspicious looks in stores. A Native American student has recently been the target of racist comments and violent videos, said activist and lawyer Holly T. Bird. An Iranian-born doctor wrote in a local newspaper that a sheriff’s deputy knocked on his door after someone apparently saw him in his yard and reported a “suspicious person”.

“We agree it’s a wonderful place full of wonderful people, but there is a problem with racism,” said Bird, who is Native American.

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

“Some black people who know what’s going on in Michigan don’t feel welcome, and for some reason we keep making national news for doing crazy, offbeat racist stuff,” she said. in an interview.

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

Their presence came during a year of resurgence of paramilitary activity in the state, with protesters angry at Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s pandemic policies regarding the transport of firearms to the Lansing Capitol. Six men were indicted last fall in an alleged conspiracy to kidnap the Democratic governor. Eight other people were accused of planning terrorist acts, including storming the state house.

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

Dozens of counties in Michigan have declared themselves “Second Amendment sanctuaries,” pledging to resist gun control. The Grand Traverse County Board of Commissioners did so last March.

Deep cleavage: The January 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 committee found itself at a deadlock over whether to censor them.

Nails did not respond to calls and emails from The Associated Press. He told the Traverse City Record-Eagle that he wanted to show his support for gun rights and described the Proud Boys as “decent guys.”

Hentschel said at the meeting that he knew some members of the all-male organization, which claims to defend “Western chauvinism”.

“I met some proud multiracial and Puerto Rican boys, and they informed me that they also have gay proud boys,” he said. “I don’t see how this is a hate group.”

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

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

The act elicited hours of telephone commentary in subsequent meetings.

David Barr, a businessman, said in an interview that Nails should apologize, but the case had been “exaggerated”.

“People think that if someone still makes a mistake on an elected body, you have to fabricate outrage, scream and scream and go on like it’s the end of the world,” he said.

Six years ago, attorney Michael Naughton joined the wave of young professionals who moved from a major city – Detroit, in his case – to Traverse City, where he vacationed as a child.

Now 42, married with two daughters, he wrote a letter demanding Clous’s resignation and shared it with others. Finally, more than 1,500 – including the mayor and municipal commissioners – signed.

Naughton said he understood the distrust of government shared by many in Michigan. But ignoring the commissioner’s act would send the message that such behavior is acceptable, he said.

“The photo of Mr. Nails with the gun isn’t what should define us,” Naughton said.


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