Fears of far-right extremism deepen as 13 are charged in plots to kidnap Michigan governor, attack Capitol
Six people are accused of planning to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and seven more with plotting to target police and attack the Michigan Capitol.
A plot to storm the Michigan state Capitol, kidnap the governor and put her on trial for “uncontrolled power” revealed Thursday how brazen far-right armed extremist groups have become in recent years at striking out against the government and those they hold in contempt for perceived threats against their liberties.
The elaborate plan, uncovered by FBI and state agents, fed into already growing fears among government and civil rights groups about extremists preparing to incite violence ahead of the presidential election and, as Michigan Atty. Gen. Dana Nessel described it Thursday, “instigate a civil war.”
Altogether, 13 people were charged this week by state and federal authorities in schemes, yet another indication that the longtime warnings and fears about the fringe ramblings of extremist chatrooms and messenger platforms were coming closer to reality.
Six men were named in federal court in a conspiracy to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, according to a complaint that said the FBI intercepted encrypted messages about their plans and had undercover agents and informants in the group, which was reportedly angry over restrictions the governor put in place to control the coronavirus outbreak in the state.
Additionally, seven members of a group known as the Wolverine Watchmen were separately named in state court in connection with the kidnapping plans, violating Michigan’s anti-terrorism laws, targeting law enforcement and attempting to instigate a war “leading to societal collapse,” according to an affidavit.
State police said the two groups together planned “various acts of violence” and held joint training sessions.
“When I put my hand on the Bible and took the oath of office 22 months ago, I knew this job would be hard,” Whitmer said Thursday. The Democrat’s administration has faced protests and lawsuits over restrictions put in place to control the pandemic. “But I’ll be honest, I never could have imagined anything like this.”
The revelation of the elaborate plot has raised growing concerns of violence by extremists ahead of the Nov. 3 election. In recent months, civil rights organizations, domestic terrorism experts and the federal government have warned of the threat of right-wing extremism.
The arrests in Michigan came in the same week that a report from the Department of Homeland Security warned that white supremacy is now the “most persistent and lethal threat in the homeland” and said “anti-government groups and anti-authority extremists could be motivated to conduct attacks in response to perceived infringement of liberties and government overreach.”
Whitmer blamed President Trump, who has tweeted and spoken encouragingly about anti-government groups. He has followed a pattern during his presidency of refusing to condemn right-wing extremist groups or has done so in vague terms only to change his tone after criticism.
“When our leaders speak, their words matter. They carry weight,” Whitmer said. “When our leaders meet with, encourage or fraternize with domestic terrorists, they legitimize their actions, and they are complicit.”
The state and federal charges do not indicate that those charged were inspired by Trump, who has repeatedly criticized Whitmer for restrictions she imposed on businesses and houses of worship in the state in the spring to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
In April, as coronavirus cases were rising across the country and governments instituted strict shutdowns, the president tweeted, “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” Weeks later, he encouraged armed protesters in Lansing, the state capital, tweeting: “The Governor of Michigan should give a little, and put out the fire. These are very good people, but they are angry. They want their lives back again, safely! See them, talk to them, make a deal.”
Many of the restrictions in Michigan have been lifted, and the state’s Supreme Court ruled 4 to 3 last week that a 1945 law the governor used to affirm many of her orders was unconstitutional.
Trump has also faced criticism for encouraging the Proud Boys — a right-wing, men-only group that glorifies and seeks to instigate street violence — during the first presidential debate last month. During that event, Trump told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” after he was asked to condemn white supremacists. A day later, he said “I don’t know who the Proud Boys are.” The Southern Poverty Law Center has designated them as a hate group.
Speaking to reporters Thursday, U.S. Atty. Matthew Schneider alluded to the divides in the nation and asked for peace.
“All of us in Michigan can disagree about politics, but those disagreements should never, ever amount to violence. Violence has been prevented today,” Schneider said.
In the court filing, the FBI said the six facing federal charges had long moved on from planning stages, holding rehearsals on how to take Whitmer from her vacation home. Four of them planned a Wednesday meeting to “make a payment on explosives and exchange tactical gear,” the FBI said.
The men, who were arrested Wednesday, are named as Michiganders Adam Fox, Ty Garbin, Kaleb Franks, Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta, and Barry Croft of Delaware.
The FBI quoted one of the men as saying Whitmer “has no checks and balances at all. She has uncontrolled power right now. All good things must come to an end.” In a description of a Facebook video stream the FBI monitored, it said one of the men complained in June “about the judicial system and the State of Michigan controlling the opening of gyms.”
The seven who face state charges also made plans to kidnap the governor by storming the state Capitol, according to law enforcement, and face charges of providing “material support for terrorist acts.” In an affidavit, State Police Det. Sgt. Michael Fink wrote that their group had met several times for weapons and tactical training “to prepare for the ‘boogaloo,’ a term referencing a violent uprising against the government or impending politically motivated civil war.”
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