Gov. Gretchen Whitmer gives an update on COVID-19, March 18, 2020. (Photo by Susan J. Demas/Michigan Advance)
My closest friend spent his working life in law enforcement. He handled everything from minor traffic violations to homicides, with assorted robberies, break-ins, vandalism and domestic assaults in between.
Sadly, Denny has been gone for three years. Among his family’s treasured possessions are his sheriff’s badges, the shoulder patches from his uniforms and the large, thick keys to the cells in the now-demolished jail he ran.
In a way, I am relieved Denny was not here last week when the news broke that the FBI had broken up what they said was a plot by vigilantes to “arrest” Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and either put her on “trial” for treason or kill her.
Yes, Denny would have devoured details of the lengthy undercover investigation. It grew out of opposition to Whitmer’s stay-at-home orders as Michigan tried to contain the spread of coronavirus.
The investigation culminated in the arrest of 13 people loosely affiliated with a group called the Wolverine Watchmen.
Denny would have badgered his journalist pal to find copies of the court documents, including the FBI affidavit. He would want to read the exact charges and study the insights from investigators’ sworn statements.
But this I am sure of, too: He would have been professionally embarrassed and disappointed by a Michigan sheriff’s participation in a rally a few months ago against the governor’s emergency orders. Denny’s disappointment would have risen when video and photographs from the rally surfaced last week showing the sheriff on stage with two of the men arrested in the plot against Whitmer.
And Denny’s blood pressure would have spiked when he listened to Sheriff Dar Leaf’s television interview last week. Leaf downplayed the seriousness of the plot by suggesting the men may have simply been planning to make a citizen’s arrest of the governor, rather than plotting to kidnap her.
“A lot of people are angry with the governor, and they want her arrested,” Leaf told a reporter. “So, are they trying to arrest or was it a kidnap attempt?”
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel was quick to tamp down such talk. “To think that there is a group of sheriffs out there who truly believe that it’s appropriate for armed gunmen to perpetrate a citizens’ arrest should alarm us all,” she said.
Denny would have nodded in agreement.
He believed the role of law enforcement was to serve all of the people — regardless of whether they were Republicans or Democrats, regardless of whether they supported what government was doing or objected to government actions.
Denny always wanted the public’s help with his investigations, but he wanted that assistance in the form of tips and information. He had no desire for people to take it upon themselves to mete out punishment to scofflaws or to personally chase down a suspected lawbreaker the way Gomer Pyle scurried after Barney Fife while hollering, “Citizen’s arrest! Citizen’s arrest!”
Throughout our nation’s history, there have been people who gravitate to anti-government groups. This is especially true during tough financial times. These people have harbored all manner of views about government shortcomings, real or imagined.
Most never turn to widespread law-breaking. But others decide to act on their views.
In 1978, San Francisco preacher Jim Jones was responsible for the massacre of nearly 910 U.S. citizens at the remote settlement in Guyana called Jonestown. Among the victims was Congressman Leo Ryan, who was there on a congressional investigation.
In 1995, domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh detonated a truck bomb outside the federal building in Oklahoma City. The explosion killed or injured about 850 people and was part of McVeigh’s revenge against what he saw as the federal government’s intrusion on people’s rights.
In a twist of history, McVeigh lived for a time in Michigan before the bombing. He is known to have met there with members of so-called citizen militia groups, although it is not known what their relationship was.
Mike Boettcher studies radical militia groups as a researcher at the University of Oklahoma Center for Intelligence and National Security. He told reporters last week that the political and social polarization throughout the United States, coupled with people’s strong feelings about government’s handling of coronavirus, has brought more radical groups into the spotlight.
Last spring, members of Michigan militia groups packed the state capitol in Lansing, armed with military-style weapons, to protest Gov. Whitmer’s emergency orders. President Donald Trump has criticized the governor’s coronavirus actions, and he has written of the need for citizens to “Liberate Michigan.”
Former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, who was in office when McVeigh carried out his anti-government plot, told reporters last week, “It’s worrisome for me as a citizen that something like that could occur again.
“Life is too short to be dumb,” he added. “Just wait for the next election. If you don’t like something, vote against it.”
Denny would agree.
He knew it is wrong for citizens to take the law into their own hands. It doesn’t matter whether they are going after Gov. Whitmer or Gov. Kim Reynolds.
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