Police don riot gear as anger grows among thousands of protesters at Michigan Capitol

David Jesse and Lori Higgins
Detroit Free Press
December 11, 2012

What began as a peaceful protest this morning became testy this afternoon, prompting Michigan State Police officers to don their riot gear—and some hopping on horses—to control an increasingly angry crowd.

It was a crowd that at one point tore down a tent being occupied by Americans for Prosperity, a pro right-to-work group. As they tore the tent down, protesters yelled "Tear it down, tear it down."

The dismantling came after a verbal skirmish between those who favor the legislation and the protesters who had begun crowding around the tent.

"Keep your hands off other people's stuff," one of the pro right-to-work activists said as some in the crowd started pulling at the tent.

"Keep your hands off my money," a protester yelled back.

One man deep in the crowd appeared to be dismayed, yelling out "hey now, that's civil disobedience," after they started taking down the tent.

As voting began inside the state Capitol, the crowd outside swelled to more than 10,000 people by police estimates.

The protestors closest to the Capitol pounded drums and empty buckets while chanting in an effort to sway legislators inside.

At the same time, a large pro-union rally was being held in front of Lansing's City Hall, as giant loudspeakers boomed the speakers' voices across the Capitol lawn.

Included among the speakers was United Auto Worker President Bob King.

"Unions built the middle class of America," he said. "This is a national attack. These folks want to shift more and more of the wealth to a smaller and smaller group of people."

Speaker after speaker, including firefighters, teachers and factory workers, vowed today's protest was just the start. They said they would follow legislators all over the state to remind people of their votes.

One said they'd be at Gov. Rick Snyder's daughter's soccer game.

Melissa Waters, of Ann Arbor, was among those listening to the speakers.

"My dad and mom were union workers. Without the contracts they bargained for, we wouldn't have had food on our table or clothes to wear," she said.

The crowds began building early, with the bulk arriving around 8:30 a.m.

Led by three police officers on motorcycles, hundreds of union workers and activists marched from the Lansing Center to the Michigan Capitol building this morning, chanting "Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Right-to-work has got to go!" along the way.

Crowds of people streamed into the Lansing Center before the march, including a bearded man in a Santa suit carrying a sign declaring the "GOP stole Christmas."

When the group arrived at the Capitol, they were greeted by a crowd of thousands who had already settle upon the Capitol lawn, shouting, singing and pumping their arms in what is expected to be the largest public protest the seat of state government has ever seen. Protestors, supporters and media from inside and outside Michigan gathered to speak on the controversial issue that has divided the state, and sent ripples across the country.

Union members hoisted a large inflatable rat to the top of the Capitol steps, dubbing it the "Snyder rat."

Ray Litt was standing on the sidelines outside the Capitol this morning, holding a sign that perfectly portrayed his feelings: "Gov. Snyder, Shame on You for Caving to the Right."

Litt, owner of Litt Electrics in Detroit and a longtime union member and supporter, said the legislation attempts to undo all "the wonderful, positive things unions have done for people."

He said he belonged to a union for many years, and when he opened his business he hired union workers. He and others talked about their disappointment that Michigan lawmakers are pushing to approve the legislation during the lame duck session.

"I hope lawmakers will recognize the need to have a process that involves the people," Litt said. "When 2014 rolls around, this kind of action will be met with a real response."

That response?

He said lawmakers who approve the legislation will likely face a strong fight to keep their seats. And he predicted there will be recalls.

On the third floor of the Capitol, dozens of union members circled the rail of the Capitol rotunda, shouting, "This is our house," as they waited to get into the public gallery.

"I am a kindergarten teacher," said Renee Theisen of Warren, whose school district was closed today because so many teachers came to Lansing. "We just want our voices heard. This is important to us to belong to a union, and we want to keep it that way."

Brett Brown of Owosso, a member of UAW Local 602, said: "I hope that they hear that we're disappointed with the way this Legislature has handled this issue, especially the governor. I am hoping to effect change."

A huge contingent of police, armed with billy clubs, began surrounding the Capitol and streaming inside before dawn. Shortly before 8 a.m. today, they began allowing the people inside and they scrambled for the few precious spots in the gallery overlooking the House floor.

Police have limited the amount of public in the common areas of the Capitol to 2,200, including 160 in the Senate gallery and 195 in the House gallery.

"We're feeling good today," said Michigan State Police Inspector Gene Adamczyk. "We have an enhanced police presence and we want to be highly visible so people feel safe and secure."

READ THE RIGHT-TO-WORK BILLS:

On the front Capitol steps, a tea party sign posted by the group American For Prosperity, advocating "workplace freedom," was posted above the crowd.

Conservative groups had reserved the use of the front steps.

But it was union representatives who stood on the steps this morning, rallying the growing crowd on the Capitol lawn.

"Stop the attacks on the middle class," read signs carried by demonstrators.

Carolyn Hietamaki was up at 2 a.m. to make the 7-hour drive from Marquette to Lansing.

"Look at all my brothers and sisters," she said, gesturing towards the thousands of people who filled the Capitol lawn.

"We hope he at least listens," she said, referring to Snyder.

Hietamaki said her union could be weakened by the right to work legislation because if people opt to leave the union "you don't have the same voice." And that concerns her as a nurse because she said she uses her contract to ensure that patient loads aren't too high.

Hietamaki traveled to Wisconsin when similar legislation was making its way through the Legislature there. Today, there's a similar feeling of solidarity among workers.

"We're all in the same boat. We want to support our families."

All sides have called for peaceful demonstrations.

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