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Michigan Authorities Charge 13 In Plot To Kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer

NOEL KING, HOST:

In the spring, far-right militia members carrying guns protested at Michigan's state Capitol. They demanded an end to coronavirus restrictions that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer had put in place. Some people, at the time, openly worried that anti-government sentiment was growing in Michigan. And now six men are facing federal charges that they plotted to kidnap the governor. Another seven, who are linked to that plot, face other state charges. Authorities haven't said yet what motivated the men.

With me now, NPR's Hannah Allam, who covers extremism, and Abigail Censky, who's a reporter with WKAR in East Lansing. Good morning, ladies.

HANNAH ALLAM, BYLINE: Hi there.

ABIGAIL CENSKY, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: Abigail, it is early in Lansing, but what is it been like in the hours since these men were arrested?

CENSKY: People here have been shocked. Some supporters did show up to the Capitol last night with a Big Gretch sign at the Capitol. But Republican leadership still spoke at a rally. And, you know, despite a majority of Michiganders supporting the job the governor has been doing, there have been these sizable protests - thousands of people who showed up in April, and armed protesters who entered the Capitol in May. If you were at those protests, you might not be surprised by this plan.

There was a lot of anti-Whitmer and misogynous sentiment, signs like tyrants get the rope, comparisons to Nazi Germany and graphic depictions of violence. They tapered off over the summer after our stay-at-home order ended. But resentment toward Whitmer has still been around in the form of fledgling recall efforts and a petition to strip the governor of her emergency powers.

KING: Hannah, all of this raises a question as to whether what's happening in Michigan is extreme or whether it is part of something bigger that's happening in this country.

ALLAM: Yeah, I mean, it's a bit of both. Domestic terrorism analysts have said for months that they can't remember a time when tensions were running this high. I mean, we've got the pandemic, a polarizing election, racial justice protests. And there's been concern for a while about the threat of political violence, so it's not surprising that the feds were watching this group.

But that being said, the number of people involved and the planning that went into the alleged plot are definitely not run of the mill. I mean, we've seen some explosives charges, and shootings and car rammings but not the kind of premeditated, high-profile kidnapping the prosecutors lay out in this case.

KING: So, Abigail, what do we know about these men and where they fit into anti-government or anti-Whitmer protests in Michigan?

CENSKY: Well, the criminal complaint yesterday said that these men were allegedly incensed by her, quote, "uncontrolled power right now." So there's a kind of two levels of anger. At the bottom you have these fringe and extremist groups who protest at the Capitol. And in the upper echelons of the Michigan state legislature, you have Republican leadership that are very angry with the governor's COVID response.

She's issued hundreds of executive orders without a lot of legislative input. And state Republicans here have been calling that a power grab for months. They've sued the governor, passed bills that would limit her emergency powers. So they may not be calling her a tyrant, but they mingle with these protesters, and they've had a huge amount of contempt for her coronavirus response that's been boiling under the surface.

KING: Lawmakers mingling with protesters - that's interesting. Hannah, Gov. Whitmer said something very direct last night. She said, this is not a Michigan problem. It's an American problem. Does your reporting confirm that?

ALLAM: Well, all year, I've been hearing about secret meetings of armed fringe groups in various states where they all come together to talk about what they call constitutional flashpoints - when they might take a stand, what everyone's role will be. Definitely, you know, they've been animated by some of the coronavirus restrictions and the lockdown. And then the, you know - they've shown up to protest as well.

Some militia members have told me they don't go to these meetings, these big gatherings, precisely because they believe they're likely to be infiltrated by the authorities, so they stay away. And so it's been very hard to pin down exactly what's going on. But here in the court papers is confirmation of these kinds of gatherings and a look inside this interstate organizing that federal agents are tracking. I mean, this case takes us to meetings and trainings in Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and there are references to other states in there as well.

KING: OK. So beyond Michigan at the very least. NPR's Hannah Allam covers extremism, and Abigail Censky is a reporter with WKAR in East Lansing. Thanks so much to you both. We appreciate it.

ALLAM: Thank you.

CENSKY: Of course. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.