Last week, a jury in Michigan acquitted two men accused of plotting to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, and the judge called a mistrial for two others about whom the jury could not come to a decision. The four were among 13 men, associated with an extremely well-armed militia called the Wolverine Watchmen, charged in state and federal courts with various crimes related to the plot. Two already pled guilty, and another six await trial in state courts.
Most Americans who pay even a minimal amount of attention to the news are probably at least dimly aware of this simultaneously ridiculous and sinister case. The men were arrested in the last, tense weeks before the 2020 election, as fears of political violence were about to be realized.
I spent lot of my childhood playing in the woods and lakes two counties over from where the heavily armed men cosplayed as soldiers and practiced what they called their FTXs (in military lingo field training exercises) with an arsenal that included semi-automatic weapons and explosives. So last summer I spent several weeks in the region, trying to understand what the men were thinking.
As has been reported, the men were supposedly motivated to target Whitmer because of her pandemic lockdown orders. But why Whitmer, when governors across America were instituting lockdowns of similar severity?
The evidence against them was strong, most court observers agreed. And yet, the jury was not convinced. Why?
The Stench of Misogyny
The case is drenched in misogyny, of course. It is no accident that this caper played out in the state of Michigan, which has a government that looks right out of a Scandinavian country. The top three officeholders (governor, secretary of state and attorney general, in this case) are female.
Michigan’s attorney general was so alarmed by serious threats against her and her family that she considered resigning.
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel told me the kidnap plot was just an extreme example of the quotidian menace aimed at Michigan’s elected women. During the lockdown, when she was stuck in her house with minimal security, Nessel herself was so alarmed by serious threats against her and her family during the lockdown that she considered resigning.
“We track threats, and we prosecute threats against other public officeholders, and women are far and away fielding more threats,” says Nessel. “It’s [U.S. Senator] Debbie Stabenow, it’s [U.S. Rep.] Elissa Slotkin, it’s [female] judges that have ruled on election law cases. Same thing in the legislature. You see threats against Senator Sylvia Santana, threats against Representative Cynthia Johnson—and you don’t typically see those types of threats against their male counterparts.”
The Caper That Could Have Succeeded
On April 30, 2020, a group of Wolverine Watchmen loaded up semi-automatic weapons and in military kit, entered the capitol and went a-hunting for Gretchen Whitmer. They wandered the halls, climbing some stairs, eventually banging on a door they thought was hers. Nobody answered. An FBI informant reported that one of them suggested they “catch that bitch” on her way out an emergency exit. (The governor wasn’t in the building.)
Women—specifically “lib” women—in so many positions of power are not only a lightning rod for militia members.
Watchmen founder Joe Morrison (currently awaiting his own trial) later posted a ditty on Instagram about that pounding. “One, two, I’m coming for you; three, four better lock your door at G.E. Whitmer. Pound Boogaloo, Pound Boojahideen, pound Boogaloo, pound big igloo, pound big luau, pound send bachelors and come heavily armed, pound, send your goons bitch.”
(The pounding poem needs some translation: The Boogaloo Boys adopt Hawaiian shirts as a uniform and sometimes call the precipitating civil war event a “luau.” Igloo is a play on Boogaloo, and an igloo along with the floral shirt are images on their flag.)
Women—specifically “lib” women—in so many positions of power are not only a lightning rod for militia members, they provoke the state Republican apparatus. The kidnapping plot horrified some but not all in Michigan’s political class. Mere months after the charges were filed, the leader of the Michigan Republican Party was calling the three women at the top of the state witches who deserve to be burned at the stake.
Risible, like so much in this story. But also terrifying.
It would not be an exaggeration to say the Wolverines coalesced around misogyny. Accused plotter Adam Fox (who likely faces a federal retrial) advocated hog-tying the governor and photographing her on a table. An airline mechanic who has pled guilty talked about shooting up her house. Another member proposed a “three plan” in which they invaded her home at 3 a.m. to execute or kidnap her. Before their fears of federal infiltration led them to go dark on social media, they shared memes about the “gross slut who fucked the whole state.”
With Power Comes Risk
The men’s focus on Whitmer belongs to a trend in American politics that dates at least back to 2016. The 2016 presidential campaign brutalized women in the public square as effectively as the religious police with their sticks in Iran and Saudi Arabia. The Trump campaign made open misogyny cool again in some quarters. And yet, it did not stop women from running for office and taking power.
The Trump campaign made open misogyny cool again in some quarters.
The combination has put elected female leaders at extreme risk.
Late last year, Axios reported that while “record numbers” of American women are being elected to public office, “their growing political power is being met with death and rape threats, sexist and racist abuse and online disinformation.” And the political reporting found, collectively, this state of affairs has discouraged women from running for office.
Who wouldn’t think twice when you’ve got Rep. Paul Gosar, posting a manipulated video depicting himself killing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It’s all worse for women of color. “For people like Ilhan Omar, being a black woman in America, she already has a target on her back that’s different than a lot of the people here in Congress,” Rep. Cori Bush told Axios.
A few weeks after the men were arrested, just before the election that he would lose by seven million votes, Trump flew into Muskegon, Michigan, on a campaign stop.
As he made disparaging remarks about Whitmer, the crowd chanted “Lock her up.” Last week a jury of their peers vetoed that idea for two of the men. Time will tell whether any of the others get jail time, or get to go home and re-arm.
Oh and: The acquitted men are eligible to get their guns back.