TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — Some 90 minutes into a routine meeting of the Grand Traverse County board, its agenda packed with mundane topics such as roads and libraries, came a surprising seven seconds that drew the kind of national attention no local government wants.
The Jan. 20 proceedings were livestreamed, with members joining from home because of the pandemic. As usual, citizens phoned in to sound off. Among them was Keli MacIntosh, who complained about remarks to the board last spring by members of the Proud Boys on designating the county as a “Second Amendment sanctuary.”
As MacIntosh urged the chairman to disavow the far-right group that was a leading agitator during the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, commissioner Ron Clous — seated in a room with deer heads mounted on a wall — briefly disappeared from view and returned holding a rifle. He brandished it for the webcam, then set it aside.
The chairman, Rob Hentschel, laughed onscreen. But many in this Lake Michigan bayside community, which prizes tourism and a friendly image, were not amused. To them, the provocative gesture that made national headlines was another sign of a deeper problem in this woodsy, idyllic region that couldn’t be brushed aside.
Michigan’s northwestern Lower Peninsula is more than a resort community with sandy beaches, cherry orchards, and arts festivals where vacationers come to play. Beneath the cheery exterior lurk racial and cultural divides eerily similar to those that have ignited protests and violence elsewhere. This postcard-pretty patchwork of small towns, forests, and fields is far removed from the tough streets of urban America and the South’s racial tinderboxes. But as northern Michigan becomes more popular and accessible, long-simmering conflicts boil over.
Income inequality is stark in the area, notorious for skimpy wages. Producers of the fruit for which Traverse City bills itself “cherry capital of the world” are struggling to survive. Meanwhile, pricey condominium developments spring up to accommodate an influx of wealthy retirees and summer residents whose yachts pack lakefront marinas, while 20-somethings who serve their meals in upscale restaurants scramble for affordable housing.
Some elderly newcomers from big cities — and younger ones who can work remotely via wireless internet — bring progressive ideas that clash with Northern Michigan’s entrenched conservatism. The area remains solidly Republican, although Democrats have captured two county commission seats representing Traverse City, which has a gay mayor.
“In this age, no place is an island,” said Warren Call, president of a business organization in Traverse City, the county seat. The incident “goes against everything we stand for.”
Leelanau County, adjacent to Grand Traverse County and dotted with wineries and a national lakeshore, was embarrassed last August when road commissioner Tom Eckerle used the n-word during a meeting when he blamed Blacks in Detroit for spreading the coronavirus. The 75-year-old farmer resigned under pressure.
“I got calls about that from the East Coast to the West Coast,” county administrator Chet Janik said in an interview. “We had minority people asking if it was safe for them to come up here.”
Janik, 63, who immigrated to the area from Poland as a child and endured taunts about his heritage, said Eckerle’s racial slurs don’t represent his rural county. But he acknowledged the rapid pace of change had unsettled some. “It’s just that they want things to be the way they used to,” he said.
But local residents of color say discrimination — often subtle, sometimes blatant — is commonplace in the region, which is well over 90% white.
Members of Northern Michigan E3, an anti-racism group, described uncomfortable encounters with law enforcement, bullying in schools, suspicious gazes in stores. A Native American pupil recently was the target of racist language and violent videos, said Holly T. Bird, an activist and attorney. A doctor of Iranian descent wrote in a local newspaper that a sheriff’s deputy had knocked on his door after someone apparently saw him in his yard and reported a “suspicious person.”
“We agree this is a wonderful place filled with wonderful people, but it has a racism problem,” said Bird, who is Native American.
Tyasha Harrison, a Black woman who moved to nearby Benzie County eight years ago, said such experiences had made family and friends from elsewhere reluctant to visit.
“Some Black people that know what’s going on in Michigan don’t feel welcome, and for some reason we keep making national news for doing some crazy, off-the-wall, racist stuff,” she said in an interview.
Her organization formed after a Black Lives Matter rally along the Traverse City waterfront last summer. A handful of armed counter-demonstrators in camouflage garb showed up, but kept their distance.
Their presence came during a year of resurgent paramilitary activity in the state, with protesters angry over Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s pandemic policies carrying firearms into the Capitol in Lansing. Last fall, six men were charged in an alleged plot to kidnap the Democratic governor. Eight others were accused of planning terrorist acts, including storming the statehouse.
Northern Michigan was a hub of the self-styled “militia” movement a generation ago. Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, convicted in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people, reportedly met with activists in the state.
More recently, dozens of Michigan counties have declared themselves “Second Amendment sanctuaries,” pledging to resist gun control. Grand Traverse County’s board of commissioners did so last March.
The Jan. 20 incident involving Clous and his rifle vividly illustrated the region’s cultural and political schism. He and Hentschel, the chairman, rejected calls for their resignation, and the commission deadlocked on whether to censure them.
Clous didn’t returns calls and emails from The Associated Press. He told the Traverse City Record-Eagle he wanted to show support for gun rights and described the Proud Boys as “decent guys.”
Hentschel said during the meeting he knew some members of the all-male organization, which says it defends “western chauvinism.”
“I’ve met multi-racial, Puerto Rican Proud Boys, and they informed me they also have gay proud boys,” he said. “I don’t see how that’s a hate group.”
MacIntosh, who was speaking when Clous retrieved the firearm, said she was shaken by the gesture.
“I didn’t think he was going to shoot me, but I do think his whole point was to intimidate me,” she said.
Grand Traverse County Commissioner Ron Clous holds a rifle at his home during a county commissioners meeting.
The act prompted hours of phoned-in comments during subsequent meetings.
David Barr, a businessman, said in an interview that Clous should apologize but the matter had been “blown out of proportion.”
“People feel if somebody makes a mistake any more on an elected body that you need to manufacture outrage and scream and holler and carry on like it’s the end of the world,” he said.
Six years ago, lawyer Michael Naughton joined the wave of young professionals moving from a big city — Detroit, in his case — to Traverse City, where he had vacationed as a child.
Now 42, married and the father of two daughters, he wrote a letter seeking Clous’ resignation and shared it with others. Eventually more than 1,500 — including the mayor and city commissioners — signed on.
Naughton said he understood the mistrust of government shared by many in Michigan. But to shrug off the commissioner’s act would send a message that such behavior is acceptable, he said.
“The picture of Mr. Clous with the gun is not what should define us,” Naughton said