The April protests pushing Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer to end the state’s coronavirus lockdown were only a five-minute drive from local firefighter Michael Lynn Jr.’s house south of downtown. But as the gun owner and civic activist watched videos on social media of white men with rifles filling the Senate chamber, Lynn — who agreed with Whitmer that a lockdown was necessary — resolved to stay out of the fray.
Then he saw a video posted to Facebook by his local state representative, Sarah Anthony, who was elected a year and a half before as the first Black woman ever to represent her Lansing district. She expressed “sheer fear” for her safety. The Capitol had filled with protesters, many armed with semiautomatic weapons, or displaying swastikas, nooses, and Confederate flags. Anthony said she was doubly alarmed because the State Police, whose salaries are paid by the public and who should have been protecting her and her colleagues, were instead taking selfies with people in the crowd. (A spokesperson for the State Police said the officer who took the selfie was not showing bias, and that friendliness can be a de-escalation technique.)
Lynn, who had met Anthony at community meetings, decided he couldn’t stand by any longer. He rallied his wife, their 20-year-old son, his nephew, and two friends to form an armed escort. Then he called Anthony and offered to protect her on her way to work.
Lynn had become a local activist almost accidentally. In 2019, the 38-year-old firefighter filed a race discrimination lawsuit against the city of Lansing. He would not discuss the details since he is now the plaintiff in a federal case. But in court papers and press accounts make it clear that Lynn, who is Black, was hired in 2014 through a program meant to increase diversity in the department. Soon though, the lawsuit claims, he and others hired through the program were hazed by their white colleagues, who didn’t believe they had fairly earned their jobs. After their attempts to mediate with the department’s leaders went nowhere, Lynn petitioned the federal Equal Employment Opportunities Commission for the right to sue the department, and his request was granted. In court briefs, the city denies Lynn’s allegations.
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Around the same time, Lynn’s son, a star quarterback on the Lansing Catholic High School football team, decided to follow the lead of San Francisco 49ers player Colin Kapernick and kneel during the national anthem as a protest against police brutality and other forms of discrimination. Lynn discouraged him, knowing the fierce opposition Kapernick had faced. But, he said, he supported his son’s decision regardless. His son’s act — he was joined by three other players — drew statewide media attention. All were temporarily benched. A few months into the school year, three of the students transferred to other schools. Lynn said his son could no longer endure the anger of school administrators.
By last month, when Lynn decided to offer to escort Anthony into the Capitol, he was accustomed to finding himself at the center of controversy. “I’m always into something,” he said. On May 7, he and his group met the lawmaker at her car and walked her briskly to her office. “I guess it’s like firefighting: You don’t think about how dangerous what you’re about to do is. You just think, ‘Let’s just get this done as safely as possible,’” he said. It happened to be a quiet day at the Capitol without armed protesters on site, and they entered the building without incident. But within hours, photos of Anthony flanked by Lynn and his cohort staring straight ahead, wearing face masks, and carrying handguns and assault-style rifles, were featured in numerous news outlets. “Some people saw it and called it radical or militant,” Anthony said in a television interview. “The thing I’ve challenged people to think about is why does that photo seem radical? Is it because of the color of our skin?”
Lynn said he agrees with Anthony that white people with guns would have been treated differently by the mainstream media. “That’s just the narrative that we want to change,” he said. “We [Black people] can be responsible gun owners as well as anyone else.” Lynn says that when he was a teenager, he was mostly exposed to illegal guns in his neighborhood, and viewed them as things to fear, not as tools. But when he got married and started a family, it became important to him to get a concealed pistol license. His wife, Erica, got one even before he did, and now both are legally licensed to carry guns.
In the early days of the coronavirus lockdown Lynn and his wife had started taping Facebook Live videos three times a week. It was a way to pass time during quarantine; they shared thoughts on subjects as serious as depression and anxiety, and as trivial as recently discovered gray hairs. But as the protests over Michigan’s lockdown started to heat up in Lansing, the podcast quickly became a forum for them to air their feelings about weightier subjects. Soon, they had more than 1,000 people listening to their shows each week.
On May 12, six days after he had escorted Anthony to the Capitol, Lynn invited Phil Robinson, of the Michigan Liberty Militia, one of the armed groups that had protested at the Capitol, onto his show. Robinson, whose group was listed on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s 2019 list of “extreme anti-government groups,” said he was at the Capitol only to provide security for the people there to protest the lockdown.
Lynn and his wife listened respectfully as Robinson assured him he is not a racist, and that the racist rhetoric came from groups he was not associated with. He said he thinks people make negative assumptions about him based on the way he looked at the protest: bald with a long beard in two braids, armed, and wearing tactical gear.
Lynn’s direct engagement with issues of race positioned him as an important voice for Lansing when George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis on May 25. He has not been marching on the streets with protesters, but has asked many hard questions of community leaders, interviewing Lansing Police Chief Daryl Green about department policies on his Facebook podcast, and sharply questioning Mayor Andy Schor on what he described as lack of diversity in the police and fire departments and lack of funding for community services on a Zoom panel hosted by a Black Lives Matter affiliate. When the mayor argued that the city is already doing enough to support minority communities, Lynn pushed back. “You’re not me, you don’t walk in my shoes,” Lynn said. “And another thing you don’t do is listen to the people who walk in my shoes.”
Perhaps the most poignant moment came when Lynn asked about a 1999 incident during which Lansing Police shot and killed his close friend A.J. McKinstry, 19. Lynn said he was with McKinstry when police were called to a fight. Along with others, McKinstry fled, and police tracked him to the basement of a nearby home. According to a news account, police shouted a warning, then sent their police dog Sabre into the basement. McKinstry shot the dog, and then police entered the building and shot and killed McKinstry. The officers were placed on administrative leave, but were eventually cleared of wrongdoing, a Lansing Police spokesperson said. Lynn still doesn’t believe that McKinstry had a gun. During a Black Lives Matter event in Lansing on June 3, Lynn told the Schor: “Every January 23, you guys make a remembrance of Sabre, the dog that was killed. But you don’t make any notice of the child who was murdered by [the] Lansing Police Department.” The mayor waved his hand in request to speak. But Lynn continued. “I’m sick of seeing you guys put that dog up on a pedestal when my brother was killed by the Police Department in the same event.”
The next day, Schor recorded his own Facebook video apologizing to Lynn for failing to acknowledge McKinstry’s death, and acknowledging, “I don’t have all the answers.”
Lynn has vowed to keep asking hard questions, but also to keep listening. He is still in touch with Phil Robinson, the armed protester who appeared on his show, hoping that they can build a dialogue.
Despite the unrest he sees across the nation, Lynn said, in recent weeks he feels new hope that real change can come to Lansing. He would like to see the city fund community programs for young people, improve public schools, hire more people of color in law enforcement, and to stop police brutality. In his community and across the country, people seem to be listening, he said: “This one feels different. There are way too many people involved.”