LANSING, Mich. — Conservative activists and supporters of Michigan’s new right-to-work law gathered on the Statehouse lawn Thursday to demand justice for what they said were threats, intimidation and entrapment under a tent that was destroyed by union supporters during protests two days earlier by thousands of labor union activists.
Scott Hagerstrom, state director of Americans for Prosperity-Michigan, said he had filed a police report for assault and destruction of property with the Michigan State Police’s Capitol post after aggressive pro-union forces used knives and box cutters to cut open a tent his group had set up on the Statehouse lawn to express their support for the state’s right-to-work legislation.
The collapsing of the large white tent – and punches thrown at a Fox News Channel contributor – on the scene were caught on tape and have aired widely in the days since Michigan Republicans pushed through legislation that union leaders say will undercut their funding and bargaining power.
Mr. Hagerstrom claimed state police on the Capitol grounds did nothing – even after repeated 911 calls – to stop the onslaught, during which frightened right-to-work supporters were shouted down with profanity, spat on, shoved and threatened with violence. Some had to be pulled from the downed tent.
He is asking law enforcement, along with city prosecutors and Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, to investigate the incident and said his members deserved protection on the “public square.”
“We were very lucky no one was hurt. People were inside the tent when it was destroyed,” Mr. Hagerstrom said at a news conference outside the Michigan Statehouse, guarded by four Michigan state troopers. “This strikes at the heart of democracy. We believe strongly that this needs to be investigated.”
The AFL-CIO issued a statement condemning the attacks and noted that some union members did the right thing by stepping in to assist the right-to-work group.
A tape of the melee played for reporters again Thursday shows protesters tearing down the large white rented tent, stomping on tent posts and scuffling with supporters who tried to push them back. A crowd of more than 5,000 was reported to be on the lawn at the time of the altercation. Lights inside the tent were smashed, and catering equipment owned by Lansing’s well-known “hot dog man,” Clint Tarver, was destroyed.
“I was called an Uncle Tom, the ‘N-word,’” said Mr. Tarver, who attended the news conference.
The Michigan Freedom Fund, a business-funded group that ran ads in support of the right-to-work law before Tuesday’s votes, has offered a $1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the attackers, and are particularly protective of Mr. Tarver.
“Clint Tarver is a Lansing institution, a hardworking businessman, and whether you are a Republican or Democrat, one of the kindest, most selfless individuals you will ever meet,” said Greg McNeilly, president of the organization. “The union thugs who destroyed Clint’s hot dog business while shouting racial slurs must be held accountable.”
Meanwhile, a private online fundraising effort to help the vendor has tapped into a well of unexpected generosity. The “I Support Clint” outreach intended to raise $5,000. Within 24 hours, the effort brought in $30,000 from about 1,300 donors.
“Please do not make this a political issue. This is not about politics; this is about supporting Clint. Thank you for respecting that,” organizer Lorilea Susanne advised potential donors.
Activists who escaped the downed tent said they especially feared that propane tanks used to heat the tent and cooking equipment could have exploded. One said a group of Lansing police officers stood by watching the attack and did not attempt to stop it.
“It was a frightening experience,” said Anne Foote, who was pushed inside the tent by the menacing throng.
Said Dave Speet, who tried to stop the fracas and rescue people: “It was pretty intense. There were people trapped in the far back corner. We couldn’t get in the tent because they were stomping on it.”
Mr. Bernero, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2010, said through a spokesman that he had directed the city police to work with state police to investigate “any and all acts of violence that occurred on Tuesday.”
Said spokesman Randy Hannan, Mr. Bernero “abhors violence in any form and believes that the few people who engaged in such conduct should be held accountable for it.”
“At the same time, he is very proud of the overwhelming majority of protesters who came to Lansing to peacefully but forcefully express their view that right-to-work-for-less is an abominable attack on working families throughout Michigan,” Mr. Hannan said.
Tiffany Brown, a spokeswoman for the Michigan State Police, told the Lansing State Journal that state troopers did respond to all calls during the chaotic day, but had to work their way through dense crowds.
“When we got to the location of the [Americans for Prosperity] call, people were gone,” she said.
Tensions remained high in the state capital as lawmakers proceeded with a lame-duck legislative session. Republicans were seething over a remark by state Rep. Douglas E. Geiss, a Democrat, during Tuesday’s final debate predicting “there will be blood” if the right-to-work bills were pushed through.
Michigan Republican Party Chairman Bobby Schostak on Thursday charged that state Democratic Party leaders “remain silent and implicitly condone these irresponsible and inflammatory words and the resulting violence. A call for violence like this is unbecoming of an elected official and, unfortunately, the actions we have witnessed since only show how true that is.”
Mr. Geiss quickly released a statement Tuesday trying to walk back some of his statement.
“My caucus and I stand against the use of violence and do not condone its use,” he said. “We condemn violence, the destruction of property and all other illegal activity in the strongest possible terms.”
Right-to-work supporter Randall Thompson recalled that he was met with profanity-laced screaming throughout the day. When he tried to turn away, he said, he had his hat torn off of his head and was pounded on both sides of his ribs.
“I was spat on twice without saying a word, simply because I was standing at the tent,” he said. “It was just so disappointing. We had been here for at least a week, visiting legislators, asking them for their support. We were attacked simply because we had a difference of opinion.”
Mr. Hagerstrom says he will file a Freedom of Information Act request with the Statehouse police to obtain a copy of a video of the protests shot from atop a balcony to better offer evidence of what he says was a frightening and unwarranted attack. Although the Legislature has an exemption from FOIA, he hopes they will turn over footage as a part of an investigation.
He said he has dozens of tapes taken of the melee and will post those on his group’s website. Activists who were on the scene said they plan to offer witness statements to state police.
Steven Crowder, a Fox News Channel contributor, was punched during the fight as one protester threatened to kill him with a gun. His fight was broadcast online. He later said he was cut on the forehead and suffered a chipped tooth. He tweeted: “Even if you hate me, nothing I could have done warranted being sucker-punched and threatened with murder.”
Jennifer Harper contributed to this report.