Protesters calling themselves the Free People of Lansing took to the streets three Mondays after their leader, Paul Birdsong, reenacted George Floyd’s death on the Capitol lawn. They’ve taken over the freeway, marched to Mayor Andy Schor’s house, camped on the street overnight and more. But attendance has dropped sharply in recent days.
Initially, the protesters numbered in the hundreds. At their peak, the day they first walked to Andy Schor’s house, there were easily over 200 people. For the past few days, though, attendance has plateaued at around 40 people a day.
“We need more Black men and more Black women here. I want to see them here,” said Birdsong during their third trip to the mayor’s house. He had a white person from the crowd count up how many other white people were there. It was 24, meaning that they outnumbered the Black folks in the crowd.
“We gotta get our own people to come fight,” declared Birdsong.
On the street, some members of the Free People of Lansing have expressed mild burnout. But their passion remains strong. Many remain committed to the cause but have been taking days off to go to work or watch their children.
“You’re seeing about a fourth of the people in this movement,” Birdsong called out from the street in front of Schor’s lawn. “Some people got tired. But they’ll be back out here. We’re not done.”
Perhaps another reason for lower turnout are the threats that the Free People of Lansing say they have received.
Last Wednesday, violence broke out when a man tried to drive his car through a line of protesters. He did not strike anyone with his car, but he was repeatedly reversing and inching towards the crowd.
The man then parked the car and engaged in an argument with protesters. As the situation escalated, the man touched a female protester.
“If any man lays his hands on a female, then I will swing at them. I will punch them,” said Birdsong. And he did. After that, a few protesters walked the man back to his car.
In a speech to the crowd afterward, Birdsong apologized for letting the moment turn violent.
Besides on-the-street encounters, the group has also been dealing with intimidating pickup trucks repeatedly driving by them during their overnight protests. Some of these pickup trucks have their plates removed so they are harder to identify.
“You’re all going to die tonight,” said one man in a red pickup truck before driving away.
The authorities have been notified of the threat and promised to keep an eye on it, though Birdsong is skeptical about their commitment.
“They told us they were going to have police watching over us tonight. But they left two decoy cars,” claimed Birdsong. “I went up and looked in them. They were empty!” Since the threats have ramped up, the Free People of Lansing have added more guns and more escort cars to their movement. They wield the guns for intimidation and use the cars to protect protesters’ bodies as they march down the street.
They started with about two guns and four cars. Now that number has ballooned up to at least 10 guns and eight cars.
Birdsong has also encouraged more militancy among the group. Last time they marched to Schor’s, he lined the marchers up in lines of three people and urged everyone to stay in tight formation.
“You go home tonight and look up Malcolm X’s marches on Youtube. I know you all check your phones before bed anyway,” said Birdsong. “Don’t even come back here tomorrow if you can’t commit to doing that.”
As the protests continue, the Free People of Lansing hope to get more community engagement. They plan to continue to provide food and water to protesters every day. They also want to start planning events in advance more, using a Facebook event or fliers, so folks have time to work it into their schedule.
According to Birdsong, the Free People of Lansing has a long future ahead. Once their demands are met, they want to travel to other cities in Michigan to aid in their protests.
“Jackson is the home of the Republican party. Flint is where the water crisis happened,” said Birdsong.
“We need to defund the police in Lansing. Remove the mayor in Lansing. After that, defund the police in Detroit and remove that mayor. Then defund the police in Grand Rapids and get rid of that mayor.”