Political Issues in Governor Whitmer’s Kidnapping Plot Verdict
The jury verdict last Friday in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in the trial of four men accused of conspiring to kidnap the governor of Michigan in 2020 raises fundamental political questions facing the working class in the United States and around the world. world.
Against the backdrop of the growth of far-right and fascist politics within official ruling circles around the world, the “not guilty” verdict on all charges against two of the defendants, Brandon Caserta and Daniel Harris, and the he inability of the jury to reach an agreed verdict on the charges against Barry Croft and Adam Fox shows that the working class cannot rely on the judicial institutions of the state to defend its democratic rights.
On October 7, 2020, six men were arrested on a series of federal charges and seven others were arrested on state charges related to a conspiracy to kidnap Democratic Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. A week later, another individual was arrested and charged with state crimes in connection with the kidnapping plot. Half of the suspects were linked to a paramilitary group called the Wolverine Watchmen and others had ties to the far-right Boogaloo Boys.
The activities of those arrested and charged were linked to then-President Donald Trump’s embrace of far-right and vigilante forces staging armed protests against the shutdowns and other limited measures taken to contain the pandemic, as well as Trump’s stated refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power should Biden win the November presidential election.
As the World Socialist Website wrote in a Perspective column published on October 9, 2020, titled “The Michigan Conspiracy, Trump, and the 2020 Election”:
Although the complaint does not mention the name of the president, the initiator of the plot is in the White House. Trump has repeatedly specifically singled out Whitmer for sentencing because she was most visibly identified with implementing measures to curb the spread of the pandemic, which ravaged Michigan in March and April. It is now clear that these attacks were part of a deliberate strategy to lay the groundwork for the current coup attempt.
Trump and a sizable segment of the Republican Party had targeted the Michigan governor’s COVID-19 policies for a right-wing campaign beginning in April 2020 with a series of rallies at the state Capitol in Lansing. On April 30, the paramilitary group Wolverine Watchmen, which included among its members several of those charged in the kidnapping plot, entered the Michigan Capitol armed with assault rifles and paramilitary gear.
In what amounted to a dress rehearsal for the fascist U.S. Capitol siege on January 6, 2021, by a pro-Trump mob seeking to kidnap and/or kill Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Vice President Mike Pence and fellow elected, gunmen Wolverine Watchmen went to look for Governor Whitmer in his office in the State Capitol, but she was not there that day.
Of the six men charged by the federal government with conspiracy to kidnap and possibly kill Michigan’s governor, two, Kaleb Franks and Ty Garbin, pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against the others.
During the twenty-day Grand Rapids trial of the four plotters, prosecutors replayed numerous recorded statements by the defendants documenting their violent response to Whitmer’s pandemic stay-at-home orders and the fact that they intended to do a political statement. For example, the jury heard Adam Fox say, “We’re sending them a f_____g message. Hey, if we can get her, we can get you.
The relationship between Trump’s preparations to stay in office regardless of the outcome of the 2020 election and the kidnapping plot was explained by Ty Garbin, one of the two original defendants in the federal case who pleaded guilty and turned the state’s evidence against the other four. Garbin was sentenced to six years in prison.
He testified at trial that he willingly participated in the kidnapping plot, hoping it would start a civil war in the United States. He told the jury: “We wanted to cause as much disruption as possible to prevent Joe Biden from taking office.”
Judge Robert Jonker, appointed to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan by Republican George W. Bush in 2007, played a vital role in assisting the defendants’ legal defense. Jonker issued orders that undermine the substantial evidence presented to the jury showing that the defendants had both the desire and the means to carry out one of the many plots to kidnap and kill the governor, and that they took measures to this end.
During the preliminary hearings, Jonker ordered that there be no reference to the political motivations of the kidnapping plotters during the trial. In doing so, Jonker supported the main defense argument: that the men were depressed individuals who frequently used marijuana and, while making verbally threatening statements, had neither the ability nor the intention to go all the way with a violent attack on the Governor.
It is significant that it was the defence, not the prosecution, that sought to call a witness to testify about the ideology of the far-right boogaloo movement, to which Judge Jonker said: “I don’t want the trial becomes a referendum. whether the truck convoy in Ottawa is good or bad, or whether what happened on January 6 is an insurrection or legitimate political speech. I want the focus to be on what happened in this case.
The prosecution did not object to this directive to remove the alleged crimes from their political context.
Judge Jonker also asked the jury to consider an entrapment defense of the defendant due to the presence of FBI agents who infiltrated the group and were themselves part of the kidnapping plot.
Much of the prosecution testimony was based on the activities of at least three FBI informants, who recorded hours of conversations and meetings with the defendants. The entrapment instruction by Judge Jonker played a major role in the outcome of the trial, with two of the plotters acquitted, none convicted on any count, and all four released from prison. The jury instruction reinforced the impact of the judge’s ban on raising political issues in the conspiracy against Whitmer.
Throughout the trial, the prosecution followed the political lead of White House Biden, which sought to downplay the fascist threat in the interest of seeking bipartisan unity with the same Republicans who argue that the Biden administration -Harris is illegitimate. By complying with Judge Jonker’s demands, the prosecution was paralyzed in the face of what was clearly a political matter.
While the jury heard three weeks of testimony and deliberated for five days, it did not convict anyone of anything. In this politically charged trial, presenting the so-called “facts of what happened” stripped of their political context favored such an outcome.
The trial location in Grand Rapids, a Republican stronghold, and the twelve-person jury made up of six men and six women from northern Michigan and rural western Michigan where opposition to Governor Whitmer and restrictions pandemics are strong, have undoubtedly played a role.
As former criminal defense attorney Bill Swor pointed out to Detroit Free Press“The jurors may have known people like that, who do a lot of talking. And the jury may have decided that these guys were just busy running around and they had no focus.
Daniel Harris, one of two defendants acquitted by the jury, was found “not guilty” of an additional charge of possession of an unregistered short-barreled shotgun, a crime for which he was clearly guilty. Harris was also the only defendant of the four to speak up in his own defense. In his testimony, he denounced FBI informants.
The jury is deadlocked on the charges against Fox and Croft, whom prosecutors have identified as the heads of the conspiracy against Whitmer. It appears the jury was in conflict over them because they were present when the group boxed up Whitmer’s vacation home in Elk Rapids, Michigan, when the two defendants who were acquitted were not there.
Prosecutors responded to defense attorneys’ claims that their clients never took affirmative action to implement the alleged conspiracy by pointing to a number of actions, including their surveillance of Whitmer’s residence and the surroundings.
The trial took place in an atmosphere across the United States where all COVID-19 restrictions, including masking, are lifted and the right-wing position represented by those accused of kidnapping the governor is now the official policy of Democrats and Republicans. The Michigan trial verdict will embolden the fascist right and encourage further violent attacks on its opponents, especially the growing struggles of the working class.
It follows the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse, the young fascist who was acquitted of shooting and killing two men and wounding a third during protests against police brutality in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in August 2020. The judge in this trial made little effort to conceal his sympathy for the right-wing vigilante.
At a rally in North Carolina on Saturday, Donald Trump shook up the facts of Whitmer’s kidnapping trial, saying, “And in the rather famous trial in Michigan, where people were supposedly going to kidnap the very unpopular governor. Two have just been found not guilty and two more just ended up in a hung jury So something is going on there Something is going on The radical democrat party will do anything to stop our movement whether it is illegal, immoral or senseless.
While the Grand Rapids trial verdict comes as no surprise, it is nonetheless a warning to workers and young people that the defense of basic democratic rights cannot be entrusted to the formal institutions of the capitalist state, including including the courts and the Democratic Party.
An independent political struggle must be waged by the working class to defend democratic rights and defeat the threat of fascism. The ruling class’ turn towards mass repression and fascism is rooted in the acute crisis of the capitalist system, intensified by the coronavirus pandemic, the economic impact of inflation and the widening war against Russia in Ukraine.
Above all, the ruling class fears the growing movement of the working class against increasingly intolerable conditions and is preparing dictatorial methods to defend its wealth and power.
There is no defense of democratic rights apart from the unity of the working class against the capitalist ruling elite in the struggle for socialism.