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Traverse City Police Chief: White supremacists behind violent threats online last week

Max Johnston
Interlochen Public Radio

White supremacists were behind rumors that a protest over the killing of George Floyd would turn violent, according to the Traverse City Police Chief.

“The ‘alt-right’ was saying they were ‘alt-left,’” Chief Jeff O’Brien told city commissioners Monday night.

The protest in the Open Space in Traverse City went on peacefully last Saturday, despite rumors of violence and counter-protests throughout the week.

But O’Brien said his department investigated over 200 tips leading up to it. Working with the F.B.I., he says they eventually found hundreds of social media posts from white supremacists that were posing as members of ANTIFA, a left-wing, anti-fascist political movement. 

“We were pretty certain that there wasn’t gonna be a problem because we vetted them out and we did follow-ups on all of them,” he said.

O’Brien said there are still active investigations into threats from Cadillac and Traverse City. 

Those rumors briefly inspired local radio host and second amendment advocate Randy Bishop to hold an “Open Carry” rally. Bishop planned on hosting the rally and invited right-wing groups like the Michigan Militia and the Proud Boys. It would have been at the same time and place as a protest over Floyd’s killing. Eventually, after a conversation with the police chief, Bishop cancelled the event.

Chief O’Brien gave the briefing at a City Commission meeting, where advocates also repeated demands for policy changes in local law enforcement after Floyd’s death. 

Courtney Wiggins is a resident who gave the demands at the protest last weekend, with the County Sheriff and Police Chief in attendance.

“It was really beautiful to be up there on the stage with my fellow speakers and to see all these people show up,” Wiggins said. “And I hope you [commissioners] show up for us.”

A full list was posted to social media, but the proposals include mandatory body and dash cam use and more implicit bias training.

O’Brien briefly commented on the demands, saying some have already been pursued and welcomed by his department. Specifically, he says officers would like to have more body cams if it’s affordable.

“My department’s not gonna balk at that, they would invite that,” O’Brien said.

At the city commission meeting multiple residents said they supported the proposals. 

Grand Traverse County Sheriff Tom Bensley said Monday morning that his office had just received the demands, and needed time before he could comment on them.

Max came to IPR in 2017 as an environmental intern. In 2018, he returned to the station as a reporter and quickly took on leadership roles as Interim News Director and eventually Assignment Editor. Before joining IPR, Max worked as a news director and reporter at Michigan State University's student radio station WDBM. In 2018, he reported on a Title IX dispute with MSU in his story "Prompt, Thorough and Impartial." His work has also been heard on Michigan Radio, WDBM and WKAR in East Lansing and NPR.