Demonstrations in state capitols across the United States were muted this weekend after warnings of armed protests, but officials have indicated they’ll remain vigilant in the days leading up to President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration.
“We are concerned about the entire week, not just today,” Lansing, Michigan, Police Chief Daryl Green said Sunday, after a crowd of protesters and counterprotesters gathered on the grounds of the state Capitol.
Few if any protesters were seen in other state capitals, including in California, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Wisconsin.
Whatever crowds were present were just a fraction of the pro-Trump crowds that converged on Washington, DC, earlier this month, when a protest descended into a deadly riot at the US Capitol. And many of Sunday’s demonstrations were dwarfed by the ranks of police who stood guard to prevent a repeat of the Capitol riot.
“We wanted to make sure what happened in Washington did not happen here in Michigan,” Lt. Michael Shaw of Michigan State Police told CNN, “so we put a lot more security outside, a lot more visible security than normally would be there.”
Still, state and local leaders, as well as those in Washington, DC, are on high alert, with security measures remaining in place through Inauguration Day — particularly in the nation’s capital.
Over the weekend, the streets of Washington were further fortified, surrounded by fences and National Guard troops. As of Sunday evening, 17,000 troops were on the ground, according to National Guard spokesman Maj. Aaron Thacker.
Many of the capital’s monuments and buildings are inaccessible, including the National Mall, which will be closed through at least Thursday. The iconic lawn stretching from the Capitol to the White House, typically a viewing area for presidential inaugurations, was deserted Sunday — something National Park Service spokesman Mike Litterst told CNN was “unprecedented, almost surreal.”
“But it is being done,” he said, “to guarantee that the constitutional mandate of a peaceful transfer of power on January 20 takes place.”
Weekend protests were quiet
Officials braced for potential unrest this weekend after an internal FBI bulletin warned that such demonstrations were being planned at all 50 state capitols through at least Wednesday.
But protests were largely small, with demonstrators — some of whom were armed — vastly outnumbered by police.
A light snow fell Sunday morning in Lansing, Michigan, but an estimated 75 demonstrators and 40 counterprotesters showed up at the Statehouse. Some carried firearms and wore body armor, but protests remained peaceful, officials said.
In Texas, about two dozen armed demonstrators gathered near the state Capitol in Austin, but they rallied in support of Second Amendment rights, the organizer said — not in protest of the results of the presidential election.
In Denver, demonstrator Larry Woodall said he was disappointed by the low turnout of Sunday’s protest. While he accepted that Biden will be inaugurated, Woodall said he wanted to show his support for Trump, suggesting he would vote for Trump in 2024 if he ran for president again.
“Donald Trump ain’t a bad guy. He really isn’t,” Woodall told CNN, adding he was opposed to the violence seen this month at the US Capitol.
About a dozen people — including some who held anti-Trump signs — were at the Minnesota Capitol in St. Paul, which was surrounded by tall, heavy fencing. There were five armed people dressed in camouflage and carrying flags at the Oregon state Capitol in Salem who said they were anti-government libertarians who supported neither Trump nor Biden.
At Ohio’s Statehouse in Columbus, a small group of protesters gathered next to a statue of President William McKinley amid a large police presence and metal barriers, CNN affiliate WSYX reported.
About 40 protesters gathered at the Statehouse in Columbia, South Carolina, for a rally over free speech after social media companies banned Trump, according to CNN affiliate WIS. The organizer of the event, Shawn Laurie, told WIS he didn’t condone the riot at the US Capitol but felt he was being restricted on social media, hampering others from understanding who he really is.
“I’m a patriot, I’m a veteran, I’m not a racist, I’m not hateful, I’m not violent,” he told the station. “I’m an American and that’s it.”
DC is ‘like a combat zone’
Meanwhile, the Pentagon has authorized up to 25,000 National Guard troops for Inauguration Day — an unusually large number, according to retired Army Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, a CNN military analyst.
“The National Guard — or the forefathers of the National Guard, the early days of the militia — have been a part of every inauguration since George Washington,” he said, “but certainly not at this level and certainly not with this kind of background noise going on.”
The deployment of 25,000 troops is about twice the number of National Guard members normally involved in the inauguration, Hertling said.
“It certainly is somewhat like a combat zone,” he said.
The rehearsal for the inauguration ceremony was delayed until Monday amid heightened security concerns, acting Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli said, citing “online chatter” about the previously scheduled rehearsal day of Sunday/ But he said there are “no specific credible threats.”
The Federal Aviation Administration expanded restrictions on DC’s airspace, posting a notice to pilots restricting noncommercial and nonmilitary flights to Dulles International Airport, Baltimore Washington International Airport and Manassas Regional Airport between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. on Inauguration Day.
The bulletin warned that the government “may use deadly force” against any aircraft that’s determined to pose an “imminent security threat.”
‘I encourage you to stay home’
State leaders ramped up security around their capitol grounds in recent days — pulling in National Guard members for help, erecting barriers, boarding up windows, asking residents to avoid the areas and some even closing down capitol grounds altogether.
“It’s pretty clear that the (US) Capitol itself is locked down about as tight as humanly possible,” former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe said Sunday, adding it was hard to imagine a reprise of the Capitol riots taking place there in the next several days, given the security measures in place.
“But,” he added, “we have 50 state capitols around the country that are not nearly as protected as our national Capitol, and those are the places that I fear smaller pockets of this sort of violence could really flare up.”
Minnesota officials told CNN they would “continue to assess potential threats” to their state Capitol, though Bruce Gordon, spokesman for the Department of Public Safety, said there were no current credible threats.
Protests there were quiet Sunday, but Gordon said officials would “enhance” their response and “change tactics as needed” in the coming days.
Texas will keep its state Capitol and its grounds closed through Wednesday, officials said, adding they were aware of “violent extremists who may seek to exploit constitutionally protected events to conduct criminal acts.”
Columbia, South Carolina, officials have similarly advised residents to stay home and stay away from the city center.
“Unless there’s a need, this weekend and certainly on Inauguration Day, to be downtown,” Mayor Stephen Benjamin said, “I encourage you to stay home.”
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan on Friday declared a state of emergency in connection with Biden’s inauguration, allowing state officials to efficiently coordinate resources to help local jurisdictions and nearby states.
“The State of Maryland will continue to do everything we possibly can to secure our nation’s capital,” Hogan said, “and to ensure the peaceful transition of power.”