Police, Guard brace for ‘armed protests’ at state capitols

State capitol buildings across the nation – including Austin, Texas, where lawmakers carry guns – have called in the National Guard and erected barricades out of fear that far-right groups and supporters of President Trump are plotting a second wave of unrest following last week’s assault on Congress.

An FBI warning of planned “armed protests” in all 50 capital cities and the US Capitol in the days leading up to President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20 has exposed additional SWAT teams and police officers dressed in camouflage, helmets, face shields and bulletproof vests.

The alert unsettled a country that has been rocked by disturbing images in the past seven days: representatives fleeing a violent mob that breaks into the nation’s Capitol, the impeachment for the second time of an increasingly vilified president, and scenes of rage, tears and threats that unfold in airports and on city streets, highlighting a dangerous political divide.

It was difficult to predict where extremist groups such as the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers and the III% Security Force, aka Three Percent, would appear. Since last week’s insurrection, the social media that the far right often uses to communicate, including Parler, have been shut down or cut down. Law enforcement officials have been tracking other channels to gauge how powerful protests can be in the coming days.

In a national conference call on Wednesday, FBI Director Christopher Wray and other federal officials asked local authorities to be vigilant and share intelligence information.

“The message was that not enough information can be shared,” said Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, whose staff monitored the call.

The federal request came when an off-duty Houston officer was relieved of his duties for his alleged involvement in the siege of the United States Capitol.

In Washington state, the largest security force ever seen on Capitol Hill greeted lawmakers who begin their annual session this week. State police and more than 750 National Guard troops in riot gear took turns behind a chain fence around the state building in Olympia, where Trump supporters have protested the COVID-19 shutdowns in recent months. .

“It’s tragic that we have to put up those fences and extra staff on this site,” said Chris Loftis, communications director for the Washington State Patrol. “But believe it: We are determined to protect the people, the place and the process.”

The riot in the United States Capitol on January 6 killed five people, including a police officer and a protester who supported Trump’s unsubstantiated claims that voter fraud had cost him the November election. More than 70 individuals have been charged with crimes related to insurrection, and authorities who track social media and follow public advice are expecting hundreds of arrests.

At the Texas State Capitol in Austin, more than 100 state troopers, some in riot gear, guarded entrances this week as lawmakers returned to work. The first day of the state’s biennial legislative session drew a small number of protesters, including several men in fatigues carrying flags and long-range rifles. The building was open to visitors, including those licensed to carry concealed weapons.

After the attack in Washington, DC, last week, Texas State Senator José Menéndez and several fellow Democrats sent a letter to the Republican governor and legislative leaders asking them to ban guns from the state Capitol. Menendez said no response had been received.

He commented that the head of the Texas Department of Public Safety shared his concerns and promised that state troops and other law enforcement agencies would be deployed to protect returning lawmakers.

“We saw a lot of preparation from the National Guard – a show of force,” Menendez said.

Although some Texas lawmakers said they were armed and ready to defend themselves, Menendez said the Capitol siege demonstrated how difficult it can be, especially for anyone who is not trained to respond to such attacks. Menendez, who is from San Antonio, noted that Texas had 181 state legislators – almost as many, he said, as those who tried to defend the Alamo from Mexican troops in 1836.

“And you know what happened at the Alamo,” he said.

A Michigan state Capitol commission voted this week to ban the open carrying of firearms inside the state building in Lansing. People with concealed weapons are allowed in. Democratic lawmakers have been demanding a comprehensive ban on firearms since last year, when armed protesters defying the COVID-19 state closures stormed the building. Later, 14 men – some of whom had participated in that protest – were arrested in connection with a plot to kidnap Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Michigan State Police increased their presence on Capitol Hill, but the Mayor of Lansing asked Whitmer to dispatch the National Guard. State Police General Dana Nessel, a Democrat who has been threatened at home by pro-Trump protesters in recent weeks warned the public on Twitter: “Our State Capitol is not safe.”

Police responded last week to a bomb threat in the Michigan Capitol against a lawmaker who has been critical of Trump. State Rep. Sarah Anthony, a Lansing Democrat, said she had lobbied the state commission for months to ban guns on Capitol Hill, calling the new open-carrying ban “a half measure.”

Anthony said incoming freshman lawmakers had been asking, “How do I get a bulletproof vest? How do I stay safe? How do I select my seat in the House of Representatives so that in an emergency I can get out of the house? building?

“I never imagined that I would need a bulletproof vest to come to work,” he said. “Many of us feel that we are vulnerable on Capitol Hill because the tension is so high.”

Anthony plans to make the first piece of legislation introduced this week into a bill that encourages Congress to make domestic terrorism a federal crime.

In Georgia, the scene of protests after Trump lost the state and Republicans lost two US Senate elections, lawmakers returned to the Capitol in Atlanta on Monday to discover a new iron fence around the building and armed troops standing guard.

“A fence that was erected largely in response to the Black Lives Matter protests when there was no violence on Capitol Hill is now going to be used to protect us,” said State Representative Teri Anulewicz, a Democrat from the suburb of Izmir.

Anulewicz said the “heavily armed” state troops were “comforting, but it is also worrying that we are in a situation like this.”

She stopped wearing her name tag outside of the Capitol after receiving more than 10,000 emails, some of them threatening, from Trump supporters across the country urging her not to let the election be “stolen” from the president.

“It is chilling to know that there is a real background to these threats, we saw it highlighted in Washington,” Anulewicz said.

Arizona authorities have put up a temporary fence around their state Capitol, just as they did in the summer during the Black Lives Matter protests. Visitors can only enter by appointment.

“We already had a plan to be able to do it quickly,” said Arizona Senate Speaker Karen Fann, a Republican from Prescott. “We hope we can overcome this so that it can be removed (the fence) and let people use these facilities safely.”

“It breaks my heart,” Fann exclaimed over the fence, which he called “ugly.” He said barring public access to the building was “un-American” but necessary given the security warnings.

Last Wednesday, several hundred people, many of them armed, gathered outside the building, he said. But there was no suggestion to ban firearms in the area, he said, adding: “This is Arizona, so you know that’s not going to happen.”

In Salem, Oregon, dozens of police officers stood guard over the Capitol building as newly elected lawmakers took their oath of office just weeks after right-wing protesters had stormed the building, attacking officers after a Republican lawmaker open a locked door. The legislator has been stripped of his committee positions and fined for damages.

State Capitol troops and officers have far outnumbered the number of protesters in this week’s protests.

Conservative activist Jessica Karraker led a rally of about 100 people in Olympia on Sunday, calling on lawmakers to limit Inslee’s emergency powers and to ban discrimination against people who reject COVID-19 vaccines. He criticized the increased security, saying it denied access to citizens.

But Loftis, the spokesman for the State Patrol, said security allowed lawmakers to gather safely at Government House. “It would literally take an army to get into the Capitol building now,” he said.

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