As the nation grapples with the aftermath of a violent invasion of the U.S. Capitol, a new threat is emerging: the possibility of similarly volatile and even violent demonstrations at state capitols and government buildings nationwide.
Even before Wednesday’s riot in the nation’s capital, the Federal Bureau of Investigation warned state officials that they should prepare for potentially violent right-wing protests in state capitals across the country, Yahoo News reported Monday. A Dec. 29 FBI document obtained by Yahoo News specifically cited protests planned in Michigan, Minnesota and other states by the Boogaloos, an extremist right-wing movement, on Jan. 17.
ABC News also reported that armed protests have been planned in all 50 state capitals and in Washington before the Jan. 20 inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden (D). ABC’s report cited an internal FBI document that linked the planned demonstrations to the conspiracy theory-based anger over Trump’s loss in November’s elections ― and Congress’ refusal to overturn the results ― that drove Wednesday’s riots in Washington.
This has heightened worries among lawmakers, law enforcement officials and public security experts about the increasing threat of violent insurrections at the state level, where many public buildings may be even more vulnerable to attack. Authorities in states and localities across the country have said they are aware of the FBI’s warnings and continuing to monitor potential threats, Law & Crime reported.
“There’s significant concern,” Pennsylvania state Sen. Vincent Hughes (D) told HuffPost on Monday. “You see what occurred in Washington, you see eight different states where their capitals had [protests] on Wednesday, you see the pictures of the noose outside the U.S. Capitol. … You start putting the pieces together, and you think, ’This all was dangerous, and this all remains dangerous.’”
Hints of further violence already appeared over the weekend, following the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. On Saturday, dozens of armed protesters rallied outside the Kentucky state Capitol building, marching to protest everything from Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s COVID-19 restrictions to Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s refusal to back President Donald Trump’s futile but dangerous effort to overturn November’s election results.
“It’s unnerving,” Kentucky state Senate Minority Leader Morgan McGarvey (D) said Monday. “The FBI memo should be alarming to government officials in state capitols across the country. What we saw last Wednesday forces us to take these threats seriously. Even this past Saturday in Kentucky, with no signs and really no stated reason for being here, we had armed citizens standing with zip-tie handcuffs outside the Kentucky Capitol.”
Similar anger over Beshear’s COVID-19 measures in Kentucky led to protests in May, when one demonstrator who had ties to the 3 Percenters, a right-wing militia group, hanged Beshear in effigy from a tree outside the state Capitol.
Across the country, the fervor over coronavirus-related restrictions has mixed with and morphed into anger over the result of the November election in recent months, leading to even more unrest in many states.
The size and scope of last week’s riots in Washington caught law enforcement officials off guard, leaving the Capitol vulnerable to the sort of attack that took place. But even without blatant hints of violence from extremist corners of the internet in the weeks before the riot, the potential for an outbreak should have been obvious from demonstrations that have occurred over the last year in state capitals across the nation.
In late April, armed protesters stormed the Michigan state Capitol in Lansing, a demonstration that, like Wednesday’s, was precipitated by a call to action from Trump. (“Liberate Michigan,” he tweeted, as anger festered over the state’s COVID-19 restrictions). Several of the protesters gained access to state legislative chambers and stood armed throughout the day’s legislative session. At least two of those protesters were later arrested on accusations that they were part of a plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D).
Since the election, protests have taken place in every U.S. state capital city, as right-wing demonstrators have attempted to “stop the steal,” the euphemistic slogan they have adopted as the call sign of their doomed, conspiracy theory-driven effort to overturn election results and keep Trump in office despite his convincing loss to Biden in November.
In December, Michigan officials closed the state Capitol amid renewed threats of violence over the process to certify results of November’s election. A mob also broke into the Oregon state Capitol in Salem, breaking windows and entering the building as lawmakers debated COVID-19 measures.
As in Michigan and Washington, D.C., many of the Oregon protesters wore tactical military gear and came armed, and Oregon State Police accused one rioter of using bear spray against officers who attempted to drive them from the state Capitol. Security footage released this week appeared to show that a GOP lawmaker opened a door for one group of protesters, allowing them to access the Oregon Capitol with ease.
Others have remained peaceful ― in Kansas, demonstrators entered the state Capitol through normal security checkpoints, Fox News reported. But there have been rumblings of violence beneath many of the gatherings: When the Kentucky legislature began its 2021 session last week, expected protests didn’t materialize. Still, someone placed at least one sign outside the Capitol in Frankfort that read, “Make hanging traitors great again.”
At Saturday’s rally, more than 100 people gathered outside both chambers of the Kentucky state legislature, and one demonstrator told a news photographer that he was carrying zip-tie handcuffs (of the sort that multiple rioters brought into the U.S. Capitol) “just in case,” the Louisville Courier-Journal reported.
In Washington state, meanwhile, nearly 100 protesters broke through the gate of the governor’s mansion, and at least one man was arrested after demonstrators again entered the Oregon state capitol Wednesday afternoon.
The FBI expressed concerns in the memo obtained by Yahoo News that right-wing groups in Minnesota had used more peaceful demonstrations “to perform reconnaissance to identify escape points and defensible positions in the event violence occurred” at the planned Jan. 17 rally.
While there have not been any specific mentions of planned attacks, the memo said, multiple Boogaloo members have suggested potential violent actions to take at state capitols in Minnesota, Michigan and other states in online forums. One person in Michigan “suggested the idea of using a gasoline-based device with a tripwire in Lansing, Michigan to cause a distraction while other individuals ‘take’ the capitol,” the FBI memo said, according to Yahoo. Police in Washington, D.C. found pipe bombs outside Republican and Democratic Party headquarters during the riots at the Capitol.
The Capitol riots and similar “stop the steal” rallies, meanwhile, may have already inspired other violent outbursts in state capitals: Police arrested an Oregon man on Friday after he scaled a security fence installed outside a federal courthouse in Portland and fired five shots at the building, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported. The man had previously attended a “stop the steal” rally in the state. Police arrested a Michigan man on Thursday, accusing him of calling in a bomb threat to the state Capitol. Multiple protesters in Washington state were arrested Monday for trying to cross a security barrier outside the state Capitol in Olympia, according to local reports.
Many states have begun to take increased precautions in the face of protests, or in preparations for potential violence.
Police evacuated lawmakers from the New Mexico state Capitol amid protests there last week, and Kentucky elected officials reported seeing an increased security presence in Frankfort ahead of the planned “patriot rally.” On Monday, workers began boarding up the windows of the state Capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin, while the Michigan Capitol Commission barred protesters from carrying guns into the state Capitol, a practice that is allowed in more than a dozen states.
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R) and the leaders of its state Senate and House said they would launch a review of security measures in place at the Capitol in Boston. Hughes, the Pennsylvania state senator, said that the Capitol building in Harrisburg had already been “on extreme lockdown” due to COVID-19, but that more intense security measures have been instituted since last week.
The Pennsylvania Senate isn’t currently in session. But with the state House currently meeting and senators due back later this month, Hughes said his state and others need to examine every facet of their security and operations plans to ensure the state Capitol is “a much safer environment.”
“When it’s time to go back, it’s time to go back to work. I’m not gonna be scared,” Hughes said. “I want to believe in my system, and I want to believe that we have the capacity to win on this. But it’s always trust, but verify.”
And while increased security may be the short-term answer to thwarting violence in Washington and state capitals nationwide, Hughes believes that the only way to prevent the sort of insurrection that took place last week is for state and federal prosecutors to aggressively pursue those who fomented the riots, and those who took part in them.
“When you have cancer, you have to take the appropriate chemotherapy,” he said. “Bring to justice every cancerous cell in the body of American politics that caused this insurrection. Otherwise it’s going to spread.”