Law enforcement in Washington, DC, and state capitols across the country remained on high alert Sunday amid warnings of armed protests ahead of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration.
Demonstrations have so far remained small, as of Sunday afternoon. In Lansing, Michigan, which appeared to be one of the largest protests, an estimated 75 demonstrators and 40 counterprotesters showed up, according to the police chief. That was just a tiny fraction of the attendees who showed up for a protest that turned into a riot at the nation’s Capitol earlier this month.
The FBI has warned of indications that armed protests are being planned at all 50 state capitols and the US Capitol ahead of Wednesday’s inauguration.
A joint bulletin from the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and eight other agencies says domestic extremists pose the most likely threat to the inauguration, particularly those who believe the incoming administration is illegitimate.
In response, the Pentagon has authorized up to 25,000 National Guard members for Inauguration Day in Washington, DC, and much of the area surrounding the country’s iconic political buildings has been fenced off or made inaccessible.
Similarly, state leaders across the US ramped up security around their capitol grounds — pulling in National Guard members for help, erecting barriers, boarding up windows, asking residents to avoid the area and some even closing down capitol grounds altogether.
Large police presence looms over demonstrations
As of Sunday, the heavy security efforts dwarfed the mostly small protests taking place.
In Michigan, group of several dozen demonstrators, some of whom were armed and armored, gathered in front of the state capitol in Lansing under a light snow. But demonstrations had remained peaceful, Lansing Police Chief Daryl Green said in a news conference Sunday afternoon.
In Ohio, a small group of protesters stood in front of the statehouse in Columbus near a large police presence and metal barriers, according to CNN affiliate WSYX.
About two dozen armed protesters showed up for a demonstration outside the Texas capitol in Austin. But they weren’t there to contest the presidential election; instead they wanted to highlight what they believed was an assault on their Second Amendment right to bear arms.
Organizer Ben Hawk said the event had been planned for months, and he didn’t plan for it to be stopped after this month’s events at the Capitol, which he called “repulsive.”
“Biden won the election,” he said. “He won the popular vote, he won the electoral college, votes have been certified. He will be inaugurated as President.”
Meanwhile, capitols in Minnesota, Tennessee, California and Colorado, among others, had a major police presence but few if any protesters.
There were less than a dozen people at the Minnesota capitol in St. Paul — a group that was dwarfed by journalists and law enforcement. One state official told CNN the state’s Department of Public Safety was “cautiously optimistic” about how the day progressed.
In Oregon, five armed people dressed in camo and carrying flags arrived to the state capitol, saying they were anti-government libertarians who did not support either Biden or President Donald Trump.
In Denver, demonstrator Larry Woodall told CNN he was disappointed with the low turnout, saying he’d come out to “support Trump, let him know we still care.”
Woodall said he did not support violence or the Capitol riots this month, and he’d accepted that Biden would be president, calling it “a done deal.”
“We just have to live with that and hope that it doesn’t turn out the way that people are saying it’s going to turn out,” he told CNN, “that they’re going to take our guns, they’re going to force us to do this, force us to do that. I pray to God it’s not like that.”
After being banned from Twitter and Facebook, Trump has not promoted these gatherings. That’s a contrast from his actions before the January 6 rally in DC, when he had repeatedly called for his supporters to converge on the city.
Still, online calls for violence have intensified recently. And experts warn the perceived success of the deadly insurrection earlier this month, when a pro-Trump mob overwhelmed police and took over the US Capitol, may be motivation for another attack.
“As somebody who worked on al Qaeda-related terrorism throughout the 2000s at the Justice Department and worked extensively on counterterrorism investigations and cases, there were several times where we were anticipating a follow-on attack to a world event,” Carrie Cordero, a CNN legal and national security analyst, said Saturday. “I have that same feeling now.”
“It feels like there is a substantial threat that exists,” Cordero added.
Security ramps up ahead of inauguration
The heightened security, combined with the Covid-19 pandemic, is making for an Inauguration Day unlike any other.
In Washington, DC, fences blocked off areas once open to the public, National Guard members patrolled near the Capitol and much of the city was closed to vehicles and street traffic.
The rehearsal for the inauguration ceremony will now be delayed until Monday amid heightened security concerns, acting Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli said. Cuccinelli cited “online chatter” about the previously scheduled rehearsal day of Sunday but said there are “no specific credible threats.”
Because of concern over potential protests at state capitols, security measures are in place around the country. The US Postal Service temporarily removed some mailboxes in several major cities, while the Transportation Security Administration said Friday it has “significantly increased its security posture.”
Washington, DC, Mayor Muriel Bowser urged Americans to enjoy the inauguration virtually from home and has asked anyone who does not need to be out to avoid restricted areas.
Across the country, local and state leaders have also indicated security will remain heightened in the days ahead following officials’ warnings of potentially more violence.
“We are concerned about the entire week,” Green, the Lansing, Michigan, police chief said in Sunday’s news conference, “not just today.”
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.”
In South Carolina, officials in the city of Columbia advised anyone who does not need to be in the city center, near the state’s Capitol, to stay home.
“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.”