Legislatures boost security after insurrection, FBI warnings
State legislatures and law enforcement officials are boosting security at capitol complexes around the country after the violent insurrection in Washington, D.C., last week and in the face of FBI warnings of armed protests in the coming days.
Legislators say they are increasingly anxious about the armed protests, which began last year in response to lockdowns imposed to stem the coronavirus pandemic and are mounting over President Trump’s false allegations about election impropriety.
“Public safety is our first job, and we cannot allow incidents to develop where public safety is threatened, and that includes our staff,” said Karen Keiser (D), president pro tempore of the Washington state Senate. “It’s really heartbreaking to see this, and yet we have to go forward with the business of government.”
Keiser spoke to The Hill as she looked out her office window at a line of National Guard troops deployed behind a safety fence on the first day of Washington’s legislative session, a week after protesters jumped a fence outside Gov. Jay Inslee’s (D) residence.
Protests this week did not turn violent in Olympia, either because of heightened police presence, a backlash against the insurrection in the nation’s capital or because of a timely rainstorm.
“We must have had at least several hundred, I don’t know the exact number, law enforcement officers, mostly from the Washington State Patrol,” said state Sen. John Braun, the Republican minority leader. “I feel very safe.”
Agencies in other states are also increasing police presences and erecting new safety and security measures.
Montana’s Capitol complex increased the number of law enforcement officers stationed around the legislature and the governor’s office. The Wyoming Highway Patrol said it would add officers around the Capitol in Cheyenne. More Alaska State Troopers will be deployed in Juneau, public safety officials said.
Texas lawmakers opened their session Tuesday under the watch of a substantially larger number of troops from the Department of Public Safety than usual as a small group of armed protesters gathered outside.
Mississippi law enforcement has been preparing safety precautions ahead of expected protests next week in Jackson.
“I strongly support anyone’s right to peacefully protest,” Gov. Tate Reeves (R) told reporters at a press conference. “But I want everyone to understand, in Mississippi we are prepared and we will be prepared.”
Florida legislative leaders have told staff and even members to avoid the Capitol in Tallahassee in the coming days. In a letter, state Senate President Wilton Simpson (R) asked staff to work from home rather than traveling to the Capitol complex.
Lawmakers have been rattled by the increasing number of protesters who show up with long guns, body armor and military fatigues.
“We get the armed protestors with the machine guns and the 9 millimeters strapped to their legs, and it is scary,” said Ohio state Sen. Kenny Yuko, the Democratic minority leader. “I will not feel safe until this week passes and we get a better determination of what’s going to happen.”
Heavily armed demonstrators gathered at Kentucky’s state Capitol in Frankfort, where they rallied against Gov. Andy Beshear (D) — as well as Sens. Mitch McConnell (R) and Rand Paul (R).
At least one plot to kidnap and harm an elected official was disrupted last year when federal agents arrested a group of right-wing extremists who planned to attack Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D).
“The dangerous times we find ourselves in — thanks to provocations from the outgoing president — require that every state take stock in how they are protecting their government,” said Michigan state Sen. Jim Ananich (D), the minority leader.
Ananich criticized Republicans who voted to ban the practice of openly carrying firearms at the state Capitol — but not the carrying of concealed weapons.
The tension in legislatures was compounded Sunday, when the FBI warned state law enforcement officials of plans for armed protests in all 50 state capitols and in Washington, D.C., over the coming week. At least 20,000 National Guard troops will be in Washington for President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration.
In Ohio, Yuko worried that the insurrection in Washington was a preamble to greater unrest ahead.
“I have no reason to doubt that they’re capable of doing the same damn things here. Right now they have cover, too,” he said in an interview. “This type of behavior cannot be tolerated.”