Authorities in cities from coast to coast mobilized a military-style defense of state capitol complexes on Sunday, rolling out Humvees, concertina wire and thousands of National Guard troops clad in battlefield helmets to defend against a possible onslaught of rioters whipped up by the baseless claims of the American president.
The assault never came. Despite warnings from the FBI and boasts from armed, far-right extremist groups, security forces in every instance outnumbered scattered groups of demonstrators, and there were no reports of violence.
Yet the show of force — and the reasons behind it — marked an unsettling start to a week that will include the most contentious transfer of presidential power in modern U.S. history. And although Sunday passed peacefully, there was no reason to think that the threat had disappeared, raising questions of whether the escalated response reflected a new American normal.
“I turned around and saw all these soldiers and their trucks, standing there with these frickin’ huge guns, and that’s just not how it’s supposed to be,” said Louisa Piper, a nurse who was out walking her dog, Sierra, at Utah’s Capitol Hill on Sunday morning. “It almost made my cry.”
Shortly after sunrise, Utah officials had fortified the state capitol with Humvees and hundreds of National Guard troops. And from coast to coast, similar weapons of war created chilling scenes of dysfunction in America’s outposts of democracy.
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In the Pennsylvania capital of Harrisburg, troops took up elevated positions around the capitol complex. Law enforcement drones hovered over the capitols in Albany and in Phoenix. And in Kentucky, both Humvees and armored personnel carriers were positioned in driveways leading to the capitol. SWAT officers guarding the Georgia Capitol were armed with M-4 rifles and paintball guns.
The remarkable display of firepower at state capitols — many normally sleepy and lightly defended — was in direct contrast to the force that was guarding the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, when it was breached by a mob of pro-Trump rioters — a scene the nation’s governors hoped to avoid being repeated in their states.
They said they didn’t mind if the precautions they took ended up looking like overkill.
“We have gone to an extreme amount of trouble to prepare for what we hope doesn’t happen,” Sgt. William Gregory, public affairs commander for the Kentucky State Police said Sunday morning near the steps to the state capitol in Frankfort.
There were no arrests reported related to events in state capitals. But in Washington, where most of downtown was essentially locked down ahead of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration Wednesday, a 22-year-old Virginia man whose Facebook page featured a photo from the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol was arrested near the Capitol complex Sunday, carrying three high-capacity magazines, 37 rounds of unregistered ammunition and a Glock 22 firearm.
But a week after federal officials warned that armed far-right extremist groups were planning to march on state capitals, the protests on Sunday were mostly limited to a few dozen people in a handful of states.
[State capitols tighten security and brace for the unknown as far-right groups plot shows of strength]
Many of the demonstrators appeared to be linked to the “boogaloo bois” movement, a loose collection of anti-government groups who say the country is heading for civil war. The movement includes people who hold a variety of political views, with supporters often saying they support neither President Trump nor Biden.
In Ohio, about a dozen men wearing body armor and carrying AK-47s, AR-15s and extra magazines, identifying themselves as “boogaloos,” stood in front of the capitol in Columbus, telling onlookers not to fear their weapons, saying they were there to “unify” the people.
“Don’t let our firearms scare you,” Henry Locke told the crowd of about 25, many of them journalists covering the anticipated protests. “Right now, there is too much division going on. . . . Instead of fighting with your neighbors, we need to unify.”
In Austin, an Air Force veteran with political aspirations came to the Texas Capitol with about 10 armed demonstrators Sunday afternoon to push for an end to the two-party political system.
Stephen Hunt, a 25-year-old college student in Abilene, Tex., brought a loudspeaker and, wearing a navy suit and burgundy ascot, spoke to a gathered crowd of about 30 people.
“Let today be the day we reignited the torch of liberty,” Hunt said. “It pains me to see this kind of divide.”
In Phoenix, fewer than a dozen demonstrators gathered outside a state capitol fortified with two layers of fencing and concertina wire. A few wore Trump paraphernalia or carried guns. One woman walked circles around the capitol complex fingering a set of rosary beads and saying the Hail Mary.
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Two men who identified themselves as part of the boogaloo movement set up a portable speaker to play what they said was a carefully curated playlist for the day, including the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” and AJR’s “Burn The House Down.”
Another man, Aaron Kotzbauer, 50, wore a holstered gun and a T-shirt that read “Make America shoot straight again” and said he had come to protest the state’s coronavirus restrictions. He blamed the low turnout on apathy.
“I think apathy runs really high in the country, and especially deep in Arizona,” said Kotzbauer, adding he had driven 40 minutes from his home in Surprise, Ariz., just as he has nearly every day for weeks.
Kotzbauer wasn’t happy with Biden’s win, but he said national politics were only “an ancillary part” of why he was there; so small “I wouldn’t even associate the two.”
“I’m not naive enough to say I’m going to have any influence on that,” he said of Biden’s upcoming inauguration.
In other states where the demonstrations failed to materialize, some residents were angered and alarmed that the nation appeared to be sliding toward a period of extended instability in the wake of the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol.
In Atlanta, where dump trucks blocked off roads near the Georgia Capitol, 47-year-old Latisha Morris said she continues to blame Trump for stoking the nation’s division.
“Biden won fair and square!” said Morris. “But then you had all these Trump activists come to the White House. They destroyed the Capitol, broke windows, a cop died of his injuries and a female was shot and killed, all because he told them to do it. Now there’s a big ‘ol mess that has to be cleaned up because of Trump’s arrogance.”
For now, Morris said she is grateful for the police presence and glad Georgia’s gold dome was locked down this weekend. But she wonders whether her neighborhood will remain peaceful.
“People have to work in there every Monday through Friday,” Morris said.
At the North Carolina State Legislative Building in Raleigh, Rich Richards and Lindsey Moore had to take a detour during their morning walk when they saw the building was barricaded by police.
The couple then reflected on how the lockdown coincided with the Martin Luther King holiday, a day that symbolizes both racial progress but also the strife the nation endured during the 1960s.
“Fifty-two years ago was not peaceful either,” said Moore, a 36-year-old general contractor who lives in Raleigh. “But what came of that was for the better.”
In Denver, where a flock of geese jostled for space with reporters on the steps off the Colorado Capitol, passersby said they worried that the media was adding to the tensions by encouraging even more fringe groups to seek out publicity for their views.
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“We can over-sensationalize something and some part of us wants to see it,” said John Barber, 59. “I think we are almost perpetuating or enabling it, until everyone’s consciousness starts transcending this — we almost have to wean ourselves off of it.”
Yet, federal and state law enforcement officials have stressed that the potential for violence from extremist groups will persist through Biden’s inauguration, and probably for months or years to come.
“We’re on high alert because of the general volatility,” Melvin Carter, mayor of St. Paul, Minn., said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
“Our FBI is telling us they are tracking those individuals who they think are — may have been kind of presenting those kind of specific threats,” Carter said. “And they’re at a space right now where we continue to be on a state of high readiness because this moment is just so insane.”
Alexander Reid Ross, an adjunct professor at Portland State University and a research fellow at the Center for Analysis of the Radical Right, said it will be difficult for any state to let their guard down anytime soon, given the variety of heavily armed, and increasingly militant, groups that exist in the country.
Still, after spending the past few days analyzing data of far-right groups and their recent actions, Ross said he believes Salem, Ore., Austin, Sacramento, Richmond and Salt Lake City are places where new demonstrations could become especially unruly.
On Sunday in Minnesota, the pro-Trump demonstrators who showed up at the capitol said they were there just to pray.
Just below the capitol steps, where dozens of state patrol officers in riot gear had formed lines of protection around the building, Becky Strohmeier unfolded a portable nylon chair and unpacked her Bible.
[State capitals face threat of armed protests, FBI warns]
Strohmeier is affiliated with Hold the Line Minnesota, a conservative activism group, and has been holding near-weekly gatherings at the capitol and the nearby governor’s mansion in support of Trump’s false claims of election fraud.
As she looked around at the sparse crowd and overwhelming presence of law enforcement, Strohmeier said she worries that conservatives feel scared to speak out.
“A lot of people have been threatened. They’ve been censored. They’ve been attacked,” said Strohmeier, a 33-year-old stay-at-home mother. “And all this week we’ve heard, ‘There’s threats of violence, there’s no threats of violence. There’s false flags, there’s this, there’s that.’ I mean, people are afraid they might get arrested just for showing up as a Trump supporter and that’s very scary for a lot of people.”
In Ohio, however, demonstrators affiliated with the boogaloo movement said they will keep holding events to draw attention to their cause. But some expressed only lukewarm support for the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol building last week.
“They could’ve done it a different way — they could’ve kept it peaceful,” said one 27-year-old man who would identify himself only by his nickname, “Prison.”
He was carrying an AR-15 rifle.
Hauslohner reported from Phoenix, Whoriskey reported from Columbus, Ohio, and Bailey reported from St. Paul, Minn. Kayla Ruble in Lansing, Mich.; Jane Gottlieb and Shayna Jacobs in Albany, N.Y.; Brittany Shammas in Tallahassee; Matthew David LaPlante in Salt Lake City; Faiz Siddiqui in Sacramento; Christine Spolar and Amy Worden in Harrisburg, Pa.; Alex Horton and Haisten Willis in Atlanta; Eva Ruth Moravec and Arelis R. Hernandez in Austin; Carissa Wolf in Boise, Idaho; Jennifer Oldham in Denver; Kathy Lynn Gray in Columbus; and Maria Sacchetti in Frankfort, Ky., contributed to this report.