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State capitols tighten security, brace for unknown as far-right groups plot shows of strength

State capitols nationwide locked down Saturday, with windows boarded up, National Guard troops deployed and states of emergency preemptively declared as authorities braced for potential violence Sunday mimicking the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by a mob of pro-Trump rioters. 

The extraordinary show of security at statehouses that are normally lightly guarded reflected the anxious state of the country ahead of planned demonstrations. It came just days before the presidential inauguration, an event normally rich with pageantry but one that this year has become a possible pretext for insurrection.

Underscoring the unease Saturday was the arrest of a Virginia man who flashed an unauthorized inauguration credential at a checkpoint in the District of Columbia. Capitol Police said he was found to be storing at least one unregistered firearm and more than 500 rounds of ammunition - including hollow-point bullets - in his truck.

Yet even as security forces conspicuously raised their profile in cities far from the nation's capital, the exact nature of the threat remained fluid. Officials acknowledged they did not know what form the next burst of violent right-wing extremists, white-supremacist, anti-government grievance might take - or where it might strike.

"We're prepared that if two people show up, we'll handle that. We're prepared if thousands of people show up, we'll handle that as well," Michigan State Police First Lt. Michael Shaw said as he stood on the grounds of the Victorian-era Capitol building in Lansing.

The Capitol, with its cast-iron dome and spire, was surrounded by temporary barricades that officials said could stay up for weeks. Across the street, the windows of the George W. Romney Building, home to the governor's office, were boarded up. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, the target of a foiled kidnapping plot last year, had called in the National Guard on Friday, and the legislature had canceled its session for the coming week, citing "credible threats."

"We hope everyone stays safe and respects the peaceful transition of power," Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and Speaker of the House Jason Wentworth, both Republicans, said in a statement.

Not every state was taking such robust precautions. In some capital cities, authorities said they had placed extra security forces on standby, while leaving their public profile much the same - resulting in a weekend day that felt much like any other.

"There's been no critical intelligence that something is brewing," Idaho National Guard spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Borders said.

Yet in many other places, authorities were gearing up for trouble - even if they didn't know exactly how it might look.

The FBI issued a bulletin Monday warning that far-right groups were planning to march on state capitals this weekend. Scattered protests on Saturday were quiet and peaceful. Sunday, however, is the day that several well-known extremist groups had identified as the moment to show their nationwide strength.

Whether they follow through is an open question. In recent days, several groups have recanted their call for demonstrations, urging supporters to stay far away, either out of deference to appeals for calm from President Donald Trump or fears of what some have deemed a law enforcement trap.

Experts said those decisions, plus the deterrent effect of the aggressive security response, may be enough to avoid a repeat of the chaos at the U.S. Capitol. At least for now.

"Hopefully it will be very quiet over the next three or four days," said Alexandra Minna Stern, a professor of history, American culture, and women's and gender studies at the University of Michigan who studies the state's far right. "After that, though, these groups aren't going away."

And even if some of the better known national organizations - such as the Proud Boys - say they don't intend to participate in Sunday's demonstrations, other, more localized groups may.

Such organizations have proliferated recently, said Alexander Reid Ross, an adjunct professor at Portland State University and a research fellow at the Center for the Analysis of the Radical Right. And it could be a recipe for problems in capitals such as Austin, Denver, Sacramento and Albuquerque.

"A lot of places that have very liberal metropolitan areas and very conservative outlying areas, have tended to accumulate more far-right militant groups, especially last year to this year," Ross said. "These are white males, Generation X and millennials who feel like their access to white privileges are slipping a little bit, and the country is no longer made in their image."

Anger over the supposedly stolen presidential election has added to the discontent, though there is no evidence to support claims of widespread fraud. Some who stormed the Capitol this month were also motivated by a backlash against coronavirus restrictions.

In Ohio, where the governor has pursued an aggressive strategy to contain the pandemic, authorities said they are expecting a rally by the "boogaloo boys," an organization of armed, far-right extremists.

The Ohio Statehouse in Columbus was ringed with temporary metal fencing and signs that say "Security Line Do Not Cross" on Saturday. Its first-floor windows were boarded up and beneath its immense Doric columns, State Highway Patrol troopers walked the porticoes. The plan was to keep the building closed through Wednesday.

"We don't really know what's going to happen, but we want to be prepared," said a man boarding up the windows of a nearby pizza parlor, OH Pizza and Brew.

Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, said as he authorized the use of the National Guard that the aim was to prevent a repeat of the anarchy on display in Washington.

"We were horrified by what we saw take place in the Capitol last week," he said. "Violence will not be tolerated."

Yet violence might be what some demonstrators seek.

The boogaloos "are hardcore, anti-government, including anti-police," said David A. Licate, a criminal justice professor at the University of Akron who researches hate crimes and domestic terrorism and has served on an FBI team dealing with extremists. "The officers at the capitol will have to be very careful."

"People may have a false sense of comfort [in Columbus] because Ohio voted for Trump, but I don't think it matters," Licate said, adding that the boogaloos' "whole objective is to provoke a second Civil War."

There's recent precedent for political unrest in Columbus: On Jan. 6, the same day the U.S. Capitol was breached, skirmishes broke out near the Ohio Statehouse between pro-Trump demonstrators and counterprotesters.

There has also been trouble in Oregon's capital, Salem: In December, a group of right-wing protesters entered the Capitol after a Republican state representative let them in. The representative, Mike Nearman, was fined and his colleagues restricted his access to the building.

Ahead of possible demonstrations this week, Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, called up the National Guard, windows were boarded up and the legislature delayed its opening session. On Saturday at least, all was peaceful: People strolled through the Capitol grounds with their dogs and a few kids ran through the grass.

One of the few protesters present, Al Ashcroft, from McMinnville, Ore., held a homemade sign proclaiming "Don't Impeach Trump."

On the other side of the wide sidewalk, in front of the shuttered Capitol building, Kathy Shrum from Independence, Ore., held a sign that read "White supremacy is terrorism."

Protests were also small in Austin on Saturday, though law enforcement was on high alert, with Texas Department of Public Safety officers in riot gear scattered throughout the capitol grounds as armed demonstrators began to arrive. Authorities had closed the pink granite building and grounds, and all entrances remained locked and chained shut.

One demonstrator, who declined to give his name, wore a tactical vest, with a military-style assault rifle slung over his shoulder. He was present, he said, "because it's our right."

Hundreds of law enforcement officers surrounded the Minnesota Capitol building Saturday morning, far outnumbering a group of about 50 protesters who had gathered, including one who carried a sign that read, "The steal is real."

The mostly peaceful protest was one of two known gatherings in St. Paul this weekend. State officials said Friday there were no known "credible threats" against the Capitol building, but were preparing for the unknown.

After fencing off the Capitol grounds in Sacramento, Calif., officials on Saturday began deploying National Guard troops around the city, posting them in front of federal buildings, busy intersections and other areas that could be targets for protesters.

Pro-Trump demonstrators have said they plan to gather Sunday to protest the certified presidential election results. But authorities denied a permit for 3,000 people to rally, based on health rules designed to protect against the spread of the coronavirus. It was unclear whether the rally will go forward without the permit.

Still, Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, is taking few chances, calling up 1,000 National Guard troops. Authorities also closed the public galleries inside the Capitol on Friday, following a state Senate hearing the previous day. Ostensibly about the coronavirus vaccine, one speaker, who did not give her name, warned lawmakers that "17 million guns were bought in the United States."

"Keep threatening us. Keep taking our s--- away," she continued. "Keep telling us we can't do anything about it and see how much longer we're going to sit here and wait to give public comment. We didn't buy guns for nothing."

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, a Republican, also called up the National Guard and took the extra step of declaring a state of emergency.

Utah Department of Public Safety spokesman Nick Street said that tensions had been high in the wake of the Jan. 6 incursion on the U.S. Capitol and immediate reports that there would be armed protests at all 50 state capitals, but seemed to have eased in the days since.

"It's kind of been a roller coaster of information," he said.

The Utah Patriots, a group that had planned a pro-gun rally at the Capitol on Sunday, has instead warned its members to stay away, telling the Salt Lake Tribune that "bad actors" are planning to "incite violence and frame patriots for it."

As of noon Saturday, only a single protester had arrived at the footsteps of the Utah Capitol. Pete Liacopoulos, of Salt Lake City, said he hoped everyone would "be good" this weekend after the vandalism and violence at the U.S. Capitol, which he insisted "wasn't Trump."

"I'm not here to cause problems," he said. "If they want me to leave, I'll leave."

- - -

Witte and Craig reported from Washington, Ruble reported from Lansing and Whoriskey reported from Columbus, Ohio. The Washington Post's Arelis R. Hernandez and Eva Ruth Moravec in Austin; Rachel Lerman in Salem, Ore.; Matthew LaPlante in Salt Lake City; Holly Bailey in St. Paul; Scott Wilson in Sacramento; Maria Sacchetti in Frankfort, Ky.; Kathy Lynn Gray in Columbus, Ohio; Amy Worden in Harrisburg, Pa.; Jane Gottlieb in Albany, N.Y.; Dan Simmons in Madison, Wis.; Carissa Wolf in Boise, Idaho; Jeremy Borden in Raleigh, N.C.; Jennifer Oldham in Denver; Robert Klemko in Lansing, Mich.; Jay Greene in Olympia, Wash.; Haisten Willis in Atlanta and Austyn Gaffney in Louisville contributed to this report.

 

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