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State Capitols Brace for Right-Wing Violence

The FBI warns that pro-Trump protests are planned at U.S. statehouses before the presidential inauguration. Long targets of far-right militias, capitol buildings now face new security fears. 

State Capitols Brace for Right-Wing Violence

The FBI warns that pro-Trump protests are planned at U.S. statehouses before the presidential inauguration. Long targets of far-right militias, capitol buildings now face new security fears. 

Trump supporters gathered the Oregon State Capitol on January 6. 

Trump supporters gathered the Oregon State Capitol on January 6. 

Photographer: Nathan Howard/Getty Images North America
Trump supporters gathered the Oregon State Capitol on January 6. 
Photographer: Nathan Howard/Getty Images North America

Robert Futrell has spent decades studying right-wing militia movements. A professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, he watched as a mob of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, killing a Capitol Police officer. Four others also died in the attack, which was part of an ongoing effort by President Donald Trump to subvert the presidential election. Similar demonstrations, some violent, also erupted at several state capitals, including Salem, Oregon. 

The insurrection was a shocking but not unexpected illustration of the threat posed by militias and white supremacist terror — a danger he believes the nation is belatedly coming to terms with.

“My sense is we’re not ready,” he says. “We’re starting to take it seriously, but we’re really behind.”

On Monday, an FBI bulletin warned of the possibility of further attacks aimed at the literal and symbolic centers of representative government: “Armed protests are being planned at all 50 state capitols” before the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden on Jan. 20, starting Jan. 16, and again at the U.S. Capitol beginning Jan. 17. In a briefing on Monday evening with federal lawmakers, Capitol Police also outlined three potential new attacks planned for D.C. during the inauguration period. (D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has warned Americans to stay away from the nation’s capital earlier that day.)

The threats might not materialize, but they should be taken seriously, Futrell says. “Most experts expect violence,” he says. “Street-level violence, maybe bombings. There are threats all the time, and it’s hard to pinpoint who spins out of these networks and commits the kind of violence we fear.” 

By the end of this week, three-fourths of all state legislatures will have opened their new sessions, as well as their doors to the public. What can be done to protect these halls of democracy, the workings of government, those who work inside, and the cities whose identity and economy depend on functioning state government? 

“That is the challenge, making sure the government can function and perform its duties and function in a free society, while protecting the people charged with doing that,” says Brian Lynch, a former FBI SWAT team member and executive director of safety and security at RANE, a security consulting and risk management firm. “What’s the priority, open and functioning government at the expense of the safety of those people doing the government’s business? That’s the issue, and there’s going to be plenty of ongoing conversation.”

Protestors Rally At Kansas State Capitol Against Governor's Stay-At-Home Order
In April, armed protesters gathered at the Kansas Statehouse in Topeka, Kansas, in defiance of stay-at-home orders designed to slow the spread of the coronavirus. 
Photographer: Jamie Squire/Getty Images North America

A series of right-wing attacks on statehouses in 2020 helped set the stage for the violence in D.C. on Wednesday. On Jan. 20, 2020, participants in a pro-gun rally stormed Virginia’s seat of government in Richmond, while in April the Michigan State Capitol was overrun with armed demonstrators who objected to the state’s Covid-19 measures; 13 people were arrested in October after a foiled plot to kidnap Michigan’s Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer. (Some Michigan lawmakers now wear bulletproof vests into the legislative chambers.) Other attacks and armed protests have taken place in Georgia, under the eagle-topped dome of Idaho’s capitol building in Boise (maskless protesters barged into legislative chambers in August) and in Oregon (in December, a Republican state representative was later found to have let protesters into the capital through a side door). Some participants in violence in Salem went on to the Jan. 6 event in D.C. 

Statehouse threats have continued after the failed attack on the U.S. Capitol: In Frankfort, Kentucky, local militia held a rally in front of the state capitol on Saturday, with some participants brandishing zip ties. (Governor Andy Beshear tweeted: “We will not be bullied. America is counting on the real patriots. Those who condemn hate and terror when they see it.”) 

In response, a wave of new security measures is expected in and around the U.S. Capitol, which has already seen extensive limits to public access via bollards and fencing since the 9/11 attacks. But many U.S. statehouses are comparatively lightly defended, and the buildings themselves — sites of visitor tours and school field trips, centers of legislative work and representative democracy — could be dramatically altered by this past weeks’ events. State capitol buildings, built to embody the values of representative democracy, are the nation’s “unique contribution to monumental architecture,” wrote historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock in Temples of Democracy: State Capitols of the U.S.A. Most are grand, domed facilities that are designed to be open; Hawaii’s modernist statehouse even boasts an open-air rotunda, for example, that gives the public a view of politics in action. 

Balancing security, historic character and the functioning of an open government — with public space for protected First Amendment protests — is “very complicated,” says security expert Paul Joyal, a former Capitol Police officer and director of security for the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence who is now the director of homeland security practices at National Strategies, a consulting firm focused on local government, including safety and security.

The threats to state capitols in and around the inauguration should be taken seriously, says Joyal: He believes there’s a “broader conspiracy” at work, and right-wing extremists were waiting for a successful attack on the Capitol to launch other attacks across the country. 

Other experts on right-wing extremism are similarly alarmed. “This threat will absolutely not go away after Biden’s inauguration,” says Hampton Stall, the founder of MilitiaWatch, which tracks the right-wing militia movement. “I’m not sure what future mobilization towards the national capital may look like in the future, especially from militia organizations I’m most familiar with, but state capitals have been a target for their mobilizations for years now.”

In the past, militia groups have targeted state buildings because “they believe that the government as it stands isn’t a government of the people, it’s one of the elites plotting to control the population,” says Futrell. “Militias don’t see the government as it exists today as a defensible one.” 

Responses to the rising threat have been varied. In Madison, crews are boarding up ground floor windows of the Wisconsin Statehouse. Washington Governor Jay Inslee activated hundreds of National Guard Troops to help keep order at the Washington State Capitol in Olympia. South Dakota has set up new security screenings in Pierre, even creating a TSA PreCheck-style Fast Pass for frequent visitors. Michigan legislators banned open carry of firearms inside the capitol in Lansing on Monday, even as Texas legislators discussed bringing more guns into session in Austin. “Pretty sure more #txlege members are going to start carrying inside the Capitol,” Republican state representative Briscoe Cain tweeted

Joyal has four immediate recommendations for state leaders and law enforcement seeking to shore up defenses in the coming days. First, he proposes expanding the investigative capabilities of the FBI and state police agencies.  Giving law enforcement the power to categorize right-wing militia groups as domestic terrorist organizations, for example, would allow the FBI the full use of all its investigative tools to surveil such groups for advance knowledge of any impending attack. 

Second, and perhaps most important for state capitols, ban weapons from statehouses and any government buildings or facilities. “If men in combat fatigues with beards and regalia show up, people are intimidated, and so is law enforcement,” he says. “Half the time, they have better weapons than the cops do. This type of intimidation must be deterred and prevented. The more guns on public display the more dangerous the situation.” If there’s pushback from pro-gun legislators, Joyal suggests citing former California Governor Ronald Reagan, who, in 1967, signed legislation banning guns at the statehouse after Black Panther activists brought weapons with them as part of “police patrols.” 

Third, he says statehouses and other state offices need to make sure all computer systems can be shut down remotely, to prevent bad actors from hacking into state systems or planting malware

In the longer term, state capitals can look into structural security measures, such as reinforced doors and hallway barriers that can be closed if mobs storm the building, creating safe rooms to protect officials and legislators who may be trapped inside, and pre-positioning portable fencing that can be swiftly put in place to impede attacks or encroachment. 

But turning statehouses into impregnable fortresses surrounded by armed troops could bring its own risks, Futrell says. “The more the state arms up against their claims of violence, the more it feeds into the conspiracies that they hold.” 

When asked about new measures being taken in response to the FBI bulletin, law enforcement agencies in Georgia and Michigan refrained from providing many details. “We do not share our operational plans,” a Georgia Department of Public Safety spokesperson told Bloomberg CityLab. “However, we are prepared to respond in the appropriate manner as we have always done in the past. Our primary concern will always be the safety of everyone who works at or visits the Capitol grounds.” In response to queries, the Michigan State Police, one of three agencies guarding the capitol, said, “We do not comment on security measures at the Capitol. We do continuously monitor and re-evaluate security protocols at the Capitol.” For example, the Michigan legislative buildings closed in December during the counting of electoral votes, due to a credible threat of violence.

After Jan. 6, Joyal expects such threats will be taken even more seriously.

“It wasn’t a failure of intelligence,” he says of the U.S. Capitol attack. “It was a failure of political will and the leadership of the police to think the unthinkable. We face a very troubled time.”