States declare emergencies, close capitols ahead of rallies

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Members of the Washington National Guard stand at a sundial near the Legislative Building, Sunday, Jan. 10, 2021, at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. Governors in some states have called out the National Guard, declared states of emergency and closed their capitols over concerns about potentially violent protests. Though details remain murky, demonstrations are expected at state capitols beginning Sunday and leading up to President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Responding to warnings of potentially violent demonstrations, governors across the nation are calling out National Guard troops, declaring states of emergency and closing their capitols to the public ahead of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration next week.

Though details remain murky, demonstrations are expected at state capitols beginning Sunday and leading up to Biden’s succession of President Donald Trump on Wednesday. State officials hope to avoid the type of violence that occurred Jan. 6, when a mob of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol, leaving a Capitol Police officer and four others dead.

The FBI has warned of the potential for violence at all state capitols and has said it is tracking an “ extensive amount of concerning online chatter, ” including calls for armed protests.

Governors across the country are sending thousands of National Guard troops to Washington, D.C., where the National Mall has been closed to the general public as part of an intense security effort. More than a dozen governors also have called out the Guard to protect their own state capitols and aid local law enforcement officers.

“We are prepared for the worst, but we remain hopeful that those who choose to demonstrate at our Capitol do so peacefully, without violence or destruction of property,” Michigan State Police Col. Joe Gasper said Friday, as Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced the Guard’s role.

Crews installed a six-foot fence around the Michigan Capitol ahead of expected protests, and ground-level windows were boarded up at a nearby building that houses the governor’s office. Gasper said an increased state police presence would remain at the statehouse at least through mid-February.

Some windows also were boarded at capitols in Wisconsin and Illinois, both of which activated the National Guard to help with security. Though the Wisconsin Capitol already was closed to the public because of the coronavirus, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ administration told those who had been coming into the Capitol to instead work remotely for the rest of the month.

Law enforcement officials were reducing parking around the capitol building in Madison this weekend and urging people to avoid the area as they braced for potential unrest. There was only one known organized event for the day, an anti-fascist demonstration where free food, drinks and clothes were to be distributed.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom is mobilizing up to 1,000 National Guard members over concerns of civil unrest. State officials on Thursday erected a chain link fence around the Capitol, bolstering other temporary and permanent barriers. The California Highway Patrol is refusing to issue permits for rallies at the Capitol.

“We’re treating this very seriously and deploying significant resources to protect public safety, critical infrastructure and First Amendment Rights,” Newsom said in a video message. “But let me be clear: There will be no tolerance for violence.”

Other governors were encouraging people to stay away from capitol buildings during the coming days. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, closed the Capitol until after Biden’s inauguration and activated hundreds of National Guard members.

Citing the possibility of armed protests, Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly on Friday began a one-week restriction on public access to the Capitol. Only those who have business with the Legislature or governor’s office will be allowed inside, and they will have to provide an email showing they have a meeting or are testifying to a legislative committee.

Kelly and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf closed their Capitol buildings for a couple days next week, coinciding with the presidential inauguration. The Pennsylvania Capitol complex already had been closed to the general public because of the coronavirus pandemic, but the new order advises state employees who work in person to take off Tuesday and Wednesday; Monday is the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

“While we are not aware of any specific threats at this time, we want to act with an abundance of caution to keep employees safe,” Wolf’s administration said on its website.

Uncertainty heading into the weekend was a common theme among state officials and law enforcement officers. Many were enhancing security based on past demonstrations or general warnings but without specific expectations about how many protesters, if any, would show up outside state capitol buildings in the coming days.

The National Guard is supplementing security at Washington’s capitol, where people broke a gate and entered the grounds of the governor’s mansion last week. But Washington State Patrol spokesman Chris Loftis said Friday that there are “no known explicit threats” detailing the time, place and action of future demonstrations.

“We cannot be dismissive of the possible dangers but we should not be alarmists either,” Loftis said in an email to media. The state patrol “has been directed to meet this discomforting uncertainty with caution, preparedness, resolve, and calm — certainly, a wise course of action for all.”

Legislatures in several states, including Michigan, also were canceling or limiting their work next week.

Oregon’s Legislature will convene Tuesday. But the House and Senate have canceled floor sessions and committee hearings, and there will be no in-person meetings. Senate President Peter Courtney, a Democrat from Salem, said the decision was made after consulting with police. Last month, a violent crowd entered the Oregon Capitol, fought with police and damaged the building.

The Republican-led South Carolina House and Senate won’t convene in full session next Tuesday or Wednesday, and committees will meet virtually. The Capitol building will be closed from Saturday through Wednesday “out of an abundance of caution,” state and local authorities said in a joint statement.

Republican leaders of the Missouri House also canceled session for next week. Though several House members had expressed security concerns following the unrest in the nation’s capitol, a written statement from GOP leadership cited a rising number of COVID-19 cases in the Capitol building as a reason for the cancellation.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, and Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, a Republican, both declared states of emergency on Thursday ahead of potential demonstrations at their capitols. Fencing was installed in a wide radius around the New Mexico Capitol.

Cox’s order allows authorities to close the Utah Capitol grounds through next Thursday, the day after Biden’s inauguration.

“We respect the right of Utah residents to peaceably assemble as guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution,” Cox said in a statement. “But we draw the line at threats to physical safety or to the Utah Capitol building. No violence of any kind will be tolerated.”

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