Right-wing demonstrators rally at U.S. statehouses amid heavy law enforcement presence

Canada World

Small groups of right-wing protesters — some of them carrying rifles — gathered outside heavily fortified statehouses around the Unites States on Sunday, outnumbered by National Guard troops and police brought in to prevent a repeat of the violence that erupted at the U.S. Capitol.

As darkness began to fall, there were no reports of any clashes.

Security was stepped up in recent days after the FBI warned of the potential for armed protests in Washington, D.C., and at all 50 state capitol buildings ahead of president-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on Wednesday.

Crowds of only a dozen or two people demonstrated at some boarded-up, cordoned-off statehouses, while the streets in many other capital cities remained empty.

Some protesters said they supported President Donald Trump. But others said they weren’t backing Trump and had instead come to voice their support for gun rights or oppose what they saw as government overreach.

Armed demonstrators protest outside of the Michigan State Capitol building in Lansing, Mich., on Sunday. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

“I don’t trust the results of the election,” said Michigan protester Martin Szelag, a 67-year-old semi-retired window salesman from Dearborn Heights. He wore a sign around his neck that read, in part, “We will support Joe Biden as our President if you can convince us he won legally. Show us the proof! Then the healing can begin.”

As the day wore on with no bloodshed around the U.S., a sense of relief spread among officials, though they were not ready to let their guard down.

The heavy law enforcement presence may have kept turnout down. In the past few days, some extremists had warned others against falling into what they called a law enforcement trap.

Washington State Patrol spokesperson Chris Loftis said he hoped the apparently peaceful day reflected some soul-searching among Americans.

“I would love to say that it’s because we’ve all taken a sober look in the mirror and have decided that we are a more unified people than certain moments in time would indicate,” he said.

WATCH | Former DHS official on U.S. inauguration security:

A former Department of Homeland Security official speaks to CBC News on inaugural security preparations and the threat of right-wing extremism. 8:56

The security measures were intended to safeguard seats of government from the type of violence that occurred at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, when supporters of Trump swarmed the building while Congress was certifying the electoral college vote to confirm Biden’s election.

The attack left a Capitol Police officer and four others dead. More than 125 people have been arrested on charges related to the insurrection.

Dozens of courts, election officials and Trump’s own attorney general have all said there was no evidence of widespread fraud in the presidential race.

Some protesters armed

On Sunday, some statehouses were surrounded by new protective fences, had boarded-up windows and were patrolled by extra police. Legislatures generally were not in session over the weekend.

Tall fences also surrounded the U.S. Capitol in Washington, while the National Mall is closed to the general public and the District of Columbia’s mayor asked people not to visit.

Some 25,000 National Guard troops from across the country were due in the city in the coming days.

The roughly 20 protesters who showed up at Michigan’s Capitol, including some who were armed, were significantly outnumbered by law enforcement officers and media.

At the Ohio Statehouse on Sunday, about two dozen people, including several carrying long guns, protested outside under the watchful eyes of state troopers before dispersing as it began to snow.

Kathy Sherman, who was wearing a visor with “Trump” printed on it, said she supports the president but distanced herself from the mob that breached the U.S. Capitol.

“I’m here to support the right to voice a political view or opinion without fear of censorship, harassment or the threat of losing my job or being physically assaulted,” she said.

Armed demonstrators hold signs outside the Ohio State Capitol in Columbus on Sunday. (Megan Jelinger/Reuters)

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, said he was pleased with the outcome but stressed that authorities “continue to have concerns for potential violence in the coming days, which is why I intend to maintain security levels at the Statehouse as we approach the presidential inauguration.”

At Oregon’s Capitol building, fewer than a dozen men wearing military-style outfits, black ski masks and helmets stood nearby with semi-automatic weapons slung across their bodies. Some had upside-down American flags and signs reading such things as “Disarm the government.”

At the Texas Capitol, Ben Hawk walked with about a dozen demonstrators up to the locked gates carrying a bullhorn and an AR-15 rifle hanging at the side of his camouflage pants. He condemned the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and said he did not support Trump.

Armed demonstrators rally in front of a closed Texas State Capitol in Austin on Sunday. (Matthew Busch/AFP via Getty Images)

“All we came down here to do today was to discuss, gather, network and hang out. And it got blown and twisted completely out of proportion,” Hawk said.

At Nevada’s Capitol, where demonstrators supporting Trump have flocked most weekends in recent months, all was quiet except for a lone protester with a sign.

“Trump Lost. Be Adults. Go Home,” it read.

Governors call in National Guard

More than a third of governors had called on the National Guard to help protect their state capitols and aid local law enforcement officers. Several governors issued states of emergency, and others closed their capitols to the public until after Biden’s inauguration day.

Even before the violence at the U.S. Capitol, some statehouses had been the target of vandals and angry protesters during the past year.

Last spring, armed protesters entered the Michigan Capitol to object to coronavirus-related lockdowns and were confronted by police.

WATCH | National Guard activated in Michigan:

Mayor Andy Schor of Lansing, Mich., says security preparations ahead of inauguration day are in place to prevent violent protests against the presidential election results. 7:15

And just last month, crowds in Oregon forced their way into the state Capitol in Salem to protest its closure to the public during a special legislative session on coronavirus measures.

Anticipating the potential for violence in the coming week, the building’s first-floor windows were boarded up and the National Guard has been deployed.

“The state Capitol has become a fortress,” said Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney, a Democrat. “I never thought I’d see that; it breaks my heart.”

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