US cities are girding for a potential new wave of violent pro-Trump protests over the weekend, erecting barriers around political buildings and deploying thousands of security personnel.
The FBI warned police agencies of possible armed demonstrations outside all 50 state capitol buildings starting Saturday through to President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20, fuelled by supporters of President Donald Trump who believe his false claims of electoral fraud.
Michigan, Virginia, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Washington were among more than a dozen states that activated their National Guards to strengthen security. Meanwhile, downtown Washington DC was virtually empty, with streets near the Capitol closed and battalions of camouflaged National Guard soldiers taking up positions across the city centre.
A Virginia man, Wesley Allen Beeler, was arrested on Friday evening at a security checkpoint after police said he presented an “unauthorised inauguration credential,” according to a Capitol Police spokeswoman. Beeler had a loaded handgun and more than 500 rounds of ammunition, according to court papers.
A tearful Beeler later told the Washington Post he had been working security in Washington all week and pulled up to the checkpoint after getting lost. He told the paper he forgot the gun was in his truck and denied having so much ammunition.
Beeler was released after an initial court appearance on Saturday and is due back in court in June, records show.
The nationwide security scramble followed the January 6 attack on the US Capitol by a mix of extremists and Trump supporters, some of whom called for the death of Vice President Mike Pence as he presided over the certification of Biden’s election victory.
The Democratic leaders of four US congressional committees said on Saturday they had opened a review of the events and had written to the FBI and other intelligence and security agencies asking what was known about threats, whether the information was shared and whether foreign influence played any role.
In a nod to both the coronavirus pandemic as well as security concerns, festivities around Biden’s inauguration will largely be held online, though the president-elect still plans to be sworn in and deliver his inaugural address at the Capitol.
The perception that the January 6 insurrection was a success could embolden domestic extremists motivated by anti-government, racial and partisan grievances, spurring them to further violence, according to a government intelligence bulletin dated Wednesday first reported by Yahoo News.
The Joint Intelligence Bulletin, produced by the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and National Counterterrorism Centre, further warned that “false narratives” about electoral fraud would serve as an ongoing catalyst for extremist groups.
Security fears extended beyond legislatures. The United Church of Christ, a Protestant denomination of more than 4,900 churches, warned its 800,000 members there were reports “liberal” churches could be attacked in the coming week.
Following the January 6 violence in Washington, some militia members said they would not attend a long-planned pro-gun demonstration in Virginia, where authorities were worried about the risk of violence as multiple groups converged on the state capital, Richmond.
Some militias across the country have told followers to stay home this weekend, citing the increased security or the risk that the planned events were law enforcement traps.