US capitals batten down on fears of more political violence

 US capitals batten down on fears of more political violence

As US state capitals brace for possible violence ahead of the presidential inauguration next week, Kathy Sheehan is leaving nothing to chance.

Mayor of Albany, capital of New York state, for the past seven years, she has witnessed thousands of people protesting at the state house on every issue from gun rights to education funding.

“You name it, we have it here”, she told the Financial Times.

But on the morning of January 6, two people were stabbed and a third taken into custody at a pro-Trump protest in the city — one of many around the country that included the rampage in Washington DC in which five people died.

“The difference”, Ms Sheehan said, “is we are seeing a call to armed protest. That is not something we have experienced here before.”

Albany is one of 50 state capitals stepping up security in the wake of last week’s deadly insurrection at the US Capitol in Washington. The FBI warns of potential threats to state houses by extremist groups in the remaining days of the Trump administration. 

Members of the National Guard walk past the US Capitol in Washington as preparations are made for Joe Biden’s inauguration © DPA Picture Alliance

On Friday, Michigan became the latest to activate the National Guard in preparation for more violence, following California’s move the day before.

Michigan was a flashpoint for such demonstrations last year. Armed protesters rallied at the statehouse in April to oppose Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer‘s orders to curb the spread of coronavirus. In the autumn, the FBI arrested several men and charged them with conspiring to kidnap the governor and put her “on trial” for treason.

Major General Paul Rogers of the Michigan National Guard declined to say how many troops were being deployed but said it was a “significant” response “to help protect people, facilities and key infrastructure”.

Teams of federal, state and city officials are working around the clock across the country to shore up physical defences such as concrete and metal barriers around state property.

Antoinette Bacon, acting US attorney for the Northern District of New York, said the justice department is doing its “very best to ensure that the violence that happened in DC does not happen here in Albany”.

Part of that work, she said, is clarifying what does and does not constitute the right to free speech enshrined in the US First Amendment.

“Let’s be very clear: violence is not speech. Stabbing, shooting, destroying property, hurting other people: that’s not speech. Those are criminal acts and they should and must be prosecuted.”

The entrance to Albany’s state capitol is closed to the public as the city braces for possible violence © Sara Germano, FT

Over the past week, concrete barriers have been set up to block an access road next to New York’s state capitol, which is situated in the heart of Albany’s downtown, steps away from other state and local office buildings and a bustling restaurant and bar scene. Metal grates adorned with “no trespassing” signs now block the steps to the French château-style capitol building, and both state and local officials are stepping up police presence.

Officials say they are expecting demonstrations in the area leading up to Mr Biden’s inauguration. Thomas Relford, special agent in charge of the FBI field office in Albany, said that, as of Thursday, “there are no specific, no credible threats that there is going to be any type of armed protest” in the region.

Mayors of state capitals around the country took part in a Zoom webinar this week to discuss security and safety plans for their cities, according to Ms Sheehan. Mayors of capitals from Sacramento to Santa Fe have issued statements pledging increased security. Municipal officials in Tallahassee, capital of Florida, said it will close its city hall on Tuesday and Wednesday of next week on local police advice.

Meanwhile, the handling of last week’s skirmish in Albany has heightened tensions. State police said that “a preliminary investigation into the [state capitol] incident has determined, after a fight broke out between rally-goers and counter-protesters, two of the rally-goers were stabbed by a counter-protester”.

All Of Us, a local activist group, held a demonstration outside the capitol and posted to its Facebook page on Wednesday, arguing that police are disproportionately arresting and charging opponents to pro-Trump groups.

Ms Sheehan said that she respects individuals’ first amendment right to peacefully protest and speak their mind on issues, and understands that as the state capital, Albany is a magnet for such protests. 

Albany is the capital of a strongly Democratic state anchored by the nation’s largest city, New York, some 150 miles south along the Hudson River. But it is surrounded by a more politically conservative upstate region, and over the course of the 2020 presidential campaign the city became a focal point for regular gatherings of what Ms Sheehan described as “very large Trump caravans”.

“They came from all over, it was intimidating,” she said. “I had calls from residents saying they saw people bearing rifles out of their windows, their cars were boxed in. Those kinds of tactics have people on edge.”

additional reporting by Claire Bushey in Chicago

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