WASHINGTON – Fencing around the U.S. Capitol is being reinstalled in advance of Tuesday’s State of the Union address, authorities announced Sunday in a statement that also referred to potential protests in the city over the next two weeks.
The decision was made “out of an abundance of caution,” according to the Capitol Police, who have long been preparing for the possible arrival of trucks inspired by the “Freedom Convoy” that occupied downtown Ottawa for more than three weeks to protest vaccine mandates.
The self-titled “People’s Convoy,” a U.S.-based group of activists also opposed to vaccine mandates, left Southern California on Feb. 23 for a cross-country trip. They plan to arrive in the region March 5, but organizers have emphasized that they intend to target the Beltway and not travel into the city.
However, multiple spinoffs have popped up on social media, including groups that intend to meet up with the “People’s Convoy” from other parts of the country. Some have said they plan to reach D.C. by Tuesday, when President Joe Biden is expected to address the nation. The varying routes, dates and organizers have made it difficult to predict how many people will participate, where demonstrations could take place, what protesters will do or how long they intend to stay.
Capitol Police “have been working closely with our federal, state and local law enforcement partners on a security plan to prevent any disruption to the important work of Congress,” U.S. Capitol Police Chief Tom Manger said in a statement Sunday morning. “I have also requested support from outside law enforcement agencies as well as the National Guard to assist with our security precautions.”
The agency had reinstalled the temporary fencing in September, ahead of what turned out to be a small rally in support of people charged in the insurrection at the Capitol. After the Jan. 6, 2021 riot, the barrier stood for six months – a lasting reminder of the disastrous security response – until it was removed in July.
The convoy demonstrators’ hostility toward the vaccines is just one of several anti-government, right-wing beliefs held by its members, according to extremism researchers. They have also spread falsehoods about the 2020 election results, repeated dangerous myths about human trafficking and raged against school curriculums of which they disapprove.
Over the weekend, supporters even griped in chat rooms that the war in Ukraine was distracting people from their cause.
“Why is there so much talk of Ukraine going on here?” one wrote. “Who cares about Ukraine?”
Though protesters have complained about the perceived infringement of their “freedoms” not to take the vaccine, many pandemic-related mandates have already been blocked or rescinded.
The U.S. Supreme Court nixed Biden’s vaccination requirement for large employers, many states have rolled back restrictions and, on Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eased mask recommendations.
In the District of Columbia, the requirement for residents to show proof of vaccination to enter most businesses ended two weeks ago, and officials in parts of the D.C., Maryland and Virginia are removing indoor mask mandates.
Still, Brian Brase, a convoy organizer, said the group wants an end to the national emergency declaration in response to covid-19 – first issued by then-president Donald Trump in March 2020 and later extended by Biden – and for Congress to hold hearings investigating the government’s response to the pandemic.
A different organizer has requested to hold a rally on March 1 with “hopefully 1,000-3,000” attendees at the Sylvan Theater on the Washington Monument grounds in “support of convoys in Canada,” according to a permit application submitted to the National Park Service. As of Feb. 25, no permit had been issued.
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, said last week that he was also monitoring the truck convoy.
“I do believe that all Americans should have the right to express themselves,” Youngkin said. “I also can’t allow violations of the law. And so we’re going to make sure that we keep Virginia highways moving.”
The Virginia State Police has devised a plan to deal with the convoy, spokeswoman Corinne Geller said last week, though she noted that the agency’s response would depend on how many truckers actually show up and what they do when they get here.
Trucks of a certain weight must stop at weigh stations in Virginia, she explained, and federal rules establish how many hours truckers can spend on the road each day.
“If there are no violations of law taking place,” Geller said, “we can’t just stop trucks.”
– – –
The Washington Post’s Karina Elwood and Justin Jouvenal contributed to this report.