A recent FBI warning of plans for nationwide armed protests at state Capitols next week came as Washington law enforcement officials already were investigating a “number of very specific threats,” according to Chris Loftis, communications director for the Washington State Patrol.
The concerns include not only the Capitol in Olympia but also courthouses and other government buildings around Washington. “We are working with local municipalities to make sure they have a heightened awareness,” said Loftis, who noted that the FBI memorandum was “not that groundbreaking for us.”
The Pacific Northwest has been a hub of activity for the far right, including different “Patriot” groups. In recent weeks, they have helped organize and increase attendance at events protesting state pandemic restrictions as well as supporting President Donald Trump’s failed bid to try to overturn the presidential election results.
The organizing has come at a time when restrictions on businesses, aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus, have wrought significant economic pain and helped stoke a broader political backlash.
Earlier this month, a website called the Patriot Calendar, which lists Northwest rallies, showed events ranging from a Jan. 4 “Day of Defiance” rally in Woodland, Washington, in support of a bar owner’s defiance of COVID-19 restrictions, to a protest that drew hundreds to Olympia on Jan. 6 to coincide with congressional certification of the Electoral College votes.
As of Tuesday, the calendar shows a recurring weekly protest outside the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, and a listing for an “Open Yelm Now” event that took place on Saturday, three days after a pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol.”
Loftis said intelligence gathering about such activity is coordinated through the Washington State Fusion Center. This organization was formed in the aftermath of 9/11 with the objective of detecting and deterring terrorist attacks through support of federal, state and local enforcement agencies, and includes participation by the FBI.
The FBI memo, as of Sunday, warned “armed protests are being planned at all 50 state capitols from Jan. 16 through at least Jan. 20.” Portions of the memo were read to The Associated Press.
Steve Bernd, an FBI spokesperson in Seattle, said, “Our efforts are focused on identifying, investigating, and disrupting individuals that are inciting violence and engaging in criminal activity,” and that the focus is not on peaceful protesters.
Loftis said the investigations are analyzing both general talk from the militant right about what may happen as the Jan. 20 inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden approaches, as well as more specific efforts to access buildings.
The Washington state Legislature briefly convened Monday amid extraordinary security with the Capitol campus off-limits to visitors and protected by a chain-link fence backed by Washington National Guard troops. Most of the rest of the session is expected to be held online in a controversial move that has been denounced by some state Republicans.
“The people have a right to access their government, to protest, or be present for deliberations of the Legislature,” said state Sen. Phil Fortunato, R-Auburn, in a statement released Tuesday. “Shutting ‘the people’ out when they have a right to be there is an affront to the democratic process, plain and simple. The governor’s response is unnecessary to what turned out to be a handful of protesters.”
Gov. Jay Inslee on Tuesday night said the Washington National Guard would continue to support security efforts at the Capitol at least through Inauguration Day “due to evolving intelligence on security threats” posed in all 50 state Capitols.
The current security at the state Capitol is in sharp contrast with the scene last Wednesday, when hundreds of protesters gathered in what was billed as a “stop the steal” rally based on the false claims of President Trump.
While state patrol vehicles circled the campus, no law enforcement was visible in front of the Capitol building. Several hours of speeches unfolded, then dozens of protesters, some armed, marched the short distance to the gate across the driveway of the governor’s mansion. Some shook the gate several times, and were able to open a door that regulates pedestrian access and leads to the front of the residence.
The march to the governor’s mansion was announced during the rally. Yet when the crowd arrived at the gate, no additional reinforcements had arrived. Instead, a cadet at the gate and a sergeant at the governor’s mansion tried to initially contend with the crowd, with the Thurston County Sheriff’s Department and local police units later arriving at the scene.
Loftis said that groups rallying at the Capitol sometimes end the event with a march to the governor’s mansion gate, but there was no expectation that it would be breached. He praised the conduct of the Washington State Patrol cadet and sergeant for helping to keep the protest peaceful.
After a standoff of about a half-hour, protesters agreed to leave the grounds rather than face arrest. However, a 30-year-old man from Everett, who was arrested Monday for trying to enter the closed Capitol campus, also is facing criminal trespass charges for his part in the Jan. 6 attempted breach, according to Loftis.
Seattle Times reporter Mike Carter contributed to this report.