Many Americans breathed a collective sigh of relief Monday after pre-Inauguration rallies planned across the nation Sunday that could have become violent drew more security personnel than participants.
But the threat remained far from over.
“The National Guard and many political leaders have responded quite appropriately,” said Robert Pape, a political scientist at the University of Chicago and director of the Chicago Project on Security and Threats. “This is the time to find out what the mass deployment of troops can and can’t deal with.”
An FBI warning of possible armed protests at the U.S. Capitol and state capitol buildings by supporters of President Donald Trump who believe the election was rigged have put the nation on edge. Smoke that turned out to be from a small fire at a homeless camp near the Capitol complex Monday prompted a brief lockdown of the buildings and sent scores of people who were rehearsing outside for Wednesday’s event scrambling for cover.
“Out of an abundance of caution the U.S. Capitol complex was temporarily shut down,” the Secret Service said on Twitter, adding that there was “no threat to the public.”
More protests were expected through Wednesday. In Washington, the FBI was taking no chances, vetting all of the 25,000 National Guard troops coming in for the inauguration.
In Virginia, a pro-gun “Lobby Day” event Monday had police in Richmond prepped and ready to respond. Lobby Day is an annual event organized by the gun rights group Virginia Citizens Defense League that last year drew an estimated 20,000 people to Richmond.
On Monday, trucks and cars bearing American flags, “Don’t Tread on Me” banners and stickers declaring “Guns save lives” flowed into downtown. They were part of several caravans of Second Amendment supporters, that had set off earlier in the day from different corners of the state.
Denied a rally permit by authorities, various gun advocacy groups, including representatives from extremist groups such as the Proud Boys and Boogaloo Bois, milled around waving flags and holding their rifles. Barricades and a heavy police presence kept the protesters outside a cordon around the state Capitol.
By 1:30 p.m. only a few hundred people had gathered downtown, and the rally was over about two hours later.
Some of the self-professed Proud Boys flashed white power signs and said they planned to protest and then “go and drink some beers.” A few blocks away, a couple of dozen men and women dressed in black with patches identifying the New Black Panther Party – and also carrying weapons – shouted “Black Power” at the protesters nearby.
In a brief interview, Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, said he wasn’t fazed by the presence of extremists at the rally.
“It’s America, they’re free to be wherever they want to be,” Van Cleave said. “I’m not going to tell anyone where they can or can’t be.”
Police posted signs to “inform those who may gather that firearms are prohibited at permitted events and events that would otherwise require a permit, as well as areas adjacent to such events.”
The FBI warning had suggested some possibly violent protests would take place Sunday, but few conflicts emerged. Small groups of protesters did show up at some state capitols, including some armed at gatherings outside statehouses in Michigan, Ohio and South Carolina.
In Ohio, about 50 people rallied at the Statehouse in Columbus. Some condemned the attack on the U.S. Capitol and said they were not aligned with any political party, office holder or candidate.
Pape said he would not be surprised if the nationwide show of force helped discourage violent protests. But he warned that even the ascension of Biden to the presidency on Wednesday doesn’t mean the threat of violence will have passed.
“There is no reason to believe at all that this movement will come to an end on Inauguration Day,” Pape said.