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States Prepare For Possible Violence Leading Up To Biden Inauguration

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

Local officials and law enforcement are preparing for what could be a violent week at state Capitols across the country. There have been warnings from the FBI and others after a mob smashed their way into the U.S. Capitol last week. They've said that armed right-wing extremists could potentially try something similar in states ahead of President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration. Three of the states where authorities have sounded the alarm loudly are Oregon, Michigan and Virginia. So we're joined by reporters in each of those places to talk about what may be ahead. Dirk VanderHart joins us from Oregon Public Broadcasting. Abigail Censky joins us from member station WKAR in Lansing, Mich. And Whittney Evans joins us from member station VPM in Richmond, Va. Good morning to all of you.

ABIGAIL CENSKY, BYLINE: Good morning.

WHITTNEY EVANS, BYLINE: Good morning.

DIRK VANDERHART, BYLINE: Good morning.

MOSLEY: Well, let's start with you, Whittney. What are officials in Virginia looking out for there?

EVANS: Yeah. Again, I'm in the state capital here in Richmond. And it's been difficult to get a sense of what sources in these online forums are saying is planned in Virginia and who's expected to show up in the coming days. The information we've seen is really kind of conflicting. And many of these fringe groups, as you know, have been kicked off of social media platforms. But there are already expected to be large crowds because of a pro-gun rally scheduled for Monday. It actually happens every year and generally without incident. But it tends to draw some people from right-wing extremist groups. Members of the far right and anti-government groups like Proud Boys have attended that rally in the past.

MOSLEY: Oh, wow.

VANDERHART: Yeah, and this is Dirk in Oregon. You know, we haven't heard many details either about what the demonstrations might look like. But far-right demonstrators have gathered repeatedly at the state Capitol in Salem in recent weeks. The most serious incident took place on December 21 when a crowd showed up to demand entry into the Capitol, which has been closed. And at one point, a Republican lawmaker appears to have purposely allowed those demonstrators in via a side door, which set off a physical clash between state police and protesters. At one point, officers were maced, folks were assaulted. And just more generally, I would say this is part of the country that has seen its share of anti-government extremism. And people see that thread continuing in recent events.

MOSLEY: We definitely saw so much of that as well over the summer. Abigail, Michigan has been at the center, as well, of several politically charged protests. What are the concerns ahead of Biden's inauguration there?

CENSKY: Yeah. As you mentioned, earlier this year, armed men stood over state lawmakers in the state Senate chamber. And, of course, there was an alleged plot to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer. So there's a lot of concern going into this weekend and next week. This week, our Capitol commission did ban long guns from the building. But our attorney general, Dana Nessel, has not been shy about saying that doesn't make the building secure at all. This is what she said on CNN earlier this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DANA NESSEL: We don't have anybody to even check if you do have a license. We have no metal detectors. So if you were to bring an explosive device into the Capitol, if you were to bring multiple weapons, as long as they're underneath a coat or a jacket or in a bag, no one would ever know about it.

CENSKY: Like the AG said there, security is light, especially during session. And lawmakers are scheduled to meet three days next week.

MOSLEY: OK. So I want to ask all of you this question. What kind of security changes, with all of this in light, are happening to keep people safe? Dirk, how are authorities there preparing?

VANDERHART: Well, you know, it's notable to hear Abigail talk about Michigan's Capitol because there's a very similar story here. Since protesters got into the statehouse in December, state leaders have been taking safety extremely seriously. On Wednesday, the governor activated the National Guard in order to secure the Capitol from potential protests. Then, just yesterday, we learned that the legislature is going to effectively postpone the start of the legislative session. They had been expected to meet Tuesday. Now they're going to push back hearings until after the inauguration. And, you know, I mentioned earlier a Republican who had let demonstrators into the Capitol. There has been swift discipline in that case. He could face expulsion in the legislature and potential criminal charges.

MOSLEY: Oh, wow. Abigail, what about there in Michigan?

CENSKY: Well, a 6-foot fence is being put up around the Capitol building today. We've already seen an increased police presence, and that will stick around for the next couple of weeks. Officials have said there's been constant coordination with the National Guard, local and state police. But a lot of this planning has also been happening off of mainstream social media. So there are federal and local law enforcement that are kind of tracking that chatter, but they have not said anything about credible threats of violence.

EVANS: Whittney Evans here in Richmond. Compared to Michigan and Oregon, Virginia's state government buildings and Capitol building are actually pretty secure to the point that it's often a pain, as a reporter, to move in and out. And it's only gotten tighter over the last year. They already use metal detectors for entry into buildings and most of the doors stay locked. Aside from that, they're putting up barricades and closing roads around the capital. Also, interesting to note that those buildings will be mostly empty because lawmakers are meeting virtually and at another location because of COVID. Governor Ralph Northam said Thursday that the state is prepared and won't tolerate violence or mutiny.

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RALPH NORTHAM: If you're planning to come here or up to Washington with ill intent in your heart, you need to turn around right now and go home.

EVANS: And, again, Governor Northam, he said, in terms of police presence, local and state law enforcement have a unified presence here in the city along with the National Guard.

MOSLEY: OK. A unified presence in the city of Richmond. This is important because - you know, I'm actually familiar with Lansing, Mich., Abigail - state capitals are also where people live. I'm thinking about other parts of the city. Have authorities, at any of the places where you all are, talked about citywide plans to keep people safe? Abigail.

CENSKY: Yeah. So I talked to a city council president who's been in frequent conversation with our chief of police, and he said he's confident that the city will stay safe and that the peace will be kept this weekend. The thinking behind planning is that they don't want to wake up Monday morning and say we could have done more.

MOSLEY: Dirk.

VANDERHART: Yeah, you know, the focal point really has been the capitol in the recent demonstrations we've seen. I think to the extent people have citywide concerns, that has more been focused on Portland, where obviously there has been a lot of unrest in the last year. And that will continue as well in coming days.

MOSLEY: We're talking with Dirk Vanderhart from Oregon Public Broadcasting, Abigail Censky with member station WKAR in Michigan and Whittney Evans with member station VPM in Virginia about safety at state capitols ahead of next week's inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden. Thanks to you all.

CENSKY: Thank you.

EVANS: Thank you.

VANDERHART: Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUILTY GHOSTS' "GREAT MALEVOLENT WITHHOLDER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.