After FBI warning, Georgia and S.C. state capitols brace for armed protests
AUGUSTA, Ga. - Law enforcement agencies are in a heightened state of alert at the Georgia and South Carolina capitols as the FBI warns of possible armed protests there ahead of the inauguration of Joe Biden as president.
The South Carolina Department of Public Safety increased security last week, according to Bureau of Protective Services Maj. Dwayne Brunson.
Meanwhile, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation said it is aware of the reports of planned protests and is monitoring the possibility.
“We are also in communication with our partners and will continue to do what is necessary to ensure safety and security,” GBI spokeswoman Nelly Miles said.
A state police SWAT team patrolled Georgia’s Capitol on Monday as lawmakers gathered for the first time since rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol.
In South Carolina, Brunson said his agency is continuing to work with state and local law enforcement agencies.
“We are remaining in a state of heightened security and vigilance and monitoring developments in the state and around the nation,” he said.
South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division spokesman Tommy Crosby confirmed his agency received a warning from the FBI about plans for “possible armed protests in the nation’s state capitals,” including Columbia.
“We are and have been in constant communications with our federal, state and local partners about this information and are prepared to provide any necessary assistance as required,” Crosby said.
Neither SLED nor the FBI have provided specific details about the possible protests.
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster’s spokesman, Brian Symmes, said the governor “has great confidence in South Carolina’s law enforcement agencies.”
Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook said his department is working with state and federal partners “to monitor and engage in intelligence gathering related to events leading up to and including Inauguration Day.
An internal FBI bulletin warned, as of Sunday, that the nationwide protests may start later this week and extend through Biden’s Jan. 20 inauguration, according to two law enforcement officials who read details of the memo to The Associated Press. Investigators believe some of the people are members of extremist groups, the officials said. The bulletin was first reported by ABC.
The FBI issued at least one other bulletin — they go out to law enforcement nationwide on the topic — before the D.C. riot last week. On Dec. 29, it warned of the potential for armed demonstrators targeting legislatures, the second official said.
The FBI said it wasn’t focused on peaceful protests but “on those threatening their safety and the safety of other citizens with violence and destruction of property.”
Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, said authorities in state capitals and other major cities besides Washington should prepare for the possibility of violent protests next week.
“A lot of people were energized by what happened last week,” he said. “State capitals are a natural place where people might want to show up, especially assuming that they think there might be a huge presence of police and military in D.C. because of what happened last week.”
Pitcavage tracks militia, white supremacists and other far-right extremists, but he said the Capitol siege demonstrated the emergence of a new movement of “Trumpist extremists, so caught up in the cult of personality around Trump that they may be willing to break the law or engage in violence purely in support of Trump and whatever he wants.”
The talk of armed marches next week isn’t limited to “radicalized” Trump supporters. State capital events on Jan. 17 appear to be promoted by supporters of the anti-government, pro-gun “boogaloo” movement. Boogaloo followers advocate for a second civil war or the collapse of society, and they don’t adhere to a coherent political philosophy.
Posts on social media sites also have promoted a “Million Militia March” on the day of Biden’s inauguration. Pitcavage said the event, apparently organized by a promoter of the pro-Trump “QAnon” conspiracy theory, appears unlikely to draw a massive crowd.
Javed Ali, a former FBI senior intelligence officer who teaches courses in counterterrorism at the University of Michigan, said it can be challenging for law enforcement to identify the line between people exercising their constitutionally protected rights to bear arms and free speech and those who pose “a real operational threat.”
“The FBI just can’t passively sit in websites and forums and social media platforms, waiting to see who’s going to present a direct threat versus just someone who is being highly radicalized,” he said. “There has to be an investigative predicate for the FBI to then start even the lowest form of an investigation.”
From reports by WRDW/WAGT, WIS and The Associated Press