Security tight at Statehouse, but no pro-Trump armed protest materialized

Security tight at Statehouse, but no pro-Trump armed protest materialized

Reporters and camera crews stand by in case a pro-Trump protest materialized Sunday outside the Statehouse in Montpelier, but it didn’t. A handful of anti-Trump people did stage a counterprotest at City Hall. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The armed protesters didn’t show Sunday at the statehouse in Montpelier, though officers dressed in tactical gear and carrying long guns did.

Police have been on high alert since last week, when the FBI issued a bulletin warning of armed protests at state capitals across the country, including Vermont, in the days leading up to the inauguration Wednesday of President-elect Joe Biden.

The bulletin had singled out Sunday as well as inauguration day Wednesday for the statehouse protests by right-wing extremists and President Donald Trump supporters who still questioned the validity of the presidential election, despite no evidence of widespread voter fraud. 

Top law enforcement leaders in Vermont have said for the past several days they have not been aware of any credible threats in the state, though they were stepping up security around the Statehouse just in case.

The FBI bulletin followed an insurrection by pro-Trump supporters on Jan. 6 at the U.S. Capitol, as lawmakers inside the building were working to certify the presidential election with Biden as the winner. 

On Sunday at noon, a time that some online flyers had stated such armed protests were expected to take place at state capitals around the nation, there were plenty of journalists and police in front of the Statehouse in Montpelier, but no protesters.

A large number of Vermont State Police troopers and officers from other departments, including the Montpelier Police Department and Capitol Police, circled the Statehouse grounds on foot and in cruisers from late morning into the early evening Sunday.

Police vehicles from other more distant locales, such as Shelburne, Burlington and Colchester, could also be seen passing down State Street, which runs in front of the state’s capital building.

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The Statehouse grounds were covered Sunday with about 5 inches of freshly fallen snow from the night before, and more continued to accumulate from flurries that popped up on and off throughout the day.

A few spectators

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A little before noon, a man who would identify himself only as “Chip from Montpelier” stood across the street from the Statehouse and took in the scene that included several television news crews with cameras at the ready and officers passing by in riot gear.

“I came to see who was going to show up,” the man said, and he expected at least some protesters or, as he called them, “Trumpers,” would be there. 

The man described himself “politically indifferent.” But, he didn’t have many kind words for Trump, commenting that after watching him in office the past four years, he didn’t understand how the president ever made any money as a businessman.

Robin Lehman, 68, of Warren also stood across the street from the Statehouse, camera in hand, a little before noon. 

“I really don’t think anything serious is going to happen,” Lehman said. “You might have a few fascists come out and show flags.” 

But not even a few appeared, at least not anytime around noon.

“Maybe they were embarrassed by the (U.S.) Capitol thing that happened and they saw people being arrested … and all that,” Lehman said of the lack of protesters in Vermont. “There are a lot of possibilities. Since I only know about two right-wingers and they are not here, I really can’t say for sure.” 

Thomas Graham, wearing a gas mask, is interviewed by the media outside the Statehouse Sunday. He wore an armband that said “Anti-Fascist Riot Volunteer,” but his services weren’t needed. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Thomas Gram, 49, of Montpelier did walk up on the sidewalk leading to the Statehouse around noon, wearing a long beige coat, a pale green gas mask over his head and face, and a white band around his arm with dark lettering reading, “Anti-Fascist Riot Volunteer.” 

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He said the mask served a dual purpose — helping to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and providing protection “in case things get out of hand.” 

Belynda Jestice, 47, of Plainfield, attended along with Gram. “I just think it’s important for anti-fascists to show up at these kinds of events where fascists are expected to show up,” she said, and she didn’t want to have what happened at the U.S Capitol days earlier occur at the Statehouse in Montpelier.

“We’re not putting up with that here,” she said. 

Many downtown Montpelier businesses closed Sunday, concerned over the possibility of violence. 

Leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties had both issued statements in recent days, urging people to avoid the protests at the Statehouse in the days leading to the inauguration. 

Anti-fascist counterprotesters

Several groups aligned under an anti-fascism banner did gather Sunday a little ways from the Statehouse, setting up in front of City Hall on Main Street in Montpelier.

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A Facebook posting had initially stated that the event would also take place in front of the Statehouse. However, Montpelier leaders encouraged people, including counterprotesters, to stay away from the Statehouse in light of the talk of armed protests there. 

As a result, the counterprotest was eventually moved. 

Antifascist counterprotesters gathered in front of Montpelier City Hall on Sunday to respond to warnings of potential armed rallies by far-right groups. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

“The whole theme of this was to be nonviolent,” John LePage, 67, of Barre, who was among the counter-protesters, said as he stood on the sidewalk in front of City Hall.

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“As the week wore on, people became a little fearful there could be something, so it was moved to here,” LePage said. “Most people know the demeanor and the character of the Trumpsters.”

One of the event organizers, who identified herself only as Anna, spoke to the few dozen people gathered outside City Hall around 1 p.m.

“I wanted to thank you for coming out despite the snow and the discouragement from local government,” she said. “We refused to be paralyzed by the fear of the potential of far-right presence. We recognize now, more than ever, that this threat is not going away until we strengthen our communities to oppose it and open more areas for dialogue. We’re choosing to focus our energy today on being present together, rather than being isolated and afraid.”

Montpelier Police Chief Brian Peete, reached Sunday afternoon, referred comment on the security effort at the Statehouse to Adam Silverman, a Vermont State Police spokesperson. 

According to Silverman, as the sun began to set Sunday, there were no reported incidents stemming from events at the Statehouse, with no arrests and no citations issued.

By 1:30 p.m. there were still no signs of pro-Trump protesters outside the Statehouse, at least not any that idenfified themselves as one.

About 30 minutes later, that changed a little — a protester marched through with a sign held high in the air. It read, “Canadians for Trump!”

The Vermont Statehouse in Montpelier on Sunday, Jan. 17, 2021. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

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