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As law enforcement braces for more violence, state capitols come into focus

More than a dozen flyers are circulating online promoting pro-Trump rallies at state capitols, according to a social media analysis by NBC News.
A member of the Pennsylvania Capitol Police stands guard at the entrance to the Capitol Complex in Harrisburg, Pa., on Jan. 13, 2021.Jose F. Moreno / The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP

Federal and state law enforcement agencies are bracing for violence planned by radical conservatives and extremists in Washington in the days before the inauguration.

And while significant preparations have been put in place around the U.S. Capitol, there is growing concern that statehouses around the country will be targeted, many of which have already been the scene of armed protests, arrests and violence.

More than a dozen flyers are circulating online advertising pro-Trump rallies at state capitols, according to a social media analysis by NBC News. “Freedom is a right,” one popular flyer reads; “Refuse to be silenced,” says another.

As part of its response to an increase in online activity and organization efforts that could lead to further violence, Facebook has been tracking many of these flyers across alternative sites popular with militia groups and QAnon followers and pre-emptively blocking them, according to a spokesperson who asked not to be named for safety concerns.

State capitols, long seen as meeting places for activists to protest and sometimes clash with counterprotesters, are on alert. The FBI reportedly sent a memo to law enforcement agencies across the country warning of possible armed protests at all 50 state capitols starting next week, citing in part chatter on social media.

Social media platforms have taken unprecedented steps in recent days to keep their sites clear of content that might incite further violence — including the suspension of President Donald Trump’s Twitter and Facebook accounts — but threats of violence at events persist online. Now mostly relegated to less popular and alternative apps, the events are more difficult for other extremists to find but also for law enforcement and researchers to track.

That may help stop another mass mobilization in Washington, but it is less effective for extremists at the state level who are now less reliant on online organizing and recruiting, said Melissa Ryan, chief executive of Card Strategies, a consulting firm that researches disinformation.

“The infrastructure in the states has been there longer than what we saw in D.C.,” Ryan said, adding that protests in state capitols last year to reopen the economy and lift lockdown restrictions were “centralized.”

“They mobilized via Facebook groups and built on existing infrastructure and created these local cells that are still active,” she said. “They haven't stopped.”

Though the actual threat is unclear, every state seems to be on high alert.

Police and National Guard troops have already been posted and made arrests at statehouses in Washington and Idaho. Windows at the state Capitol in Wisconsin have been boarded up, and Michigan banned the open carry of firearms inside its Capitol.

Seemingly inspired by a gun rights rally that drew hundreds of thousands of people to Virginia's state Capitol last January, Trump supporters, sometimes armed, have flooded statehouses from Sacramento, California, to Tallahassee, Florida, since the pandemic started to protest lockdown measures to curtail the spread of the coronavirus and then to counterprotest against and intimidate activists marching for the Black Lives Matter movement.

In Michigan, photographs of a protest in April showed armed protesters in military fatigues rushing and occupying the Capitol in Lansing during a vote to extend Covid-19 restrictions. Two men were charged in a plot to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Even as a riotous mob pushed its way through the U.S. Capitol last week, protesters at statehouses for smaller demonstrations cheered news of the melee in D.C.

Many of the spring and summer rallies were planned on Facebook, said Diara J. Townes, an investigative researcher at First Draft, a nonprofit that tracks misinformation. But since the deadly Capitol riot, conservative activists have begun using Facebook’s platform and existing groups more like a bridge, sending followers to private spaces, such as encrypted apps and social media platforms specifically for radical conservatives and militia members.

“It’s a way to skirt around the content moderation and warnings,” Townes said.

The Capitol mob has offered some inspiration to far-right organizers. Several posters spreading in QAnon and Boogaloo forums invoke Ashli Babbitt, the Air Force veteran and QAnon believer who was fatally shot during the Capitol riot as she tried to enter the Speaker’s Lobby. Several flyers for an event billed as a “Million Martyr March” on Inauguration Day next Wednesday include illustrations of Babbitt.

Few of the flyers include any details about organizers. Several are signed by “common folk who are tired of being tread upon.” Some of the discussion in anti-government Boogaloo web forums — where users are creating and posting flyers that strangely refer to civil rights, women’s rights and unity — suggests anti-government activists could sow chaos at state capitols to further their own ends.

“We saw this in the spring. Boogaloo used Black Lives Matter protests as an opportunity to use the crowd as cover to target law enforcement,” said Marc-André Argentino, a researcher who tracks extremists online and has followed their migration to other platforms after the mainstream purge.

“Mainstream extremists are angry about what happened on Jan. 6, and they're preparing to rally and protest again,” Argentino said. “The violent extremists who have been in this space for years are taking this as an opportunity to recruit, bolster their ranks and prepare for the impact of government overreaction to potentially start actual violent conflict.”

Most of the posters for state events were circulating online weeks and months before the Capitol riot. One Inauguration Day event, billed as the Million Militia March, for example, was first promoted in December on Wimkin, a conservative alternative to Facebook.

Indeed, one of the first comments on the event planner’s original posts reads: “We can not wait until the 20th. We have to mobilize into action on the 6th.”

The online fervor has been somewhat tempered by some websites that served as key cogs in the far-right misinformation ecosystem and promoted the Capitol Hill rally. Most notably, the conspiracy theory websites InfoWars and Gateway Pundit have advised readers to stay away from state capitols before the inauguration, warning that such events were part of a “sinister plot” to take away guns.

Similar warnings have been spreading across such platforms as Facebook and the Trump-loyalist website TheDonald. In conservative Facebook groups, posts with thousands of shares read that armed rallies in any state capitol were “false flags” or set-ups perpetuated by “leftist” activists.

The livestreamed violence at the Capitol riot and the subsequent law enforcement response may result in fewer rallies and public events organized by extremists, said Anne Berg, an assistant professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on the history of Nazi Germany and extremism.

Berg drew a comparison to the 2017 “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a counterprotester was murdered and the nation’s modern face of hate was on full display.

“All of a sudden, people start to realize: 'Oh my God, this is real. This is actually happening,'" she said. "And the movement retreated out of the public sphere back online. But that doesn't mean that the movement has shrunk.”

“I'm personally less worried about the next two weeks,” Berg said, “than I am about the next several years.”