State law enforcement leaders are asking Minnesotans to avoid the State Capitol in the days ahead of the Jan. 20 presidential inauguration as authorities brace for possible violent protests in St. Paul and around the country.
Thursday's statement by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety shortly followed reports that the entire National Mall would be closed for Inauguration Day in Washington, D.C. State officials have not announced similar measures for Minnesota's Capitol complex, saying that it "remains a safe place."
But Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington on Thursday, "out of an abundance of caution," asked those who don't have a "planned activity or business" on site to consider visiting another time.
"We will continue to track and monitor reports of any individuals or groups that are not interested in a peaceful expression of their First Amendment rights so we can respond accordingly," Harrington said. "We have been working with our law enforcement partners to develop a coordinated and comprehensive plan to guard the Capitol and protect state employees, visitors and peaceful protestors from harm."
State and federal law enforcement are monitoring reports of possible violent protests Sunday at state capitols around the country. An FBI bulletin dated last month that surfaced this week warned of the possibility that armed Boogaloo Bois extremists prepared to use violence at demonstrations in Minnesota and Michigan on Sunday.
On Thursday, the Department of Public Safety previewed a heightened security presence at the Capitol in the coming days with State Patrol troopers, conservation officers and National Guard soldiers visible. Authorities also plan to restrict travel near the Capitol, the department said. While foot traffic will still be allowed, motor vehicle traffic will be limited to state employees, contractors "and those with official state business."
The department is also relying on a fence erected around the Capitol last year — initially to respond to the civil unrest that followed George Floyd's killing in Minneapolis. In an interview this week, Harrington credited the barrier with protecting the Capitol and those inside during a Jan. 6 Storm the Capitol rally that attracted 500 protesters.
The only permitted events thus far for this weekend are a pair of gatherings planned by the same organizer behind the Storm the Capitol rally. Becky Strohmeier, a conservative activist from Bloomington who leads the Hold the Line MN group, has been approved to hold a "Freedom Fest" event Saturday at which 150 are expected to attend. The next day, Strohmeier plans to lead a "Sunday Church Service" that she described as "invite only" and involving about 20 people.
Earlier this week, Strohmeier repeatedly urged supporters not to assemble at the Capitol on Sunday, warning that fliers advertising national rallies were actually "an infiltration and set up tactic used to incite violence and blame us."
Strohmeier told the Star Tribune that she reserved a permit for Sunday's event in "an effort to curb any sort of violent activity." She said that "anyone trying to disturb" Sunday's event "will be dealt with according to State Patrol policy."
Many attendees at Strohmeier's Jan. 6 rally came armed, which is legally permitted on Capitol grounds. About 20 rallygoers identified with the state chapter of the Three Percenters Original group. A smaller group appeared to wear garb popular with the Boogaloo Bois.
The FBI warned in a "potential activity alert" dated Dec. 29 that it had credible evidence that armed extremists were targeting Jan. 17 protests at the Minnesota and Michigan state capitols. The report said that followers of the Boogaloo movement attended protests in early December at the Capitol "to identify escape points and defensible positions in the event violence occurred." They scouted "general law enforcement presence" at the rallies and also "identified law enforcement sniper locations and considered breaking into federal buildings for use as firing locations if fighting occurred."
The report said that "at least one follower expressed his willingness to die for the movement." The FBI noted that the Boogaloo movement was not plotting a specific attack but planned to use violence should fights break out on Sunday.
Harrington's department is also asking those who see suspicious activity in the area to call 911.
"It's easy to overlook routine moments, but when something doesn't seem quite right, it's important to say something," the department said in Thursday's news release. "Being alert and reporting suspicious activity to local law enforcement is a way to help protect the community."
Stephen Montemayor • 612-673-1755