Like the boarded-up windows at nearby St. Paul businesses, the chain-link fence surrounding Minnesota’s State Capitol was meant to be a temporary safeguard for the historic building during the riots that followed George Floyd’s death.
Six months later, the barrier remains in place and isn’t coming down soon. State law enforcement officials want to keep the fence up when lawmakers return on Jan. 5 for the next legislative session — and potentially beyond that, as they anticipate fresh tensions next spring from the planned trial of the Minneapolis police officers charged in Floyd’s killing.
As of now there’s no official timeline or criteria for removing the fence, which has sparked concerns over a lack of access to “the People’s House” from state leaders including Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, and from lobbyists and activists whose access to the Capitol has already been limited by measures to curb the spread of COVID-19.
“As we continue to monitor both the intel about tactics that protest groups have brought in other cities and have brought here in the Twin Cities, we still see a need for the fence to be up,” said Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington, an appointee of Democratic Gov. Tim Walz whose agency oversees security on the 140-acre Capitol complex.
The decision was made in consultation with the Department of Administration, which has also called for keeping it in place as an anti-vandalism measure. “It’s not something either of us would prefer to have up,” Harrington said of the two agencies.
But, he said, they want it to remain at least through the spring, as law enforcement assesses the risk of violence or vandalism in response to future demonstrations over the officers’ trial or the controversial Line 3 pipeline project.
Harrington noted multiple incidents of red paint splashed on state buildings on capitol complexes in at least half a dozen U.S. states. Similar tactics have been reported at protests near Minnesota’s Capitol, said Harrington, who also cited last month’s damaging of statues in Minneapolis city parks as cause for new alarm.
The monthly bill to taxpayers to keep the fence standing is about $8,200, according to the Department of Administration, on top of a setup and removal fee of between $18,000 and $23,000.
A Capitol Security advisory panel led by Flanagan will next meet Dec. 15 to publicly discuss Harrington’s recommendations and a possible timeline for the fence’s removal. Committee members, including Supreme Court Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea, voiced frustration over the lack of a plan at the panel’s last meeting in August.
Flanagan said she favors removing the fence, but she also wants to consult state health and public safety officials.
“My concerns are certainly not just for the safety of the Capitol building and its occupants but also Minnesotans who desperately want to have their voices heard,” Flanagan said in August. Republicans have previously criticized the Walz administration for what they called its slow response to the May and June rioting, and for its handling in June of a Capitol grounds demonstration in which American Indian Movement protesters toppled a statue of Christopher Columbus.
Walz administration press secretary Teddy Tschann said issues of public safety and accessibility will be weighed regarding the future of the fence, while adding that Flanagan will wait to hear advice from Harrington, Administration Commissioner Alice Roberts-Davis and others on the committee.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, echoed Flanagan’s concerns about the fence. He said he’d like to see it removed by Jan. 5, when lawmakers return to St. Paul for a monthslong session.
“The fence itself I think really sends a terrible message that things are out of control, and the fact that the public can’t get in I just think is a mistake,” Gazelka said. “Highway Patrol had done an amazing job of protecting the Capitol and the Capitol grounds and the people at the Capitol, and I fully believe that they can continue to do that.”
But Harrington argued that the sprawling nature of the Capitol grounds makes it difficult to fully protect the property. He said it’s still a time of “heightened concerns and heightened emotions around protests.”
“The Capitol is there 24/7,” he said. “I always have troopers available in the area, but having enough troopers or Capitol Security or St. Paul police to ring the Capitol grounds 24/7 is not fiscally nor practically something that we think makes sense.”
The fence went up in late May, with Capitol Security officials citing what they called a “credible threat” that the Capitol building would be burned amid rioting.
The tip appears to have originated from a May 29 FBI bulletin that was later leaked as part of a cache of law enforcement documents posted online in June. The bulletin, produced by the bureau’s Minneapolis office, cited a “collaborative source” who warned that a gathering at the Hennepin County Government Center was “reportedly a cover for anarchist extremists and militia extremists to organize.”
The FBI added that the group would travel to St. Paul “to take over and burn the State Capitol building.”
No arrests or other law enforcement action has been made public in connection with the tip. Harrington would not discuss specifics of the threat.
Several members of the Boogaloo Bois, an extremist group with ties to militia and anarcho-capitalist ideology, have been charged with crimes related to the unrest after Floyd’s death. None has been connected to any plots against the State Capitol.
But Harrington said there have been incidents of paint being splattered near the historic building during protests earlier this year. A peace officers memorial on the grounds has also been damaged, he said.
Advocates for government transparency and access warn that it’s easy for temporary emergency measures to become new norms. In Georgia, for example, state officials are now installing a metal fence around their Capitol in response to months of occasional protests.
Matt Ehling, a board member of the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, said the group acknowledges the occasional need for emergency procedures and powers. But, he said, “they should be limited in duration and carefully bounded so that they don’t risk becoming permanent features of civil life.”
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