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W.Va. Capitol security prepares for protests

Steven Allen Adams CAPITOL ON ALERT — The sun rises Tuesday over the Capitol in Charleston.

CHARLESTON — With the potential for armed protests in all 50 states leading up to the inauguration of former Vice President Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States, the West Virginia Department of Homeland Security and the Capitol Police are prepared.

According to the Associated Press, the FBI is warning states about possible protests being planned across the U.S. and Washington, D.C., starting this weekend and continuing through Inauguration Day on Jan. 20.

“Armed protests are being planned at all 50 state capitols from 16 Jan. through at least 20 Jan., and at the U.S. Capitol from 17 Jan. through 20 Jan.,” according to an FBI bulletin as told to the AP by an unnamed official.

“While our standard practice is to not comment on specific intelligence products, the FBI is supporting our state, local, and federal law enforcement partners with maintaining public safety in the communities we serve,” the bureau said in a statement. “Our efforts are focused on identifying, investigating, and disrupting individuals that are inciting violence and engaging in criminal activity.”

While the FBI is not focused on peaceful protests, they are concerned about the potential for violent protests after the sacking of the U.S. Capitol last week by supporters of President Donald Trump that resulted in substantial damage to the building, the deaths of five people, including two U.S. Capitol Police officers, and the arrests of more than 60 people.

A representative from the Division of Protective Services, the agency in charge of security at the West Virginia Capitol, and the Capitol Police was unavailable.

In a statement provided by Homeland Security spokesperson Lawrence Messina, law enforcement agencies were coordinating their efforts in anticipation of possible protests.

“The West Virginia Department of Homeland Security and such component agencies as the West Virginia State Police, Capitol Police and Fusion Center maintain their vigilance in coordination with other state and federal partners,” the department said. “As always, they remain committed to their shared public safety mission.”

According to the department, firearms and other deadly weapons on the grounds of the state Capitol Complex, home to multiple state government buildings, are prohibited. Exceptions include weapons locked in vehicles and out of view. Violations are misdemeanors and carry up to a $100 fine and up to six months in jail.

The building is also closed to the general public due to COVID-19 restrictions, though people are allowed to protest on the grounds of the Capitol Complex.

“The safety measures enacted at the West Virginia Capitol Complex in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic remain in place,” Homeland Security stated. “Among other provisions, the COVID-19 measures limit admission to the Capitol (Building 1) to employees and those with scheduled meetings or appointments as well as for such specific transactions as court filings or tax payments. All visitors are screened at the Capitol’s public access points, including with temperature checks.”

The Division of Protective Services and the Capitol Police have experience dealing with demonstrations and protests. In 2018 and 2019, thousands of teachers protested at the state Capitol during legislative sessions demanding better pay and a fix for the Public Employees Insurance Agency. Those protests were loud and sometimes crowded, but peaceful.

Occasional protesters have greeted Gov. Jim Justice over his executive orders and decisions regarding school reopenings since March. When asked Monday about the potential for protests over the 2020 election, Justice encouraged West Virginians to peacefully exercise their First Amendment right.

“We always need to be aware and be diligent in the way we handle and go through our lives now,” Justice said. “I hope and pray that West Virginians have good judgment in what they do.”

Justice will be sworn in for a second term as governor on Monday in an outdoor ceremony. Justice didn’t release specific information, but he did say officials were working on the details and how to do the ceremony safely in light of COVID-19 concerns.

Justice reminded West Virginians about the protests over the summer after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers. While many protests across the country turned violent, protests in West Virginia remained largely peaceful.

“Didn’t they do good then? They’ll do good now,” Justice said. “We’ve got to watch and be on guard. I’m sure there will be a heightened alert and all of that, but our people are good.”

(Adams can be contacted at sadams@newsandsentinel.com)

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