Law enforcement has erected orange fencing and deployed armed officers outside the Pennsylvania State Capitol. (Mark Pynes / PennLive)
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HARRISBURG — Law enforcement agencies in Pennsylvania are preparing for the possibility of armed protests at the state Capitol beginning this weekend, though officials stressed Thursday that no specific threats have been made.
On Monday, the FBI warned that armed extremist groups planned to march on state capitals in the wake of the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in Washington. In Pennsylvania, which has been in the national spotlight because of its decisive role in the presidential election, Capitol Police have increased security at the complex in Harrisburg and erected barriers near the main building.
“While there are no specific threats to the Capitol or the Capitol Complex, we are taking actions out of the abundance of caution, to be prepared in case any situations arise,” Capitol Police Superintendent Joseph Jacob told reporters Thursday.
Officials said they are aware of online posts that encourage those who can’t attend an armed march in Washington this Sunday to instead gather in their home states.
“We have no specific intelligence, relative to the Capitol Complex,” Lt. Col. Scott Price of the Pennsylvania State Police said. “There’s a lot of generalized intelligence and we continue to scour various platforms incessantly in an attempt to get a very robust operational picture.”
The Pennsylvania State Police is offering an array of troopers at the ready, such as a bomb squad and mounted police officers, should violence occur near the complex. Both Capitol and State Police officials said they’re treating possible protests like others they’ve seen in recent months.
Those have included ReOpen PA gatherings criticizing the governor’s coronavirus mitigation efforts and Stop the Steal events, where lawmakers and pro-Trump protesters echoed baseless claims of election fraud.
Many of those rallies have included armed protestors and militia groups, such as The Three Percenters, whose members were seen storming the U.S. Capitol last week. While there have been tense moments, the events in Pennsylvania have not become violent.
Roughly 450 state National Guard members have been put on active duty to assist where needed in Harrisburg and the surrounding community should violence occur, Gov. Tom Wolf said Thursday.
Figuring out exactly if and where there are potential threats has been a problem for law enforcement, as the usual channels for organizing — such as Facebook, Parler, and Gab — have either been shut down, removed, or overwhelmed to the point of being unusable.
“Right now, it’s a chess game,” said Harrisburg Police Commissioner Thomas Carter, adding that the changing right-wing social media landscape has made it more difficult to forecast possible threats.
Lyndsay Kensinger, a spokesperson for Wolf, said Wednesday the administration is prepared and constantly sharing intelligence with local, state, and federal law enforcement.
“While we can’t comment on specific groups or investigations, we can say that we are monitoring all potential threats in order to protect the citizens of Pennsylvania,” Kensinger said.
While the Capitol is already closed to visitors, the administration said it will close all buildings in the complex on Jan. 19 and 20 out of “an abundance of caution to keep employees safe.”
On Facebook, state Sen. Doug Mastriano (R., Franklin), who attended last week’s pro-Trump rally in Washington but said he left after he learned about the deadly insurrection at the Capitol, pleaded with his followers to not go to any protests.
“Hearing some troubling things, and we just don’t want to fall for it,” Mastriano said Tuesday. “No rallies or protests through the end of next week. As a favor to Doug Mastriano, I ask you to do that.”
By Angela Couloumbis of Spotlight PA
By Joseph Darius Jaafari of Spotlight PA