HARRISBURG — Harrisburg, Pa., is not Washington D.C. The ornate state Capitol building is smack in the middle of the city’s downtown. There is no two-mile National Mall lined with monuments leading up to it. It’s surrounded by shops and cafés, and hundreds of people live a football field’s distance from the stairs.
So when a mob of President Donald Trump’s supporters besieged the U.S. Capitol last week and the FBI said every state capital in America could see armed protests, some Harrisburg residents flashed back to April. Anti-quarantine demonstrators laid on their horns for hours while flying Trump flags; some stood in truck beds wielding long guns and snaking through residential streets.
“I feel somewhere between petrified and being totally desensitized to it,” said Pam MacNett, who has lived in the Capitol area her entire life. She never felt unsafe during demonstrations until this past year. “When did we get to this point?”
Law enforcement in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey are bracing for violence following the FBI’s bulletin Monday warning of demonstrations this weekend through President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on Wednesday. They warned at least one group was calling for supporters to “storm” government buildings, and far-right extremists are threatening a repeat of last week’s insurrection that left five dead.
New Jersey authorities say they’re “over-preparing” and that a flier online urged armed protests at specific state capitals Sunday, including Trenton. Jared Maples, director of the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness, said in a statement the unit is “taking proactive steps to halt possible attempts at violence” and Gov. Phil Murphy told those interested in peacefully protesting: “This is a bad week to be out there.”
Officials in Pennsylvania haven’t identified specific threats to Harrisburg, but Gov. Tom Wolf is ordering the Capitol to close Tuesday, when three statewide officials are to be sworn in, and Wednesday, Biden’s inauguration. The Capitol complex has been generally closed to the public amid the pandemic, and the state Senate said its offices would close Saturday through Wednesday.
The administration activated 450 members of the Pennsylvania National Guard to assist State Police, Capitol Police, and Harrisburg Police in securing government buildings and other potential targets across the commonwealth. Police plan to close streets around the Capitol ahead of any demonstrations, and State Police are providing aviation support in the form of helicopters and drones.
This comes as tracking the far right has become increasingly tricky. Some groups that were booted from mainstream social media sites en masse following the violence at the U.S. Capitol are depending more on encrypted technology to communicate.
Colin P. Clarke, director of research at the Soufan Group, an intelligence and security consulting firm, said while securing the U.S. Capitol is vital, the more “hardened” it becomes, the more likely it is that bad actors will flock to state capitals that aren’t guarded by 20,000 members of the military. He’s especially concerned about states like Michigan and Pennsylvania that have established militia presences.
He said the significant attention around potential violence this week and arrests of the D.C. rioters could be a deterrent for some who wish to do harm, but it’s impossible to say for how many. Plenty of extremists, he said, are using images of the failed insurrection as recruitment propaganda.
“There’s more threats now and the online chatter feels more violent and energized than at any point in the past four years,” he said. “The Capitol siege has provided far-right extremists with significant momentum.”
In addition to working with federal authorities, police in Harrisburg are also coordinating with the Pennsylvania Emergency Management agency, State Police spokesperson Ryan Tarkowski said. He added that the Pennsylvania Criminal Intelligence Center is based in Harrisburg and staffed by analysts who provide law enforcement with intelligence, and that the agency is “confident” it has the resources “to protect Pennsylvanians against threats.”
In Harrisburg Wednesday, crews placed orange plastic barricades on the stairs of the building and two Capitol Police officers in camouflage fatigues patrolled while wielding long guns. Officers circled the building in vehicles and led K-9 units around the complex.
Some small-business owners in the area, afraid to speak on the record for fear of being targeted by Trump-supporting extremists, said they worry about vandalism and plan to close if demonstrations materialize, taking another financial hit after the last 10 months left them battered. Some residents who live close to the Capitol are weighing skipping town.
MacNett, president of the Capitol Area Neighbors, is taking off work Wednesday, the day of the inauguration, so she can watch over the house she lives in now that’s on the same block where she grew up. She has no problem with people expressing political views — protests happen all the time in Harrisburg — but said carrying weapons and encircling the neighborhood crosses a line.
Not to mention, she said, it’s becoming increasingly hard to tell the difference between who is armed law enforcement and who is an armed demonstrator.
“There’s a lot of working class folks in this neighborhood,” MacNett, 35, said, “and if it’s the working class folks that are out protesting because their rights or their X-Y-Z have been infringed on, yet I feel like I’ve been held hostage in my house? I feel like that kind of negates what they’re trying to stand for.”
Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse hasn’t commented on the threat and his office didn’t respond to an interview request. State Rep. Patty Kim, a Democrat who represents Harrisburg in the General Assembly, warned residents to stay away from the downtown area this weekend if they don’t live there or have an essential reason to be there.
“I don’t want to see unnecessary confrontation and conflict,” she said. “So if you’re bored at home and looking for action, no. Stay home.”
Some who live close to the Capitol have dealt with a year of frequent demonstrations nearby. While racial justice activists marched last summer, some residents said the anti-quarantine protests and “Stop the Steal” demonstrations by supporters of the president were particularly loud, angry, and armed. Outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvanians are generally permitted to carry guns openly.
Jeremiah Chamberlin, a 37-year-old who can see the dome of the Pennsylvania Capitol building from his bedroom window, said police have done a good job containing protests without angering demonstrators in the past. His concern is the guns.
“I grew up in a rural area, and you didn’t point a gun at somebody unless you intended to kill them,” he said, “so therefore, don’t bring a gun to a protest unless you’re intending to use it. That’s not speech. That’s intimidation.”
Jamie Earl, a 59-year-old retiree who makes political buttons supportive of Democratic causes and candidates, said he’s been so frustrated in the past with supporters of the president protesting near his home that he’s lightly challenged them, once walking around their demonstration with a sign that read: “F — Trump.”
He’s putting away the sign this time.
Earl, who sported buttons Wednesday that read “I [heart] HBG” and “Make Orwell Fiction Again,” said he and his wife talked about leaving town ahead of the inauguration, but ultimately decided they wouldn’t be run out of their own home. Instead, he’s taking the Biden-Harris sign out of his window and hunkering down.