Crime and Justice

FBI warns Vermont police about armed rally planned at Statehouse

Vermont State Police troopers block State Street in front of the Statehouse in Montpelier to provide security for an outdoor swearing-in ceremony for Gov. Phil Scott and the state’s constitutional officers on Thursday. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Vermont law enforcement officials are preparing for possible armed rallies at the Statehouse. The FBI issued a warning Monday that demonstrations by gun-toting protesters are planned at state capitals across the country. 

ABC News first reported early Monday afternoon that it had obtained an internal FBI bulletin stating, “As of 10 January, armed protests are being planned at all 50 state capitals from 16 January through at least 20 January, and at the U.S. Capitol from 17 January through 20 January.”

Vermont authorities say flyers are being circulated about armed rallies on Sunday, Jan. 17, three days before the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden.

One of the flyers, obtained by VTDigger, bore the slogan “When Democracy Is Destroyed, Refuse to Be Silenced” and promoted an “Armed March of Capitol Hill & All State Capitols.”

The red flyers feature an image of the Statue of Liberty and call on people to “Demand Freedom. End the Corruption.”

At a news briefing Monday afternoon, Vermont Public Safety Commissioner Michael Shirling said there is “not at this stage a specific set of threats or threat” related to Vermont. 

“But I would caution that it is early. We still have a number of days to go,” the commissioner said. “That’s not to indicate that we’re predicting anything’s going to emerge. It’s just very early in the process.”

As a precaution, Montpelier and Roxbury public schools have announced that all instruction on Jan. 20 will be virtual, with no in-person classes.

Schirling said his department is working with other law enforcement agencies, including the Capitol Police and Montpelier Police Department, in planning to deal with a possible armed rally at the Statehouse.

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“We don’t discuss the nature of exactly what that planning and the posture is going to look like, for obvious reasons,” he said.

Schirling said his department is not aware of any threats to any other locations in the state, but “if they emerge, we’ll create plans for those as well.”

Schirling said at this point there are no “active” calls for a curfew or a Vermont National Guard presence at the Statehouse. 

“That hasn’t been part of an ongoing conversation at this stage,” he said. “But we do prepare for a variety of possibilities.”

The calls for nationwide armed rallies at state capitals follows the insurrection last Wednesday in the U.S. Capitol by supporters of President Donald Trump. They stormed the building as lawmakers inside were certifying the presidential election results. 

Fifty-one people from Vermont traveled by bus last Wednesday to take part of the “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington, D.C. 

Over the weekend, the Montpelier Police Department posted an alert to Facebook about the possibility of armed rallies at statehouses across the country, including Vermont.

The Vermont Capitol Police, the Montpelier Police Department, Vermont State Police and other agencies are working to “ensure the safety” of the capitol complex and the city of Montpelier, according to the statement. 

Montpelier Police Chief Brian Peete, speaking at the news briefing Monday, said his department is adopting an all-hands-on-deck approach, and is canceling any leave requests from members of the force. 

“We have taken those steps,” he said. “We’ve gone to an elevated posture regarding our time off, because these, these occurrences would be happening in your jurisdiction.”

Capitol Police Chief Matthew Romei said Monday that preparations are complicated by the fact that Vermont is considered an “open carry” state. People can legally bear firearms in public.

“It’s permitted, but it’s discouraged,” Romei said of people carrying firearms during rallies at the Statehouse. He said police could take action if a person brandished a firearm or used one to menace or intimidate others.

Given the “totality of the circumstances,” Schirling urged people to “think twice” before bringing firearms to a Statehouse rally. 

Asked if he knew what groups may be participating in an armed rally at the Vermont Statehouse, Schirling said, “Not specifically, beyond folks that affiliated themselves with the groups that were present at the (U.S.) Capitol.”  

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Law enforcement received many tips during the weekend about the possibility of an armed rally at the Statehouse, he said. 

“We get a lot of links and screenshots off of social media, not just Facebook,” Romei said of the tips that have come in. “We got a lot off of Parler before it was shut down last night.”

Schirling called on Vermonters to report to authorities any information they might find concerning, such as a possible threat. 

“At no other time has it been as important to see something, say something,” he said. 

“Even if they seem small,” he said it’s important to report them, “so that we can weave information together so that we can try to weave together a picture out of puzzle pieces.” 

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Alan J. Keays

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