Oregon state lawmakers are preparing for the possibility of another armed protest at the Capitol in Salem and will delay gathering in-person on the first day of the 2021 legislative session.
Earlier this week, the FBI informed state legislators across the country to brace for large protests being planned in state capitals in the run-up to the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden.
Oregon state lawmakers said they were canceling the in-person gathering out of an abundance of caution and after heeding advice from the Oregon State Police.
“All the decisions are based pretty much initially on the State Police. They’re the ones directing much of what we do,” Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, told the Statesman Journal, which first reported the news. “There’s concern that they don’t quite know what the level or the intensity of demonstrations might be because of what’s happened before to the Oregon Capitol.”
During a one-day special session in December, far-right demonstrators gathered outside the state Capitol in demanding access to the closed building. The building was closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rep. Mike Nearman, a Republican lawmaker, intentionally opened the door to the state Capitol, allowing the demonstrators outside to gain access to the building. A chaotic scene unfolded, with state troopers and Salem police officers squaring off with the demonstrators, some of whom were spraying a chemical agent at officers.
Gov. Kate Brown announced Wednesday she would be dispatching Oregon National Guard troops to the state Capitol in the coming days after a request was made by the Oregon State Police.
“The recent events at our Nation’s Capitol building and at our own statehouse illustrate the need for law enforcement to be prepared and appropriately staffed for any large gatherings,” OSP Superintendent Terrie Davie said in the statement at the time.
Oregon National Guard troops will be deployed in Oregon based on need, according to Maj. Stephen Bomar, a spokesman for the National Guard. A specific number of troops has not yet been determined.
Oregon National Guard troops will also be deployed in Washington, D.C., to offer assistance for the inauguration and are currently helping administer vaccines at the Oregon State Fairgrounds in Salem.
The deployments come amidst multiple investigations into service members across the country for their participation in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the nation’s Capitol.
The Oregon National Guard confirmed to OPB that the FBI is investigating one of its members for allegedly making online threats. That soldier’s social media activity contained posts supporting the Proud Boys, encouraging members of white supremacist group Patriot Front, and a Jan. 5 Facebook post that read, “It’s almost go time boys. The Civil War starts tomorrow.”
Bomar, a spokesman for the Guard, said the soldier denied making the posts and said that his identity had been stolen. The investigation was turned over to the FBI. If they confirm the soldier is responsible, the military will take action.
Bomar confirmed the soldier will not be part of the force called up to assist with protest security.
FBI leaders told OPB they have concerns about the potential for violence this weekend and surrounding the inauguration of President-elect Biden.
“In terms of the potential for violence I would say it’s elevated over what we’d normally see,” said Renn Cannon, FBI Special Agent in Charge of the Portland field office. He’s set to retire at the end of the week.
Rallies are planned in Salem on Sunday and in Portland next Wednesday.
“We are seeing here in Oregon as we have throughout the country, elevated threat streams on social media, reporting from the public, and other indications that tell us there are some people that may be interested in doing some violence at some of these assemblies,” Cannon said. “So we’re paying attention to that. We’re trying to ascertain through threat assessments and investigation, what is a true threat, and what we need to pay attention to and what’s not.”
Every FBI field office, including Portland’s, is part of the investigation into the Jan. 6 takeover of the U.S. Capitol to determine who broke in and committed crimes.
“Do I anticipate any imminent arrests? Probably not,” said Kieran Ramsey, the incoming Special Agent in Charge of the Portland division. “But also to talk more about that gets into the heart of investigations.”
He declined to discuss specifics about investigations.
“You can see from the national picture,” Ramsey said, “if we can put you in that Capitol breaking a law, we’re coming to investigate you and you’re going to take a charge.”
In Oregon, the 2021 legislative session still technically kicks off on Tuesday, but neither members of the House of Representatives nor the Senate will be meeting on the chamber floors as initially planned. Committee meetings are also canceled. Those have been held remotely due to the pandemic, but still require a staff presence in the building.
Some lawmakers, however, still plan to be in the building.
Democratic Rep. Paul Evans, of Monmouth, said it was probably the right call to close the building, but he isn’t going to let the armed demonstrators stop him from being at the statehouse.
“My duty station is the state Capitol and I will be there Tuesday and Wednesday,” Evans said. “I spend generally two to three days in the office at the Capitol in a normal week anyway. I’m not gonna let the yahoos keep me from my normal routine of serving the public.”
Dirk VanderHart contributed to this report.