MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Gov. Tim Walz on Wednesday activated the Minnesota National Guard to protect the state Capitol amid rising fears of violence ahead of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, and another top Democrat said authorities are investigating last week’s rally by supporters of President Donald Trump in St. Paul for statements that could be considered incitements to violence.
The activation comes amid growing concern about potential attacks at state capitols across the country following last week's insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, and as Minnesota lawmakers report a growing number of threats against them.
And it follows a pro-Trump “Storm the Capitol” rally at the state Capitol last Wednesday where one speaker warned of “a civil war,” and another drew cheers for predicting “casualties” in Washington. While the Minnesota protest was peaceful, the State Patrol evacuated Walz's 14-year-old son when it moved to the governor's residence. Protesters have often gathered there on Saturdays, leading to confrontations between Trump supporters and various groups on the left.
“Recent reports of planned armed protests around the country and at our State Capitol must be met with a strong and unequivocal response," Walz said in his executive order.
Walz issued the order on the day the U.S. House voted to impeach Trump for his role in fomenting the violence at the U.S. Capitol. Minnesota's congressional delegation was split on party lines as Democratic U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, of St. Paul, presided. Before the vote, the chairwoman of the Republican Party of Minnesota, Jennifer Carnahan, reiterated her condemnation of the “terrible actions” at the U.S. Capitol and called for "peace across Minnesota and across our country.”
The governor's statement and his executive order did not say how many troops would be called up or from which units. The order left the details to the state's adjutant general, Maj. Gen. Shawn Manke. Spokespeople for the governor and the Guard did not immediately respond to messages seeking further information.
The Guard will supplement the State Patrol, which has already stepped up security at the Capitol complex, which has been fenced off since the unrest last summer over the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
A Dec. 29 memo from the FBI's Minneapolis field office warned of threats to the Minnesota and Michigan capitols for this Sunday. The memo said “a few Minnesota-based followers of the Boogaloo movement” attended protests at the Minnesota Capitol last month to “perform reconnaissance” on security and identify “escape points and defensible positions" in the event of violence. It said they also scouted “law enforcement sniper locations” they would need to blow up to protect their fighters if a gun battle broke out.
The Star Tribune reported Wednesday that violent threats against Minnesota’s political leaders have been escalating in frequency and intensity, though the trend began earlier amid disputes over the state's response to the pandemic and the killing of Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
Hold the Line MN, a Facebook-based group that organized the “Storm the Capitol” rally, has received permits for two events on the Capitol grounds this weekend, a “Freedom Fest” for Saturday and a “church service” on Sunday. The same group had posted a plea on its Facebook page Monday for supporters to stay away from St. Paul this Sunday, though it said members would be there for a Saturday event. An organizer with the group, Becky Strohmeier, said via email that Sunday's event is by invitation only for about 20 friends, while she expects “much less” than the permitted 150 people for Saturday's event.
Democratic Minnesota House Speaker Melissa Hortman said Wednesday that state authorities are investigating the St. Paul rally, at which six GOP state representatives appeared. She said the investigation is being led by the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and Department of Public Safety, which will forward their findings to the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office for potential charges.
Hortman said it’s law enforcement’s responsibility to determine whether the lawmakers engaged in activity that could be considered incitement to violence or terroristic threats. The House will decide if ethics charges are warranted, though she said “it’s just too early to tell.”
The speaker said Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington told lawmakers Tuesday he did not have specific information indicating lawmakers are in danger, and didn’t recommend that legislators change their procedures. He told them his agency continues to investigate threats against the Capitol and will be on “high alert” from Saturday through the inaugural, she said.
Harrington's spokesman provided few details on the investigation. “The Department of Public Safety is reviewing various aspects of what occurred on the state capitol grounds last week,” spokesman Bruce Gordon said in an email. “While we support Minnesotans’ First Amendment rights to peacefully protest, anyone involved in illegal activity will be held accountable.”
While Walz has repeatedly affirmed the right of people to demonstrate peacefully, he has also decried the trend of protesters coming armed, calling it an attempt at intimidation. Many people who've attended recent Saturday protests over various issues outside the governor's residence have legally carried rifles and handguns, said Sgt. Michael Ernester, a spokesman for the St. Paul Police Department. He said police have provided security in front of the residence.
“When information existed that opposing groups were gathering at the same time or in opposition to the other, we would increase our staffing with the goal of allowing people to express themselves and keeping it peaceful,” Ernester said in an email. “Verbal exchange is common when groups come together, but physical confrontation is rare.”
Ibrahim is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.