Gov. Mike DeWine announced Thursday that the Ohio Statehouse and state office buildings downtown will be closed from Sunday-Wednesday to prepare for armed protests ahead of President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration.
"The sad truth is that there are people in our country who want to turn peaceful protests into opportunities for violence," DeWine said. "These are violent people and their violence will not be tolerated in Ohio."
An armed march is scheduled for Sunday outside the Statehouse, with the FBI issuing warnings about similar rallies planned in all state capitals and in Washington, D.C in the coming days.
Joining the governor at a press conference Thursday morning, Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther urged people to avoid the protests and downtown areas over the weekend.
"What hate groups want is confrontation, to give them a platform and amplify their message," Ginther said. "Let's not give it to them."
The governor signed a proclamation authorizing the Ohio National Guard to mobilize to Columbus or anywhere else they might be needed in the state, saying both they and the Ohio State Highway Patrol will be "out in force" in Columbus.
The Statehouse has already begun boarding up windows and erecting barriers outside entrances, and local businesses have boarded up as well.
There is a lot of fencing around the Ohio Statehouse now and more going up. Trooper presence is increasing. Statehouse and state buildings downtown will be closed Sunday through Thursday because of possible violence during expected protests. pic.twitter.com/kNVObZRezw
— Karen Kasler (@karenkasler) January 14, 2021
Ohio State Highway Patrol Superintendent Col. Richard Fambro said they do not have an estimate of how many protesters are expected.
At the request of the federal government, DeWine also authorized the deployment of 500 more National Guard members for the January 20 inauguration, bringing the state's commitment to 700.
"It's time for us to observe the peaceful transition of power, and remind ourselves of what brings us together, holds us together, binds us together as Americans," DeWine said.
After last Wednesday's violent insurrection of the U.S. Capitol by pro-Trump extremists, which interrupted a session of Congress and left at least five people dead, law enforcement have been on high alert for additional actions across the country. According to The Washington Post, the FBI told states that marches on capitals are being organized by "armed far-right extremist groups" ahead of Biden's inauguration.
"Our First Amendment rights are sacred," DeWine said. "We must always and will always respect the rights of peaceful protesters. However, I think all Americans were horrified by what we saw just a few days ago in our nation's capital, where a mob attacked the Capitol, where individuals died as a result, and where really the Constitution itself was under attack."
At Thursday's briefing, DeWine did not indicate any plans to restrict guns at the Ohio Statehouse, saying that Ohio law allows for open carry on the capitol grounds and concealed carry for those with a permit. Guns are not permitted inside the Statehouse building, which is equipped with metal detectors.
On Monday, the Michigan State Capitol Commission – which manages the common areas of the state capitol – adopted a policy that bans openly carrying guns in the building. Only law enforcement personnel and people with valid concealed weapon permits are allowed to openly carry in the Michigan Capitol, although Gov. Gretchen Whitmer called on the commission to go further and ban all weapons.
Major General John C. Harris, Jr. of the Ohio National Guard said that members have been trained to avoid the use of deadly force. When asked about the potential threats posed by armed protesters, Harris said the guard is "prepared to do the full spectrum of operations."
Ginther and Columbus Police Chief Tom Quinlan said that policies remain in place restricting the use of chemical agents on non-violent protesters – which were put in place this summer following criticism of how officers responded to Black Lives Matter demonstrators.
"The guidance we have given (Quinlan) is that chemical agents cannot be used on peaceful protestors, but once a protest has turned violent, once destruction of property or lives of protesters or officers is put at risk, those chemical agents can be used to disperse and control violent protests," Ginther said.
On the same day as the Capitol siege, a violent pro-Trump crowd that included members of the white supremacist group the Proud Boys gathered at the Ohio Statehouse to protest the certification of Biden's victory. Some pro-Trump participants attacked counter-protesters at the event, but no arrests were made by Columbus Police, who were on the scene to monitor the event.
Thursday morning, the ACLU of Ohio urged Columbus residents to stay away from the Statehouse over the weekend, saying that "several credible threats of violence" had been made against the transgender community. "If you must be in downtown Columbus this weekend, please do not engage with protesters or put yourself at any unnecessary risk," the organization tweeted.
This is a developing story that will be updated through the day.