Oregon Capitol braces for more trouble in next few days
The Oregon Capitol — targeted twice recently by anti-lockdown, pro-Trump demonstrators and breached once while lawmakers were in special session in December — is girding for trouble again.
The Legislative Administration Office has closed the building in Salem for five days starting Saturday, Jan. 16, and running through Jan. 20, when Joe Biden will be sworn in as president and Kamala Harris as vice president at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C
Workers boarded up first-floor windows at the Oregon Capitol, a rare action, in anticipation of trouble. Earlier in the week, Gov. Kate Brown agreed to a request by Oregon State Police — responsible for security within the building — for help from the Oregon National Guard. Specific steps were not made public.
Concrete blocks to deter vehicles were placed in front of the Capitol on New Year's Eve.
The Legislature has canceled scheduled activities. The Senate had planned to meet Tuesday for first reading of bills, a step required for the president to assign them to committees. Legislative committees are meeting virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic, and the building itself has been closed to the public for 10 months. But the computer systems required for virtual meetings are housed in the Capitol, where committee staffers also work.
"First you have the pandemic and now you have social unrest," Senate President Peter Courtney, a Democrat from Salem in his 37th year as a legislator, said Friday at an Associated Press legislative preview. "The situation has turned very bad. Violence has turned on people as well as buildings... The state Capitol has become a fortress. I never thought I'd see that, and it breaks my heart."
Tuesday, Jan. 19, was to have been the start of the 160-day clock for the 2021 session.
The FBI has warned of potential violence at many state capitals and the U.S. Capitol, where five people died Jan. 6 after a pro-Trump mob barged into that building and vandalized it. The U.S. Capitol violence followed a speech by President Donald Trump, who has falsely claimed his election loss was fraudulent, and who urged the crowd to march on the Capitol. He did not go himself.
"This (protest) will likely draw large crowds and could result in potential damage to the building," a statement from the Oregon Legislative Administration Office said.
"In an abundance of caution, Oregon State Police urges all Capitol occupants remain away from the building during this period."
The Capitol has been closed to the public since March 18, 2020, after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Lawmakers have met three times in special session since then, all under requirements for mask wearing and social distancing, and opened their 2021 session on Jan. 11. Both houses adopted rules that require virtual committee meetings, but also allow for periodic reevaluation during the pandemic.
The Oregon Capitol was breached Dec. 21, but protesters were confined to a vestibule on the northwest side until state troopers ejected them. They turned back a second attempt to breach the west entrance. Five people were arrested, one of them surrendering six days after the event.
Lawmakers did pass the four bills on their agenda for the special session, which ended after 10 hours.
A surveillance camera caught Rep. Mike Nearman, R-Independence, on videotape opening the vestibule door, and he is under criminal investigation by the State Police. Nearman was seated for his fourth term Jan. 11, along with the 59 other representatives for the start of the 2021 session, but then was stripped of his committee assignments and fined $2,000 for the cost of damage. He also voluntarily agreed to surrender his electronic access card to the Capitol and give 24-hour notice before entry into the Capitol.
He fired back Jan. 12 at House Speaker Tina Kotek, a Democrat from Portland who took the actions against him and also joined a complaint alleging that he created a hostile work environment. The complaint could trigger an investigation by the House Committee on Conduct, which has an equal number of members from both parties.
Nearman accused Kotek of political motives in the timing of her disclosure, one day after the U.S. Capitol violence, that state police identified him in video footage. But he also gave a false statement about her disclosing the video to the public. She did not show a video to reporters at the Jan. 7 virtual session, which was called for other reasons, and Kotek's spokesman says she does not possess a copy.
A pro-Trump crowd also gathered across from the Capitol on Jan. 6 and listened to Trump's speech. Some in the crowd clashed later with counterprotesters. State police, Marion County sheriff's deputies and Salem police separated the two groups. Two people were arrested. One of them was arrested again a couple of days later in Portland, where he was alleged to have shot into the U.S. Courthouse.
Authorities locked down the Capitol earlier that same day. The building was not breached.
NOTE: Updates with comment by Senate President Peter Courtney, a Democrat from Salem who is Oregon's longest serving lawmaker.
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