RICHMOND, Va. -- The Virginia Capitol, designed by Thomas Jefferson, is now surrounded by chain link fencing. Multiple state and local emergency agencies activated a Unified Command on Tuesday to coordinate security in Virginia’s capital city following "credible threats" made against state capitals across the country.
The tension follows last week’s violent mob attack on the U.S. Capitol by a group of supporters of President Trump and precedes the beginning of the 2021 Virginia General Assembly session on Wednesday.
“The legislative process is open to all citizens virtually and in-person, in accordance with state COVID-19 guidelines and permit regulations. Any violation of law, non-peaceful demonstration, or attempts to intimidate fellow Virginians will not be tolerated. Those who engage in such behavior will be held accountable,” the Joint Information Center said in a statement on Facebook.
“Last week’s attack on the United States Capitol and recent credible threats of violence concerning capital cities in states nationwide underscore the importance of being prepared and vigilant to ensure public safety across the Virginia capital region. Through advance planning and multi-agency cooperation, the Unified Command is prepared and has the resources to protect those who live, work, and visit Richmond during the 2021 legislative session.”
The Governor’s Office said they are monitoring the threats and in coordination with law enforcement agencies. The City of Richmond declared a local state of emergency due to the potential for "civil unrest" following the U.S. Capitol Attack.
More than 2,000 Virginia National Guard members are already positioned in Washington D.C. ahead of Inauguration Day to assist with security. A spokesperson said they still have personnel should they be called upon locally.
"The Virginia National Guard maintains close coordination with the Virginia Department of Emergency Management and the Virginia State Police and will be able to provide personnel to assist with security operations in Virginia if requested by state and local authorities and authorized by the Governor of Virginia,” a spokesperson said.
Just like the Special Session in the fall of last year, the Virginia House of Delegates plans to conduct their business remotely and the Virginia Senate will meet at the Science Museum to help mitigate exposure to COVID-19. Virginia Capitol Police, who are involved in the Unified Command, said lessons learned from the Special Session helped inform their planning and logistics now.
Virginia lawmakers from both parties said they are confident in the security planning and its execution by local agencies.
“I think everyone needs to take a deep breath and really ratchet down the rhetoric right now,” said House Minority Leader Del. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah). “At the end of the day, I think we’re going to see folks think better of what we all saw last week which was just reprehensible, the lengths to which some people were willing to take.”
State Senator Ghazala Hashmi (D-Chesterfield) urged everyone in the region to take the threats seriously.
“If we were receiving the same kind of evidence and the same kind of threats from foreign terrorists, everybody would be vigilant and walking carefully and being observant,” she said. “They’re not cause for fear, but they are cause for heightened awareness of what’s going on around us.”
Sen. Hashmi became the first Muslim to serve in the Virginia Senate and said she faced hateful rhetoric during that campaign. She said those who espouse hate are a vocal minority.
“Rhetoric can be inflammatory; rhetoric can incite violence, and it can incite individuals towards hatred,” Hashmi said. “The majority of Americans have consistently, not just in this time period but throughout history, rejected that kind of rhetoric. So we’re looking at a minority community that wants to divide us, that wants us to feel fear and uncertainty against each other.”
Security officials are focused on unplanned events prior to Inauguration Day in D.C. and planned rallies during the annual Lobby Day at Virginia’s Capitol Monday. Due to COVID-19 restrictions issued by the Governor’s Office, only gatherings of 10 people or less are permitted.