NJ Capitol protest: All quiet in Trenton after state had been on high alert

Joanna Gagis, Correspondent | January 17, 2021 | Politics
Gov. Phil Murphy urged people to stay home. Law enforcement shut down streets and prepared for the worst

For days, New Jersey’s top law enforcement officials were saying they were prepared for the worst ahead of a planned protest in Trenton as demonstrators were said to be challenging President-elect Biden’s election in all 50 state capitals Sunday.

The head of the State Police said there was constant communication with all levels of law enforcement. The head of homeland security warned people to be vigilant and report any possible threat. Gov. Phil Murphy urged people to stay home.

They did.

By midafternoon Sunday, Trenton was quiet, except for the media and the police presence.

Credit: Joanna Gagis/NJ Spotlight News
Jan. 17, 2021: At the State House in Trenton

“It seems there’s more skateboarders than protestors, but we can’t really take anything for granted. We’ve had all levels of law enforcement collectively work on this throughout the week, from local police to county sheriffs, State Police and even the FBI,” Trenton Mayor Reed Gusciora told reporters.

State, county and local officials stressed in the days leading up to Sunday’s event that they were ready for whatever protest might happen in Trenton. The FBI had been warning of protests in all 50 states on Sunday ahead of Wednesday’s presidential inauguration by groups rejecting President-elect Joe Biden’s landslide victory while echoing President Trump’s baseless claims of election fraud.

Instead of the expected protestors, a handful of counter-demonstrators arrived Sunday.

“We need to, as communities, develop the ability to watch these groups when they come out, not to interfere with their right to free speech. Everyone’s got that right. But also keep an eye on it. And if they’re gonna move through a community, we need to move with them,” said Bob Witanek from New Jersey Anti-War Agenda.

Witanek and Daryle Lamont Jenkins, founder of One People’s Project, were there Sunday as part of work they said they do tracking what they called extremist groups.

“You have the southern chapter and you have the northern chapter of the Proud Boys that are in the state,” Jenkins said. “Various neo-Nazi groups, Patriot Front. They’re in the state, some of them are represented in New Brunswick.”

Top law enforcement leaders in New Jersey were insisting last week they had no specific or credible threat ahead of what had been billed as a demonstration by possibly armed protestors. The head of the State Police last week said agencies were on high alert and communicating “aggressively” with their partners.

One of the promoters of Sunday’s event, Tree of Liberty, said it “will be a peaceful demonstration to send a message to those in favor of gun control that Americans exist that will defend our nation, defend ourselves, defend our families and defend our rights from all threats foreign and domestic.” Commenters posted that the rally would not be solely dedicated to gun rights, but also “about the fraudulent and corrupt elections that have been taking place for only God knows how long” and “about unity against tyrannical government.”

Comments posted on the site appeared to support violence, with one urging people to “drag” people out of the State House and “hang them.” A follow-up post said, “Most every problem can be solved by dragging out about 100 people and shooting them in the head.”

The company hosting Tree of Liberty’s website later pulled that site from its servers.

WATCH: NJ security chief says ‘no specific threat’

WATCH: Trenton mayor talks protest prep

Murphy announced the unusual step of closing state government offices in Trenton on Wednesday, with employees working remotely, due to continuing threats of potential violence through the inauguration.

“The silver lining of this big protest call on Sunday is it’s a Sunday,” Murphy said Friday during a news briefing on the COVID-19 pandemic. “That’s frankly, a good thing. But with all the other tension in the country right now, we’ve made the call.”

Col. Pat Callahan, superintendent of the New Jersey State Police, said that is being done “out of an abundance of caution” and not because of any specific threat.

“We all know that we are very comfortable and trust working remotely, given what we’ve been through for the last year, so we just thought, to help us facilitate any security or response measure, the fewer folks in and around Trenton, the better,” Callahan said Friday in his appearance with Murphy.

“We continue to be on high alert, communicating aggressively with stakeholders,” Murphy said on Friday. “As we sit here today, the threat, whether it’s for Sunday the 17th or Wednesday the 20th continues to be a general threat, not a specific threat … Again, we’re in the category of we’ll hope for the best but we’re going to prepare for the worst.”

Callahan said the state’s top law enforcement and security officials have had calls with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, congressional representatives, legislative leaders and local officials on potential threats.

“I can’t really recall a time when the communication and the exchange of information has been so robust,” he said. “It has been clearly constant … We are postured, and prepared, to respond with all of those partners should that need arise.”

Callahan said the state is sending 53 troopers to Washington at the request of officials there to “support the security efforts for the presidential inauguration.” They will join 571 New Jersey National Guard members currently in D.C., Murphy said. He expects the guard will stay in the U.S. Capitol through the end of the month while the state police troopers should return to New Jersey on Thursday provided they are not still needed.

Murphy declined to give details of the law enforcement response. He again urged New Jerseyans to stay home on Sunday and on Wednesday, as well.

MURPHY: ‘Stay home’ as state readies for protests

New Jersey law enforcement has recognized “domestic extremists” as a major threat for many years. Jared M. Maples, director of the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness, released a report earlier this year and updated it in September in which he outlined potential dangers.

“Domestic extremists — primarily anarchist, anti-government, and racially motivated — will continue to manipulate national incidents such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 Presidential election, and civil unrest to further their agendas and remain a threat,” the 2020-21 Supplemental Threat Assessment states. “These extremists will use the confluence of those factors to promote propaganda, recruit new members, encourage supporters to commit attacks.”

That assessment predicted domestic extremists would coordinate and attack the police and antigovernment and anarchist extremists would protest the election and attack government buildings.

— NJ Spotlight News Senior Writer Colleen O’Dea contributed to this report.