Non-violent, heavily armed demonstration forms at Statehouse

Armed men stand outside the Ohio Capitol Jan. 17.

A cohort of armed men stood at the Statehouse steps calling for unity.

A conspiracy theorist with a megaphone yelled about dangerous vaccines, 9/11 and the 2020 election.

A Black Lives Matter activist simply waved a flag in celebration of the looming inauguration of a new president.

The entire Sunday crowd of roughly 100 stood, braving a sometimes-heavy snowfall, outside a Statehouse fortified with Humvees, National Guardsmen, and police barriers.

Exactly who came out for what reason is unclear. Despite stark warnings from Gov. Mike DeWine and a coterie of state and local officials, there was no violence on display Sunday. There were, however, dozens of armed, masked civilians in combat fatigues with assault rifles. A crowd forcefully shouted down an interview between a reporter and a man in a “Make America Great Again” hat.

The gathering formed in the context of two related events; Biden’s inauguration scheduled for Jan. 20, and a violent mob raid at the U.S. Capitol Jan. 6 as part of a last-ditch effort to force Congress to overturn the results of the presidential election. The raid came after months of President Donald Trump and his allies baselessly claiming the election was fraudulent.

Around 11:30 a.m., more than 15 men with assault rifles (many had holstered pistols as well) arrived identifying themselves as members of the Boogaloo Movement — an anti-government group focused on gun rights and civil liberties, some of whom anticipate an incipient civil war. More joined them later in the day.

A group of Boogalu Bois staging before the Jan. 17 demonstration. Several officers on horseback stopped by. Source: Jake Zuckerman.

Despite the weaponry and facial coverings, one man with the group who declined to provide his name said they were there for what he called a “unity rally.”

“If we look at the unarmed completely peaceful protests that have happened across America in this recent year, a majority of them get shut down by police force — brutal police force,” he said. “If you look at your armed marches, they last all day. Everybody gets to speak, and everybody gets to ensure they have a platform, and they are heard.”

Sitting in a lawn chair outside, Dan Wertz said he came out with a megaphone to counter-protest an expected pro-Donald Trump crowd that never materialized. He wound up in an amplified, public debate with another man with a megaphone.

The other man offered a torrent of baseless conspiracies: debunked claims that vaccines cause autism, that elections infrastructure companies rigged the presidential contest, that 9/11 was an inside job, and similar ideas.

Wertz said despite officials’ concerns about an armed and possibly violent protest, he didn’t want to let right-wing extremists chill his free speech rights.

“If I chose not to come out here because they’re armed, that would give them everything they want,” he said.

The conspiracy theorist then hurled a number of anti-trans insults at Wertz, prompting many of the Boogaloo Bois to stand with Wertz and distance themselves from the conspiracy theorist.

One man wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat would only identify himself as “Todd” and said he came out to stand up for Trump, repeating the lie that Trump won the election. Variations of this claim have been dismissed by dozens of courts, elections officials from both parties around the country, and the Trump administration’s ranking elections security chief (who Trump later fired).

A crowd slowly gathered around the man and a reporter, accusing the man of being a racist and the reporter of giving him a platform.

“Stop giving racists platforms! Stop giving racists platforms! Stop giving racists platforms!” they chanted, seeking to overpower a voice recorder and derail the interview.

The relative peace of the day came in contrast to warnings from DeWine, based on evidence he declined to make public, of threats of violence Sunday.

Alongside the violence in Washington D.C., several fights including a full-fledged brawl broke out Jan. 6 in Columbus between BLM activists and members of the Proud Boys — a group of all male, right-wing extremists known for engaging in fistfights with liberal groups.

A Black Lives Matter flag furls outside the Ohio Statehouse Jan. 17. Source: Jake Zuckerman.

Other factors may have worked against the violence: The day proved cold and wet; a rare Cleveland Browns playoff game kicked off at 3 p.m.; the robust security acted as a deterrence; and a sweeping prosecutorial effort related to the Jan. 6 raid may have weighed down any would-be instigators.

Maurice Carpenter of Columbus avoided the thick of the crowd and waved a Black Lives Matter flag at passing traffic.

“I’m just here ‘cause we’re celebrating, our president just won, we’ve been fighting all year,” he said. “They’re the ones who are sore losers. So hey, you lost, get over it. He had four years.”

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