Columbus stayed peaceful because it prepared for war

Armed demonstrators are seen outside the Ohio Statehouse on Sunday. Photo by Jake Zuckerman.

Armed law enforcement officers stood watch at the foot of a statue in memory of President McKinley, each as still as the monument.

Behind them, these words are etched into Vermont granite: “Let us remember that our interest is in concord, not conflict, and that our real eminence rests in the victories of peace, not those of war.”

Those troopers were joined Sunday by many more defending the Ohio Statehouse steps and each of the entrances. Humvees surrounded the capitol building. There were reported to be hundreds of Ohio National Guard troops stationed inside, recently mobilized by the governor to ward off an insurrection attempt like that seen at the nation’s capital.

State troopers are seen near the William McKinley statue on the Ohio Statehouse grounds. Photo by Tyler Buchanan.

Sunday was peaceful, such that a protest attended by armed demonstrators and guarded by law enforcement like it was a military base can possibly feel peaceful. This was, many expected, supposed to be a last stand of sorts before this week’s inauguration of President Joe Biden.

It didn’t turn out that way. There was one man shouting conspiracy theories about a stolen election into a bullhorn, and interspersed among the sparse crowd was an occasional Biden sign, a Trump-emblazoned face shield, a handmade poster offering vague anti-government sentiments.

Mostly, it was just a lot of standing around. No chanting, no marching, just being there and braving the cold. I watched an armed Boogaloo Boi chat politely with a counter-protester clutching a baseball bat. Many of these conversations ended with arm bumps. I’ve seen more heated confrontations covering a village council set a Halloween trick-or-treat time.

“Don’t let our guns scare you,” one of them said in welcoming a dialogue.

Which begs the question of why, if discussion is merely the point, they felt the need to bring conspicuous weaponry in the first place.

There were no brawls like the Jan. 6 gathering at the Statehouse. There were no efforts to breach the security lines. I left wondering if this surprisingly drama-free event was despite the planned show of force or because of it. 

* * *

The McKinley monument features the former president flanked by bronze representations of “peace and prosperity.”

Tens of thousands of Ohioans came to Capitol Square for the statue’s unveiling ceremony in 1906, which included a visit from Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth.

“The committee on arrangements had expected an enormous crowd, but in view of the solemnity and dignity of the occasion, the committee believed that the crowd would be easily kept in restraint,” a New Philadelphia newspaper reported. “Under ordinary circumstances the police arrangements would have been adequate, but the officers quickly found they were powerless to cope with the crowd.”

The throng of people led to a panicked crush. Longworth decided to unveil the statue immediately in hopes of soothing the crowd, which glimpsed briefly at the monument of peace before renewing the stampede. Two women were trampled upon and had to be taken away by ambulance. The rest of the speeches were postponed.

It was a masterpiece of a statue, the newspaper article concluded.

* * * 

Military vehicles were placed around the Ohio Statehouse. Photo by Jake Zuckerman.

Speaking on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives last week, Rep. Jim Jordan tried to assure Americans by saying “there will be a peaceful transfer of power just like there has been every other time in our country.” 

Is it peaceful for a mob to storm the U.S. Capitol, coming within seconds of confronting members of Congress? Is it peaceful for five Ohio members of Congress, including Jordan, to vote against certifying the Electoral College count a few hours after that deadly incident?

Is it peaceful for the governor to mobilize the Ohio National Guard to Washington, D.C., which has color-coded security zones and is not allowing the public to witness the inauguration? 

Is it peaceful for the Ohio Statehouse and other government buildings in downtown Columbus to be closed this week?  Is it peaceful to see military vehicles lining the street? 

Is it peaceful for reporters to make security plans ahead of time and discuss self-defense techniques?

That ship has sailed. We’re left wondering if these images become permanent fixtures of our nation’s security state or if they are merely a temporary reaction to one of our darkest days.

I left the Statehouse grounds on Sunday relieved the protests did not involve any violence. But I certainly didn’t feel at peace.

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Tyler Buchanan
Tyler Buchanan is an award-winning journalist who has covered Ohio politics and government for the past decade. A Bellevue native and graduate of Bowling Green State University, he most recently spent 6 1/2 years as a reporter and editor of The Athens Messenger and Vinton-Jackson Courier newspapers. He is a member of the BG News Alumni Society Board and was a 2019 fellow in the Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism.