In Juneau, state and local officials are on edge but hopeful there won’t be local violence

A boxy building covered with snow
Snow falls on the Alaska State Capitol in Juneau on Feb. 18. (Skip Gray/360 North)

State lawmakers in Juneau and local law enforcement are preparing for the possibility of violence after the FBI warned of potential armed protests in each state capital on Sunday.

While it’s not clear if a protest will take place in Alaska — or even where it might be — the threat of violence has already had an impact. Republican Senator Gary Stevens said he doesn’t want to go into details, but the legislature has plans to protect the state capitol and the people in it.

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“We’re very concerned about it,” Stevens said. “You’d be foolish not to have paid attention to what went on in Washington, D.C. and the various plans we’ve heard around the country, so I’m certain we’ll see something in Juneau as well.”

Alaska’s Capitol building is closed to the public because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Stevens says there will be plenty of people in it on Sunday. Lawmakers and staff have been coming into town for days to prepare for the upcoming legislative session, which is scheduled to begin on Tuesday.

After the deadly violence in Washington, D.C., when rioters broke into the nation’s Capitol building, Stevens says they had to beef up security.

“We’re not going to barricade the building, we’re not going to have National Guard in front of the building, nothing like that. But we have access to other police and protection people if things become dangerous,” Stevens said.

Stevens said it never really crossed his mind that Alaska lawmakers would have to be concerned about rioters breaking into the building.

But several other states have responded to the threat as well. Earlier this week, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers activated the National Guard to support police in Madison, and state workers boarded up windows at the state’s Capitol building.

State officials in Arizona and Michigan took steps to protect their Capitols as well, according to the Washington Post.

After the violence in Washington, D.C., Rayme Vinson, the security chief for Alaska’s Legislative Affairs Agency, emailed staff and legislators saying they would be taking extra precautions, including regular patrols by Juneau police and issuing key cards to the Capitol to Juneau-based Alaska State Troopers.

Stevens said he’s hearing from a lot of staff and lawmakers.

“There are going to be 200-300 people coming into this building,” Stevens said. “They’re concerned about what’s going to happen and concerned about putting themselves in jeopardy.”

But he doesn’t think the violence happening in other parts of the country will happen in Alaska.

“I’ve been involved in politics for many years, and I don’t think it’s going to happen here. It could and it would be foolish of us not to be prepared for that,” he said. “My guess is there’s not going to be any invasion at the Capitol, but should there be — we’re going to be prepared for it.”

Juneau Police Lt. Krag Campbell said they don’t yet have any concrete information about plans for a rally in Juneau, though that could change this week. He said they’re coordinating with other state and federal law enforcement agencies to make sure that they’re ready in case something happens.

“And if we plan and staff and do all these things and nobody shows up? Great,” he said.

Campbell said rumors on social media that protestors are planning to be armed changes the calculation that police have to make when they’re deciding how to respond. Campbell said that even though it’s legal, it’s generally not a good idea to bring a weapon to a protest.

“Leave guns, weapons, any type of weapon at home. Because bringing a weapon to a protest is generally going to increase the stress level of everybody there — as the increased likelihood that something will go bad, and it’s just not worth it. Some people will be perfectly peaceful, but not everybody may be,” he said.

Like Stevens, Campbell said he doesn’t think Juneau residents are likely to get violent. But he urged residents not to jump onto social media platforms and get sucked in by the hate.

“Go on a hike. Do something peaceful. Stay at home. Do something other than what is trying to be planned,” he said. “If somebody hears things, feel free to share that with us. It really just helps us be aware, to anticipate what’s going on.”

Juneau officials aren’t the only ones preparing for the possibility of unrest.

The Dimond Center, a shopping mall in Anchorage, will be closed on Sunday. An online flyer listed the center as the location for an armed rally. Alaska’s News Source later reported that the location should have been listed as Juneau.

According to that story, the organizers confused the Dimond shopping center with the Dimond Courthouse, which is across the street from the Capitol building in Juneau.

It’s not clear if there will be extra security at the courthouse over the weekend. Area Court Administrator James Kwon wrote in an email that the Alaska Court System defers to law enforcement agencies like the state’s Department of Public Safety, local and federal law enforcement for security expertise.

He did not return a phone call seeking clarification on what type of security the court system has in place in Juneau.

The courthouse is closed on the weekend and will also be closed on Monday for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.