Masses of armed pro-Trump protesters failed to materialize at the Georgia Capitol Sunday, but fear of them turned the state’s symbol of elected government into an armed fortress nonetheless.

For much of the day, the scene was quiet but jarring.

The Georgia National Guard, the State Patrol and other law enforcement agencies surrounded the Capitol with military equipment and manpower, closing off streets and securing entrances with Humvees, city dump trucks and police cars with flashing lights. Temporary barricades were stationed around the Capitol grounds and shallow trenches marked where an 8-foot-high security fence is to be installed, a far cry from Georgia’s traditionally pedestrian-friendly Gold Dome.

The show of force was prompted by FBI warnings that extremists had planned armed assaults on state capitols across the nation as a follow-up to the Jan. 6 attack on Congress. While some on the extreme right agitated for more protests, others on militia and pro-Trump internet boards warned them to stay away to avoid arrest and the bad “optics” of more violence.

After hours of relative quiet in the morning, the only hint of protest came in the afternoon when a half-dozen left-wing activists showed up to chant “Black lives matter” and “No justice, no peace, no racist police” before marching around the Capitol.

Two armed men address the Georgia National Guard soldiers and Georgia State Patrol officers stationed at the state Capitol Sunday, January 17, 2021, in Atlanta. (Photo: Daniel Varnado for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Two armed men address the Georgia National Guard soldiers and Georgia State Patrol officers stationed at the state Capitol Sunday, January 17, 2021, in Atlanta. (Photo: Daniel Varnado for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Shortly thereafter, two masked men armed with a shotgun and a hunting rifle paused on the sidewalk in front of the phalanx of police and troops.

“They should definitely be careful and understand they work for the people,” one of the men, dressed in camouflage, said. The men refused to give their names while claiming they and the media were the only ones brave enough to turn out.

Jan. 17, 2021 — ATLANTA — More than a dozen worshippers from Divine Deliverance Life Center just outside of College Park prayed beside the state Capitol against more insurrections. (Jeremy Redmon / Jeremy.Redmon@ajc.com
Jan. 17, 2021 — ATLANTA — More than a dozen worshippers from Divine Deliverance Life Center just outside of College Park prayed beside the state Capitol against more insurrections. (Jeremy Redmon / Jeremy.Redmon@ajc.com

That wasn’t accurate. More than a dozen worshippers from Divine Deliverance Life Center just outside of College Park also came to the Capitol complex to pray against more insurrections.

“We are just making a stand here. We believe that prayer will go everywhere,” said church elder Karin Berry.

1/17/21 - Atlanta -  State Inmate Transport busses with corrections officers on board arrived at the state Capitol Sunday.  (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
1/17/21 - Atlanta - State Inmate Transport busses with corrections officers on board arrived at the state Capitol Sunday. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

Fortified busses from the Department of Corrections stood ready in case the authorities made mass arrests. None were made.

The scene in Atlanta was repeated at capitol buildings from Sacramento, California, to Augusta, Maine, where increased security was met with sparse or non-existent protesters.

State Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta, served in the U.S. Army in Iraq and Afghanistan, so seeing Humvees and armed soldiers guarding government buildings isn’t new to him.

“But that was always overseas,” he said. “It is disquieting to walk past military vehicles and armed vehicles to enter the Capitol.”

He was glad Sunday passed without incident, but he said the threat isn’t going away.

“There is a very real sentiment that is driving it, and I’m concerned about it. I think many people are concerned about it,” he said.

He said he would like to see the Legislature turn its attention on the rise of extremist groups like it has in recent years to combat the spread of street gangs.

“If you don’t think the threat these groups pose is real, you aren’t paying attention,” he said.

While Sunday’s feared protests did not materialize in Atlanta, the heightened police presence is expected to continue through Wednesday’s inauguration ceremony for President-Elect Joe Biden.

The Capitol is closed for the Martin Luther King Day Jr. holiday and the Legislature is not in session this week. Legislative leaders are meeting this week to shape the state budget, but much of that work will be virtual because of the pandemic.

Beyond Atlanta, the state of Georgia also dispatched hundreds of Georgia National Guard troops from the 48th Brigade and members from the 165th Airlift Wing and the 116th Air Control Wing to Washington to prevent another violent attack on the federal government.

“The Georgia National Guard will support law enforcement professionals to ensure we have a peaceful transition of the presidency,” Maj. Pam Stauffer, a spokeswoman for the Georgia National Guard, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “The Georgia National Guard will adjust our posture based on the potential threat.”

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