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Thin Crowd At Ohio Statehouse Draws Few Trump Supporters, Plenty Of National Guard

With snow falling lightly on Columbus, and the windows of the Ohio Statehouse boarded up and guarded by scores of Ohio National Guard members, a small but ideologically diverse crowd gathered in Capitol Square downtown Sunday.

After the FBI warned of potential violence and armed marches by pro-Trump demonstrators in state capitols this weekend, the Statehouse was reinforced with barriers and plenty of law enforcement officers. However, few of the president's supporters ended up showing up.

The loosely-organized rally kicked off just before noon with about 20 self-identified members of the Ohio Boogaloo Boys, an anti-government group. Leaders say they're aligned with neither Trump nor President-elect Biden, and planned today's rally months ago, before the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

"We're here today for peace, unity," one speaker said, addressing reporters and the crowd. "Right now there's too much division going on in our country with how the election has gone, with Biden, with the Trump administration and everything that's gone on with that. You even have what happened in the Capitol on the 6th – that will not be happening here."

WOSU's Clare Roth reports that demonstrators were initially outnumbered by members of the news media – not to mention the sizeable presence of Ohio National Guard and Ohio State Highway Patrol in the area – but more groups and individuals trickled in as the afternoon passed.

By 1:30 p.m., the number of Black Lives Matter activists in attendance had seemingly surpassed that of pro-Trump supporters or anti-government demonstrators.

Ohio National Guard members stand sentry at a Statehouse protest on Jan. 17, 2021.
Credit Clare Roth / WOSU
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WOSU
Ohio National Guard members stand sentry at a Statehouse protest on Jan. 17, 2021.

In addition to the Boogaloo Boys, the rally has drawn Second Amendment advocates and a handful of people supporting Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. One of the scant Trump supporters held up signs calling to "Impeach Gonzalez" – referring to Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio), one of the 10 Republican congressmen who voted to impeach Trump – and "Primary Portman."

Near the street, one man with headphones and a "dancing for peace" t-shirt two-stepped, sang and encouraged attendees to "have a little bit of fun."

A vocal confrontation did break out between a two people with bullhorns – a man repeating conspiracy theories and false claims about election fraud, and a seated person with a transgender pride flag. About 20 state troopers gathered to stand sentry as the argument got heated, while onlookers held up signs like "Sore Losers Go Home" and "The Biggest Domestic Terrorist Is The U.S. Government."

A person protesting police brutality, with a sign showing the names of Black people killed by law enforcement, at a Statehouse rally on Jan. 17, 2021.
Credit Clare Roth / WOSU
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WOSU
A person protesting police brutality, with a sign showing the names of Black people killed by law enforcement, at a Statehouse rally on Jan. 17, 2021.

Several members of the Boogaloo Boys openly carried large rifles or gas masks, but the speaker called for dialogue – telling people not to let their guns scare them. He emphasized multiple times that the group is not affiliated with the Proud Boys, the white supremacist organization that helped lead the Capitol riot.

“Proud Boys have a history of being violent. They’re not associated with us," the speaker said. "We don’t want violence. We may have a lot of firearms, but we have no intention of using them.”

Ohio law allows the open carry of weapons in public, including on Statehouse grounds, and unlike neighboring Michigan, the state did not restrict guns ahead of Sunday's rally.

Ahead of the weekend, Gov. Mike DeWine activated almost 600 guardsman to be available to assist in Columbus and elsewhere in the state is needed. The Ohio Statehouse, as well as City Hall and other city and state office buildings, will remain closed through Wednesday, Jan. 20 as a precaution before the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden.

Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost was on hand early Sunday, saying he wanted to make the rounds and shake the hands of state highway patrolmen helping to keep things safe.

Many businesses in downtown Columbus and surrounding neighborhoods have boarded up as well, or shuttered for the day entirely. Mayor Andrew Ginther warned residents to avoid the area, and stay away from the protests.

"What hate groups want is confrontation, to give them a platform and amplify their message," Ginther said at a press conference Thursday. "Let's not give it to them."

This story includes reporting from WOSU's Clare Roth and Ohio Public Radio contributors Karen Kasler, Andrew Meyer, Carter Adams and Nick Swartsell.