Editor’s Note: Gaby Goldstein is co-founder and political director at Sister District, an organization that builds Democratic power in state legislatures through grassroots action and progressive policy transfer between state legislators. David Daley is the author of “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy” and “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count.” The views expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion on CNN.
Astonished Americans watched a violent insurrection storm the nation’s Capitol on January 6, as rioters smashed through barricades and windows, threatened lawmakers and disrupted the constitutionally mandated tally of the Electoral College votes certifying Joe Biden as the next president.
None of us should have been surprised. Months of escalating threats and violence at our state capitols should have served as notice of what was coming. For the past year, state lawmakers have been at the frontlines of pandemic response and in the crosshairs of militia members who disagree with public health mandates and restrictions.
All too often, these rioters have been greeted as allies by Republican state legislators – one allegedly opened the door to protesters. At least a dozen GOP state lawmakers are reported to have attended the pro-Trump rally that fired up the crowd ahead of the riot, and a Republican member of the West Virginia Republican House of Delegates who recorded himself storming the US Capitol is facing a criminal charge.
In Oregon last month, where the state Capitol has been closed to the public, a Republican lawmaker, who said that legislative proceedings should be open to everyone, allegedly held open a side entrance to allow a gathered mob inside. Protesters, many of whom were angry about the state’s Covid-19 restrictions, ultimately sprayed a chemical irritant into the House chamber and struggled violently with state and local police.
In Idaho last August, anti-government and anti-vaxxer groups succeeded in disrupting a special session on the pandemic by overwhelming police and forcing their way into the Idaho House chamber. The GOP speaker allowed them inside, claiming he wanted to avoid violence. When protesters returned the next day, the legislators were again forced to postpone the session.
Perhaps the original dress rehearsal for the Washington assault, however, occurred in Michigan last May, when an armed mob pushed its way into the state Capitol to protest a pandemic stay-at-home order issued by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Maskless militia berated police, attempted to access the chamber floor, compared Whitmer to Hitler and carried nooses. “Liberate Michigan,” Donald Trump had tweeted. In October, the FBI arrested 14 members of a Michigan paramilitary group on charges that they plotted to kidnap and possibly execute Whitmer and planned to stage a violent assault on the state Capitol.
And while the astounding crimes at the US Capitol last week rightly captured headlines, the day was also rife with violence and threatened violence at other state capitol buildings as well. Armed militia descended on the statehouses in Oklahoma, Georgia, Arizona, Nevada and Washington state (including a breach of the Washington governor’s mansion). There were additional skirmishes in Ohio and California, and lawmakers in several states were evacuated.
If this comes as news, it could be because there are fewer reporters than ever covering statehouses. According to a 2020 Pew Research Center study, the number of newspaper newsroom employees nationwide fell by 51% between 2008 and 2019. A 2014 Pew study found that the number of statehouse reporters dwindled by 35% between 2003 and 2014 alone.
Like so many policies that begin in state capitols and find their way to the national stage, the sickness the world watched unfold in Washington has been on full display in Lansing, Salem, Boise and elsewhere for the last year. Armed extremists have been allowed to menace lawmakers in buildings that belong to the people and must remain transparent and accessible to the people. And Republican state legislators have stoked the fires by doubling down on conspiracy theories and lies in their words and actions.
The US Capitol, with a more than 2,300 member police force and a $460 million annual budget, should have had the resources to secure itself. Indeed, the law enforcement response to the attack was wholly inadequate, and it stands in stark contrast to the police treatment of Black people protesting for civil rights. There was no excuse for the lack of preparation, as the attack was presaged by months of extremist activity in statehouses across the country.
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We ignore what happens in our state capitols at our peril. The conditions that have led to this violence will not disappear overnight when Biden assumes office. State lawmakers will continue to bear a tremendous responsibility in pandemic response and recovery, including vaccine distribution, to the continued ire of violent mobs. And Trump’s supporters both inside and outside our statehouses remain steadfast, as new reports indicate plans for additional state capitol attacks on January 17 and the FBI has issued a bulletin warning of upcoming armed protests being planned at all 50 state capitols.
Our state capitols stand as the symbols and workplaces of our democracy at home. As lawmakers begin to return for winter sessions, they are tasked with making difficult decisions in the face of pandemic-slashed budgets and a continued public health crisis. We must ensure that lawmakers in all our houses of government are secure. In a democracy, the people’s work must be conducted safely and in public.