US lawmakers urged to use tunnels as election debate adds risk to Washington, DC

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) – US lawmakers are receiving urgent security instructions in advance of potential violence in Washington tied to Wednesday’s (Jan 6) joint session of Congress to count Electoral College votes.

The precautions distributed Monday to members of the House and Senate include guidance to use underground tunnels while travelling between chambers in the Capitol and to nearby office buildings during the day. “Members and staff should expect demonstration activity and street closures” to affect access to the Capitol, the House sergeant-at-arms said in a memo.

President Donald Trump has urged public protests to help pressure lawmakers to reject the Electoral College vote sealing Joe Biden’s victory, and ABC News said he plans to speak at a rally near the White House on Wednesday.

Washington’s mayor, Muriel Bowser, urged residents not to engage with any protesters “seeking confrontation,” and requested National Guard help, according to the Associated Press, while some businesses downtown have boarded up windows to shield against violence.

Pro-Trump protests in Washington and other cities in November and December ended in violence and property damage. Some far-right groups, such as the Proud Boys, have said they will show up for the demonstrations this week.

The leader of the Proud Boys, Enrique Tarrio, 36, was arrested by Washington police on Monday and charged with destruction of property “related to an offence” that occurred on Dec 12, according to Sean Hickman, a police spokesman. He faces additional charges after “he was found to be in possession of two high-capacity firearm magazines,” Hickman added.

Earlier Monday, lawyers representing the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington announced said they sued the Proud Boys over the destruction of a Black Lives Matter sign outside the church on Dec 12.

So-called First-Amendment demonstrations are permitted by the National Park Service, but officials are preparing for potential unrest. Bowser has asked for District of Columbia National Guard members to help with traffic control and other assistance, the AP reported, citing a US Defence official.

The arrest of Tarrio is in line with a tactic used by law enforcement officials to arrest key organisers of large protests just before they occur in an effort to gain intelligence about what might be coming.

Such an arrest can trigger sudden movements by other group members, as well as communications that can be monitored via court-authorised electronic surveillance.

Individuals associated with a group like the Proud Boys could be a target of federal surveillance. Local officials in Washington have said they’re coordinating in real time with federal agencies, and the FBI has warned that right-wing groups are a source of domestic terrorism.

The instructions to lawmakers also provide emergency telephone numbers for Capitol police and House and Senate sergeants-at-arms. Lawmakers are encouraged to arrive at the Capitol early on Wednesday, and told they should make use of garages with barricades and security access points.

Lawmakers were also receiving a rundown of extensive road closures around the Capitol and elsewhere in Washington.

“See you in Washington, DC, on January 6th. Don’t miss it,” Trump tweeted on Sunday, apparently hoping for a big turnout to support his unproven claims that voter fraud was behind his defeat by Biden.

Avoid downtown DC

Bowser advised city residents not to come downtown on Tuesday and Wednesday. Under her direction, the city’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency on Monday activated the district’s Emergency Operations Center, to coordinate federal and local responses to the demonstrations.

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“We will do what we must to ensure all who attend remain peaceful,” Bowser said in a Sunday statement.

On Tuesday, the Metropolitan Police Department begins its full activation for responses through Wednesday. Washington, starting on Tuesday, will ban parking along some avenues.

Trump, apparently hoping for a big turnout by protesters to support his unproven claims that voter fraud was behind his defeat by Biden, promoted the event in several tweets, saying it would be a “Historic day.”

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