As law enforcement prepares for potentially violent protests across the country this weekend, there are two events scheduled at the Minnesota State Capitol Complex – a "Freedom Fest" and a "Sunday Church Service."
Both events are hosted by the same group that organized the "Storm the Capitol" rally in St. Paul on Jan. 6, according to the Minnesota Department of Administration's calendar and the approved permit applications for the events obtained by Bring Me The News.
An estimated 150 people are expected to attend "Freedom Fest" from noon to 2 p.m. on Saturday at the Upper Mall of the State Capitol Complex, with the program slated to feature "gathering, talking, praying, potentially singing if things are going well," host Becky Strohmeier wrote on the permit application, which was approved.
Saturday's event is also being promoted on Facebook by the Hold the Line MN group. Strohmeier is among the founders of the group.
Then from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sunday, Strohmeier organized a "Sunday Church Service" that will feature a "small group gathering to pray for our elected officials" on the Upper Mall, with 20 people estimated to be attending, the approved permit application says.
The event isn't being promoted on the Hold the Line MN Facebook page and the group is warning people not to attend any events at the State Capitol on Sunday, saying in a Jan. 11 Facebook post: "This is an infiltration and set up tactic used to incite violence and blame us."
Strohmeier told the Star Tribune Sunday's event is her hosting a few friends in an effort to curb any violent activity, adding: "That being said, it's an invite-only, lawfully permitted event and anyone trying to disturb that will be dealt with according to State Patrol policy."
Hold the Line MN has organized "Stop the Steal" events at the state Capitol and the governor's residence in St. Paul on Saturdays since President Donald Trump lost the 2020 election.
It also organized the Jan. 6 "Storm the Capitol" rally, which was peaceful but did feature speakers who called for violence, civil war and casualties.
The rhetoric used was apparently so threatening that the Minnesota State Patrol – for the first time in history – went into the governor's residence and removed Walz's 14-year-old son to a safe place while he cried wondering where his dog was, Walz said during the virtual event hosted by the Forum News Service on Monday.
St. Paul PD ready for 'expected and unexpected'
The planned gatherings at the state Capitol this weekend, which organizers say will be peaceful, come amid concerns that demonstrations in Minnesota and elsewhere across the country ahead of Joe Biden's inauguration on Jan. 20 could turn violent.
The FBI has received "credible threats" of right-wing, anti-government violence, including from the "Boogaloo Bois," being planned at the Minnesota State Capitol on Sunday. It has also been reported that an FBI memo warned "armed protests are being planned at all 50 state capitols" between Jan. 16 and Jan. 20.
St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell in a department Facebook post on Wednesday said "there are more than a dozen protests, rallies, demonstrations and marches planned in our community over the next seven days" that range in size from small gatherings to a large march in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., "and the possibility of an event at the State Capitol this Sunday."
Axtell said the St. Paul Police Department will be present at all the events "ready to keep people safe and make them feel safe."
"We have a unit dedicated entirely to facilitating free speech while at the same time protecting people and property," Axtell said. "Our Special Operations Unit is staffed by highly trained, dedicated law enforcement professionals. They're good. They're committed to protecting St. Paul. And they work for you."
The department is monitoring information channels so it can prepare for the "expected and the unexpected" and is working with local, state and federal partners, while also connecting with event organizers when possible, Axtell said.
The St. Paul PD is putting more officers on the street in order to increase its presence throughout the city, especially near events. And it is making sure the SPPD is fully staffed before, during and after events.
"We've spoken to our partners at the State Patrol, and they'll be well-represented at the Capitol. We've spoken to our federal partners and can say that we're not aware of any verified threats at this time. We have your guardians – the women and men of the SPPD – at the ready to address any challenges that arise in our great city," Axtell said.
Last week, Minnesota Department of Public Safety (DPS) Commissioner John Harrington said he's "very concerned" violence could flare up again before Inauguration Day, but DPS is "ready," noting it has been working with the St. Paul PD and Ramsey County Sheriff's Office to put together a "robust team" to respond if needed.
Gov. Tim Walz has also activated the Minnesota National Guard to support state and local law enforcement in St. Paul if the need arises.
“We will always support Minnesotans’ First Amendment rights to peacefully protest, but anyone involved in violent, illegal activity will be held accountable,” Gov. Walz said in a statement. “We are tracking reports and monitoring the situation closely to enhance our response and change tactics as needed.”
Law enforcement has had an increased presence at the state Capitol – which is still fenced off and closed to the public – since the summer due to continued protests there and outside the governor's residence.
And the presence of Minnesota State Troopers and Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Conservation Officers has only increased since Jan. 6 when Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol and a rally filled with violent rhetoric was held at the Minnesota State Capitol. Law enforcement officials have also increased security measures at the State Capitol Complex amid threats made against state legislators and others.
Meanwhile, Democrats and Republicans have condemned the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and the threatening rhetoric used at the rally at the Minnesota State Capitol on Jan. 6, and have stressed the importance of allowing people to voice their concerns but are calling for peace and calm so the country can move forward together.