Florida monitoring calls for armed protests. ‘Chatter doesn’t always stay chatter.’

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, in a statement on Monday, said it is “aware of the information regarding possible protests and violence at state capitols.”
Visitors walk into Florida's Capitol building in 2019.
Visitors walk into Florida's Capitol building in 2019. [ SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Jan. 12, 2021|Updated Jan. 12, 2021

With the FBI on Monday issuing a bulletin about possible armed marches on state capitol buildings across the country this weekend, Florida law-enforcement officials are monitoring online chatter from extremists like the ones that ransacked the U.S. Capitol last week.

So far, they say they aren’t aware of any credible threats directed toward Tallahassee or elsewhere in the state. But the federal warning came as at least one call, by an unidentified group, circulated on social media urging the “storming” of government buildings if Donald Trump, who lost the election by more than 7 million votes, is ousted by lawmakers.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, in a statement on Monday, said it is “aware of the information regarding possible protests and violence at state capitols.”

“(The Florida Department of Law Enforcement) and Capitol Police continue to monitor the national situation and analyze information relevant to public safety,” the statement said. “We regularly collaborate with our federal, state and local partners to discuss and implement security measures that enhance public safety at Florida’s Capitol. "

The FBI warning came five days after a pro-Trump mob swarmed a badly under-protected U.S. Capitol as lawmakers were certifying the Electoral College vote. The riot led to the deaths of five people and spurring Democrats to call for the president, who had fired up the crowd, to be booted from office in the last days of his term. President-Elect Joe Biden is scheduled to be inaugurated on Jan. 20, with heightened security in the nation’s capital.

Police in state capitols across the nation have been on high alert as extreme right-wing online forums have continued to fume over the election, fueled by unfounded claims from Trump and other Republicans. Washington state even called up the National Guard for extra protection.

But state and federal and state law enforcement officials in Florida stressed that the FBI’s alerts about potential violent rallies were largely meant to put authorities on notice — not warn of imminent threats.

“These alerts are preparatory rather than intelligence driven,” said one Florida senior law enforcement investigator, who is not authorized to speak officially on the matter. “These are unprecedented times,” the investigator said, referring to the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. “You never know what to expect.”

Still, some Democratic lawmakers in Florida, who resumed committee meetings in the state Capitol on Monday, said they are concerned about their personal safety after seeing Trump loyalists storm the U.S. Capitol and breach security protocols.

“I am always vigilant and I am always concerned and now, I think we are more on alert ... for our safety as lawmakers,” Rep. Geraldine Thompson, of Windermere, said during a virtual press conference Monday.

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At least one flier circulating online calls for “an armed march on Capitol Hill & all state capitols” on Jan. 17. The flier, which does not mention Trump nor a specific organizing group, adds: “Come armed at your personal discretion.”

“When democracy is destroyed refuse to be silence,” the flier reads.

The calls for the protests are part of the larger swirl of misinformation and propaganda that has continued even as major online forms have cracked down on false claims, said Amy Iandiorio, a researcher at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.

Given last week’s stunning outbreak of violence, such fliers can’t be dismissed by law enforcement nor the public, Iandiorio said Monday.

“I don’t think we’re in a position to ignore extremist plans or chatter,” she said. “A lot of people feel wronged or that something was stolen from them. The potential for a small group to be planning something is not out of the realm of possibility. We know chatter doesn’t always stay chatter.”

A handful of those arrested for entering the Capitol hail from Florida, including a 36-year-old Parrish man seen in a now-viral photo walking with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s lectern. He was released from federal custody on Monday to await trial.

Benjamin Horbowy, who ran unsuccessfully for a Florida Senate seat last year and has helped organize several pro-Trump rallies at the Florida Capitol, said Monday that he was not aware of any current plans for protests between now and Inauguration Day.

“I’m saying there are no rallies planned at the moment,” he said. “We the people are waiting to hear from POTUS.”

One law enforcement official in South Florida also noted that it is common for warnings not to pan out. Earlier this month, South Florida law-enforcement agencies got an alert that a large crowd might show up at a Fort Lauderdale federal courthouse in support of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who is facing extradition to the United States. Nobody showed up.

“Those kinds of fliers are put out all the time and nobody shows up,” the official said. “It’s a call to arms, but it all depends on who heeds that call to arms.”

In Miami, police officials are taking no chances, even though there hasn’t been any marches planned locally.

“We’re monitoring social media for discussions on what might pop up locally. We’re just making sure that on paper, we’re ready,” said Miami Assistant Police Chief Armando Aguilar Jr. “We’ll have enough people on duty and able to respond it a threat arises.”

Herald staff writer Charles Rabin contributed to this report.