RICHMOND, Va. -- The way public events are held in Washington, D.C. and state capitals across the country has likely changed permanently, according to security expert Prof. William Pelfrey.
In the aftermath of the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, the physical changes like concrete barriers and fencing are obvious.
"You can no longer drive around the Virginia Capitol,” Pelfrey, the Chair of the Homeland Security department at VCU’s Wilder School of Public Affairs, said. “That is too bad, but those are the changes that have to happen as a result of security measures and security emplacement."
But as investigations into January 6 unfold and the search for those responsible continues, Pelfrey said an unintended consequence could play right into extremists’ hands.
“When you see pictures of someone carrying a Confederate flag in the Rotunda, a picture of someone at the President of the Senate’s dais, of somebody kicking their feet up at Nancy Pelosi' desk, those are images that you couldn't design a better recruitment tactic for white supremacists, for the radical right,” said Pelfrey. "In fact, the retributions, and the arrest, and prosecution of those people will also serve as great recruitment tactics. 'This is the government standing against patriots.' That's the line that we're going to hear over and over again."
Pelfrey pointed out that potential targets were not just confined to symbols of federal authority such as Washington D.C.
"Although Virginia doesn't have the same active militia that Michigan does, Virginia does have a raging debate on guns, and anytime gun rights come to the front, there's going to be a substantially greater risk for the Virginia Capitol,” said Pelfrey. “And we saw the pro-gun march of a few days ago, serve as a microcosm of it, and the Richmond Police were well prepared for it."
Richmond Police made no arrests of protesters marching Monday to support gun rights on Lobby Day, but Pelfrey suggested police in general may no longer feel they have the leeway to manage large protests as they may have in the past.
He said they may have to be ready to react to worst-case scenarios.
“I expect that protests in the near future, for the next few months, and maybe for the next few years will be confronted with police in heavy riot gear from the beginning,” Pelfrey said. “I think gone are the soft power, days of protest management by police, where a police officer in regular uniform, not carrying a riot baton, approaches protesters and says, 'How can we make this happen in a peaceful way?'"
Pelfrey pointed out one last irony of the chaos of the January 6 attack on Democracy: the focus on the woefully inadequate police response, combined with the protests last summer after the police killing of George Floyd which raised questions about police tactics, and restrictions imposed by the pandemic, may make it harder for law enforcement agencies to recruit.
That could add a lot more stress to departments needing current officers to work overtime.