Far from Washington, where Democrat Joe Biden launched his presidency Wednesday, a trickle of Louisianans who remain loyal to former President Donald Trump peacefully spoke their minds outside the state Capitol building in Baton Rouge.
James Kent arrived sporting a red “Trump 2020: Keep America Great” T-shirt, a camouflage-printed Trump hat with the slogan “No More Bull S--t” written across it, and a holstered gun resting against his hip. For Kent, Trump remains a man to be followed and revered.
“He kept fighting for us. He never gave up on us and we shouldn’t give up on him,” he said. “I want my voice to be heard. ... I spend all this time talking about my First Amendment rights, and I figured it was time I start using them.”
Across America, law enforcement braced for possible violence at state capitols two weeks after a pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol. Kent traveled to Baton Rouge on Inauguration Day hoping he would find large numbers of like-minded people protesting the transfer of power from Trump to Biden.
Arriving at the same hour that Biden took the oath of office, however, Kent found only one other protester, a metal barricade erected in front of the state Capitol’s main entrance and a handful of police officers inside their cars.
Several other protesters had arrived throughout the morning, but never more than two or three at a time on an invitingly sunny day with mild temperatures. Kent couldn’t hide his disappointment.
“I wanted to come out here and make noise with some people,” he said. “I guess I missed everyone.”
Risk of violence
“People have been saying not to come out here,” said Tom Deel, from the suburbs of nearby New Orleans who came to protest what he believes was an unjust election outcome.
In the two weeks since this month’s storming of the U.S. Capitol, leaders of several far-right groups – including some who encouraged members to go to Washington on Jan. 6 – have urged followers to avoid large protests on Inauguration Day.
“But they can’t keep me from protesting,” Deel said. Then he pointed to the police cars in the distance. “‘We the People’ pay for them to be out here and I’m not afraid of them. I guess that makes me a proud insurrectionist now.”
In Baton Rouge, as in other state capitals around the country, the FBI worked with state agencies to guard against potential political violence.
“Criminal activity, the destruction of property and the intentional incitement of violence prevents others from peacefully expressing their First Amendment rights - it won’t be tolerated,” Louisiana State Police spokesperson Taylor Scrantz told VOA.
Baton Rouge resident Robert Harrison had expressed an interest in stopping by the state Capitol during the day but ultimately stayed away. He said, between the discovery of a plot to kidnap the governor of Michigan by right-wing radicals and the rampage at the U.S. Capitol, the threat of violence was too serious to ignore.
“Domestic terrorists have shown their intentions leading up to Inauguration Day,” he said. “I’ve been worried and wondering when – not if – it would happen again.”
Healthy and unhealthy protest
Looking up at the 13-story, 140-meter state capitol building – the tallest in the country - Kent said he had no intention of participating in any violence.
“Unless someone from the other side knocks off my hat or something,” he added. “Then there might be some violence.”
Robert Collins, professor of Urban Studies and Public Policy at Dillard University in New Orleans, told VOA it is understandable that people who are unhappy with election results voice their anger.
“They [Trump supporters] feel discriminated against in both traditional media and social media,” he said. “When they don’t feel heard in other forums, they come to the places they do feel heard. It’s important in a democracy people have a safety valve to express negative feelings.”
However, Collins drew a distinction between the 2020 post-election period and previous ones.
“I can’t stress strongly enough the damage the previous president did to the democratic process by not simply accepting the election results and agreeing to the peaceful transfer of power as those before him have done,” he said.
Beyond rejecting Trump’s election loss, an exchange between Kent and Deel showed a belief in a plot to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic to commit voter fraud.
“Coronavirus is real,” Deel said, “but it’s just a flu. You know why they’re making it such a big deal.”
“So people would vote by mail,” Kent answered. “Mail-in ballots are easier to fake.”
'That’s not who we are'
In the aftermath of the U.S. Capitol assault, some Trump backers feel unjustly chastised.
“It’s like liberals want to crucify anyone they know is a Trump supporter,” Kent said. “I’m here because I want to show people I still have a voice.”
He said he was disheartened to hear that Biden would issue a flurry of executive orders reversing Trump policies and initiatives.
“All I can do is b---h and moan [complain] at the moment,” he said, “so that’s what I’m going to do.”
No one who spoke with VOA at the state capitol said protesters should resort to violence. Rebecca and Toni, who didn’t want to share their last names, said they thought it important to voice their rejection of a new administration they see as out of step with their values, and that doing so shows their love of country.
“The violence on January 6 – that’s not who we are,” Rebecca said. “This is who we are. Protesting and voting – those are parts of being American we should be proud of.”
While Toni said she isn’t a Biden fan “at all,” she understands a majority of Americans voted for him and she has to accept it.
“I’m not here because I want to change the election,” she said. “I’m here because I want to feel like I’m being heard by someone. I think that’s something everyone wants regardless of your politics.”
If the pendulum of electoral fortune swung toward Democrats last year, Toni is betting it will swing the other way soon enough.
“I watch other country’s parliaments and it looks like they’re constantly having these knock-down drag-out fights,” she said with a laugh. “Here, I’d rather just take back Congress in two years, and take back the presidency in four years. I think that’s the American way.”