Securing the Trump Inaugural
By: Analysis | Stratfor.comJanuary 19, 2017

Forecast

  • Despite expectations that record numbers of protesters will gather in Washington during Donald Trump's inauguration, turnout is likely to be much lower.
  • Protests will be spread out over a large area and staggered across several days, blunting their disruptive potential.
  • Though most protesters will be peaceful, extreme elements plotting more disruptive direct actions — combined with the high level of political tension — will increase the chance of isolated violence.

Analysis

Hundreds of thousands of protesters representing 28 groups have begun to descend on Washington as Donald Trump's Jan. 20 presidential inauguration draws near. The National Park Service, which oversees much of the inaugural festivities, estimates that as many as a record 350,000 demonstrators could take to the streets. But as is often the case with such estimates, the actual number of protesters is likely to be much smaller.

This inauguration will provide an opportunity for most demonstrators to channel their energy toward a single cause — opposing Trump. In some locations, they may be protesting near pro-Trump groups. This could increase the drama, but a significant police presence is likely to forestall significant violence. Most of the groups planning demonstrations are associated with established protest or political movements with wide-ranging aims, such as Black Lives Matter and opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline. Bernie Sanders supporters and advocates for women's rights are also expected to turn out en masse. Despite the peaceful intent of most of those groups, agitators could use the opportunity to incite violence despite the massive security presence in the city. And hanging over the entire event is the threat of terrorism.

A Mostly Manageable Affair

Despite the number of protests expected in the city, the U.S. Park Police, the city's Metropolitan Police Department, the U.S. Capitol Police, the Secret Service and a slew of other local and federal law enforcement agencies are well prepared to secure the event. Given the peaceful intentions of the majority of the protesters, the most pressing issue will be crowd control. But this, too, will be well within those agencies' capabilities. Even if protest turnout reaches its record-breaking expectations, with an estimated 800,000 people expected to attend the inauguration, the overall size of the crowds will be well within the norms for such an event. An estimated 1.8 million people attended President Barack Obama's 2009 inauguration.

Moreover, the acknowledged protests will be spread out geographically and staggered across several days, making managing them easier from a security standpoint. The sites where protests are expected are scattered across a 26-square-kilometer (10-square-mile) area. Within that zone, the roughly 5 square kilometers immediately surrounding the Capitol will be restricted to ticket holders. Most groups are planning to protest on Inauguration Day itself, but the largest single protest — the Women's March on Washington, which is expecting 200,000 attendees — will not take place until Jan. 21, when more of the city center has reopened to traffic.

Protest organizers historically tend to overestimate the number of demonstrators expected at their events. The estimate of 350,000 total protesters is the aggregate of projections made by organizers who filled out protest permit application forms as much as two months in advance. But attracting protest turnout is usually difficult. Indeed, indicators such as RSVPs on organizers' Facebook pages suggest that no more than half that number is likely to show up.

Extremist Spoilers

A few determined individuals can cause more disruption than the largest of peaceful crowds. Typically, only law-abiding groups announce demonstrations and apply for permits ahead of time. They tend to be known entities, giving law enforcement agencies time to plan adequate security for the demonstrations — even on occasions where protest groups with conflicting ideologies demonstrate in the same space. The bigger security risk comes from radical black bloc anarchist groups that are planning unannounced disruptive actions.

For example, the website of a protest organizing group known as Disrupt J20 is hinting at plans to blockade inaugural ticketing checkpoints. Subversive groups are almost certainly planning more aggressive direct action, but so far, there have not been any publicized arrests or interdictions of any violent plots. Black bloc protesters typically prefer to operate within larger crowds that can help conceal their movements and shelter them from police.

Meanwhile, there remains a threat of isolated yet lethal grassroots jihadist attacks that could encompass vehicular attacks or active shooters. The raucous environment surrounding this inauguration, combined with the abundance of soft and politically symbolic targets, will make this event particularly attractive to terrorists. Areas on the periphery of the secured zones are more vulnerable to attack and would still carry heavy symbolic significance.

Notable Protest Groups and Locations

A laundry list of groups with a variety of causes has applied to have events during the next few days. Here are the more notable ones.

The Act Now to Stop War and End Racism Coalition

The ANSWER Coalition got its start in the 2000s with protests of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Though its steering committee is headquartered in Washington, the group has a presence around the country. It follows a Leninist-Marxist philosophy and is generally critical of U.S. foreign policy, particularly foreign interventions. In 2011, it began to focus more on domestic issues, and in 2014, the group joined protests in Missouri in the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting. Since then, it has often worked in tandem with Black Lives Matter organizers.

The group has secured permits to protest on Jan. 20 along the inaugural parade route at Freedom Plaza and along Pennsylvania Avenue between 11th and 12th streets. In the following days, it is planning to conduct protests around the White House at the Ellipse and Lafayette Square. The group indicated that it expects an estimated 21,500 people to attend its protests. ANSWER Coalition protests are generally peaceful, except for some periodic run-ins with police over minor transgressions.

DC Action Lab

DC Action Lab consists of a group of organizers that provides planning, training and logistical support to existing protest movements. Most recently, the group organized national events outside the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in South Dakota to protest the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. As the name suggests, the group is more dedicated to direct actions than massive protests. It has organized sit-ins at congressional offices and has created event interruptions that have frequently ended with arrests. The group is planning protests on Jan. 20 at Lafayette Park, Pershing Park, McPherson Square and Farragut Square. On the group's applications, it said it expected about 10,000 participants, but this figure is likely optimistic, and its protest sites appear to be spread out.

The Progressive Independent Party

The Progressive Independent Party formed in 2016 as an attempt to merge various left-wing political parties (such as the Green and Socialist parties) and the left wing of the Democratic Party. It appears to be drawing on the grassroots movement that fueled the Sanders presidential campaign. Given its relative novelty, the Progressive Independence Party does not have much of a track record for protests, and this will be its first attempt at a major rally. Violence is unlikely, but given the group's inexperience in holding rallies, it will likely be disorganized. It is planning to protest at sites around the White House, in downtown Washington and in Anacostia from Jan. 18-21. The group says it expects 15,000 attendees.

The American Constitution Society

The American Constitution Society has obtained permits to hold events and feature speakers at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial along the Tidal Basin and at the Lincoln Memorial on Jan. 21, the day after the inaugural ceremony. The group does not have a record of staging unruly protests, and its inaugural events are expected to be low-key. It is unlikely that the group will attract the 50,000 attendees that it indicated on its permit application.

People's Power Assemblies

People's Power Assemblies has chapters in several cities, most notably Philadelphia, Baltimore and Oakland. It has helped stage demonstrations protesting police brutality in cases of fatal shootings of black men, and it appears to be aligned with the Black Lives Matter movement. The group is planning to hold one of the few marches in the capital scheduled for Inauguration Day. Its planned route extends from Columbus Circle (outside Union Station) to McPherson Square, roughly parallel to the inaugural parade route on Pennsylvania Avenue. The permit request indicated a modest attendance of around 1,000 to 2,000 people — low compared to many other group estimates. And considering that its planned protest route follows streets just outside the vehicle restriction zone, it carries a greater chance of disruption — even if attendance is indeed modest. The risk of violence is low, but the risk of disruption is high.

Bikers for Trump and Let America Hear Us, Roar for Trump!

Bikers for Trump is one of the few pro-Trump groups that applied for a permit to gather on Inauguration Day. Another pro-Trump group, Let America Hear Us, Roar for Trump! has received a permit for 500 participants to demonstrate at Dupont Circle, near most inaugural events. Bikers for Trump rallied at 2016 campaign events, including the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Though the group's blunt rhetoric promises to defend Trump from opposition protesters, it has not been involved in any major violent incidents. Bikers For Trump has applied for a permit to gather on Jan. 20 at John Marshall Park, near the inaugural parade route — overlapping in time and location with the People's Power Assemblies event. The overlapping protest plans will elevate tension in that area.

The Gathering for Justice

The Gathering for Justice is the main organizer of the Women's March on Washington, which hopes to attract around 200,000 participants — by far the largest inaugural protest event planned. But the march will not take place until Jan. 21, a day after Trump is sworn in. Though the exact route of the protest has yet to be set, the group has received permits to protest at locations along the National Mall, near Federal Triangle, outside the White House, and at Farragut, McPherson and Franklin squares. Organizers have emphasized that this is not an exercise in civil disobedience or disorder and have called on participants to obey all laws. The organizers have also held training events for protest wardens tasked with maintaining discipline. The estimated crowd size is likely to match actual participation levels; celebrities such as Katy Perry and Amy Schumer are expected to attend; and the group has received permits to park as many as 1,200 buses at RFK Stadium. The Gathering for Justice is also planning at least 386 parallel events in all 50 states and in 53 countries. 

Occupy Inauguration, Disrupt J20 and Democratic Socialists of America

Several leftist groups are planning a joint rally at McPherson Square on Inauguration Day in addition to their other protest activities. Occupy Inauguration, Disrupt J20 and the Democratic Socialists of America are planning to coalesce in the afternoon to hear from speakers including former Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein. There are also planned marches before the 2 p.m. rally, as well as hints that some potentially disruptive events — such as blockading checkpoints and interfering with pro-Trump activities — may take place. These groups are not particularly large, and because of some crossover among them, it is difficult to gauge turnout. Nonetheless, they appear to be working together to plan disruptive demonstrations, with some of their elements having shown a willingness to be more aggressive than most of the other protest groups.

This article originally appeared on Stratfor.com

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