Arrests and outrage follow violent protest at state Capitol

Protesters fed up with pandemic restriction gathered outside the Capitol as lawmakers met on Monday, Dec. 21, 2020. (Jake Thomas/Salem Reporter)

Oregon State Police have arrested four individuals and are seeking a fifth involved with Monday’s violent demonstration at the Capitol, which has drawn strong condemnation from state and local officials. Legislative leaders said the breach of a locked door at the Capitol is being investigated and there could be stricter security at the building.

On Monday, a mostly peaceful crowd gathered outside the Capitol building as lawmakers met for the third special session of the year to consider legislation related to the pandemic and historic wildfires.

The event was organized online with the help of right-wing groups, including Patriot Prayer. At the event, many protesters aired frustrations with how pandemic restrictions have imperiled the livelihoods of Oregonians, kept kids from school and upended daily life. Others took a more confrontational approach, attempting to storm the building.

According to a statement from the Oregon State Police, troopers had checked and secured the doors to the Capitol in anticipation of the session. The Capitol has been closed to the public since March because of the pandemic.

But at around 8:30 a.m., a door on the northwest corner of the building was opened by a person exiting the building and several protesters entered the vestibule area, police said.

Troopers asked the protesters to leave. But protesters instead kept trying to push their way into the building and one man sprayed officers with bear mace, police said. Troopers shot pepper balls, less-than-lethal munitions, into the crowd to keep them from advancing into the building.

Troopers and Salem police told those in the vestibule to leave or be arrested for trespassing. According to state police, at about 10:30 a.m. a protester again sprayed officers with a “chemical irritant.” Protesters also deployed a device that emitted smoke, police said.

Police arrested Ryan Lyles, 41, for felon in possession of body armor and unlawful use of mace. Two people who remained in the vestibule were also arrested including Ronald Vanvlack, 75, and Jerry Dyerson, 53, who were charged with criminal trespass and disorderly conduct. All three are being held in the Marion County Jail and charges have been referred to the Marion County District Attorney’s Office.

At about 1:30 p.m., a group broke off from the rest of the protesters and smashed a window on the west side of the building in an attempt to gain access to the building. After failing to gain access, the group attacked journalists.

Police arrested Jeremiah Pruitt, 35, for criminal mischief and disorderly conduct.

Police said that Jeremy Roberts, 40, was also attempting to gain access through the west door and attacked two reporters. Troopers are attempting to locate him at this time and he is not currently in custody, according to police.

The damage to the building as well as the attacks on police and journalists drew strong reactions from city and state leaders.

Salem Mayor Chuck Bennett acknowledged in a statement that Oregon’s capital city takes seriously its responsibility to accommodate groups wanting to exercise their free speech rights. He called the attempt to disrupt the Legislature “appalling.” 

“Our democratic process must be protected,” he said.

Gov. Kate Brown said during a press call that “we’re all a bit horrified” by the violence at the Capitol and added that “it solves nothing.”

“The violence yesterday at the Capitol is absolutely unacceptable,” she said.

House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, said in a statement that the destructive actions by some protesters were “simply unacceptable.”

“This session will always be one that I remember, but for sad reasons,” said Sen. President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, in a press briefing Monday evening.

Republican legislative leaders did not respond to emails seeking comment as of Tuesday afternoon.

Kotek said during the briefing that some of the spray got into the building’s system and legislators and staff could feel it in the back of their throats. She said that there were not enough police at the Capitol and the situation could have escalated and become dangerous very quickly.

Courtney and Kotek confirmed that there is an open investigation into how the protesters got in and if someone intentionally let them in. The investigation is being conducted by the Oregon State Police, Courtney’s office said in a follow-up email.

In the coming weeks, legislative leaders will be crafting security and health protocols for the upcoming 2021 session that begins in January. The public’s access to the building is expected to remain restricted in the upcoming session because of the pandemic.

Courtney, the state’s longest-serving Senate president, said he takes pride in the openness of the Legislature and how citizens can freely visit legislators’ offices. But he said Monday’s incident reminded him how vulnerable legislators and staff are.

“That makes me sad,” he said.

Courtney said he wants to maintain the Capitol’s accessibility but the Legislature will likely reexamine its security protocols.

Lt. Treven Upkes, Salem police spokesman, said the attack on the Capitol was unusual and hopefully an anomaly.  

He said that Salem police try to work with protest leaders to keep demonstrations orderly and will accommodate marches, speeches, or flag-waving events.

“Yesterday didn’t provide much of an opportunity for that,” he said.

He said that protests in 2020 have been trickier to manage because there often hasn’t been a leader or organization heading the events. Instead, demonstrations are triggered by a call to action on Facebook, drawing multiple groups with different aims, he said.

“With large groups of people, without someone organizing or leading it, it can be co-opted,” he said.

That makes managing protests more difficult, he said.

Salem has seen multiple protests against Covid restrictions. Oregon Women for Trump have planned a march on New Year’s Day in Salem to protest Covid restrictions, according to a Facebook event.

For the upcoming March, Upkes said Salem police will be working with the Oregon State Police to monitor the event and will be following the same playbook for managing demonstrations.

Ryan Lyles was arrested during a demonstration at the state Capitol on Monday, Dec. 21. (Courtesy/Oregon State Police)

Ronald Vanvlack was arrested at a demonstration at the state Capitol on Monday, Dec. 21, 2020. (Courtesy/Oregon State Police)

Jerry Dyerson was arrested at a demonstration at the state Capitol on Monday, Dec. 21, 2020. (Courtesy/Oregon State Police)

Jeremiah Pruitt was arrested during a demonstration at the state Capitol on Monday, Dec. 21, 2020. (Courtesy/Oregon State Police)

Police are seeking Jeremy Roberts for attempting to break into the Capitol and assaulting journalists at a demonstration on Monday, Dec. 21, 2020. (Courtesy/Oregon State Police)

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 Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.