Sununu calls off outdoor inaugural, citing 'armed protesters'

Gov. Chris Sununu called off his planned outdoor inaugural ceremony set for next Thursday, citing the risk from “armed protesters” who have picketed outside his home. This photo from online journalist Chris Maidment shows the police response Monday night when nine, including Maidment, were fined $100 for violating a Newfields ordinance outlawing picketing at a private home.

CONCORD — Citing the risk of “armed protesters,” Gov. Chris Sununu canceled next Thursday’s ceremony outside the State House at which he was to be sworn in to a third term.

Instead, Sununu said, he will take the oath in a small ceremony inside the State House that day and give a live speech at 7 p.m. The ceremony may be viewed online, Sununu said.

“My first responsibility is ensuring the safety of my family and our citizens,” Sununu said.

The announcement came two days after one person was arrested and nine others were fined $100 following a protest outside Sununu’s home in Newfields. For weeks, picketers have assembled outside the governor’s home, protesting that he violated the Constitution by declaring a “perpetual emergency” for the pandemic.

“For weeks, armed protesters have increasingly become more aggressive, targeting my family, protesting outside my private residence and trespassing on my property — an outdoor public ceremony simply brings too much risk. We do not make this decision lightly but it is the right thing to do.”

Leaders of the group Absolute Defiance said Monday night’s event began as a “vigil” but became a protest when a large number of police officers arrived and ordered participants to disperse.

Brennan Christen of Alton, one of the organizers, accused Sununu of deliberately misleading the public with his statement about “armed protesters.” Christen said none of the protesters has ever “open-carried” a weapon outside the governor’s home.

Skylar Bennett of Concord, the person arrested Monday night, was legally carrying a concealed handgun but never publicly displayed it, Christen said.

“I carry a handgun for protection all the time. When you do political activism you have to make sure to protect yourself,” Bennett said.

“This isn’t an anti-police thing or a threat to the governor. We have rights as New Hampshire citizens and we will do it peacefully.”

While not naming him, Sununu tweeted Wednesday night that Bennett was a threat.

"On Monday evening an armed individual trespassing in my backyard was arrested carrying two dozen rounds of ammunition," Sununu said.

"Cancelling our outdoor inaugural ceremonies was not a decision we made easily, but it was the right decision to ensure the safety of my family and the public."

Bennett said he was not trespassing.

‘A sad situation’

State Democratic Party Chairman Raymond Buckley lashed out at the protesters.

“While I understand the very real concern, it is truly a sad situation when our elected officials need to even think about such a decision due to a small group of truly unhinged gun-toting citizens,” Buckley said. “Reasonable people across the state need to rise up against these bullies and say ‘enough.’’’

Leaders of seven groups opposed to Sununu’s COVID-19 actions had been collecting commitments from protesters to show up at Sununu’s inauguration, Christen said.

“We had about 1,000 who said they were going to go. That’s why he’s canceled it, not because of any threat from armed protesters,” Christen said.

Monday’s crackdown and arrest in Newfields came after the town’s select board approved an ordinance banning picketing outside a private residence. Police had received complaints that protesters were “hollering” and disturbing the neighborhood.

Those fined included Chris Maidment, a GOP activist and reporter for NH Journal, an online news service.

Protesters maintain the ordinance was an illegal violation of their First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly. They said they would fight in court any attempts to enforce those fines.

Sununu’s brother, Michael, serves on the three-person select board that approved the ordinance last week.

Sununu spokesman Benjamin Vihstadt said the governor had no knowledge of the ordinance before it was adopted.

Traditionally, the governor officially takes office at a ceremony inside Representatives Hall, the large chamber used by the New Hampshire House of Representatives.

Because of the pandemic, the State House has been closed to the public since last April, and the House has met three times at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, the last time outside.

A few months ago, Sununu called off the two inaugural balls the newly elected governor traditionally has in the southern tier and in the North Country.

Sununu said his inaugural committee was working on a series of planned “thank-you” events next summer for New Hampshire residents to recognize sacrifices made during the pandemic.

Sununu made his decision about next Thursday after discussions with Attorney General Gordon MacDonald, Senate President Chuck Morse, R-Salem, and acting House Speaker Sherman Packard, R-Londonderry.

Details about the revised events will be outlined in coming days, the governor said.

Union Leader Correspondent Jason Schreiber contributed to this report.