RICHMOND, Va.—Virginia’s state capital was braced for violence on Monday as thousands of gun-rights activists crowded the grounds of the legislature building and the streets around it. But though many protesters outside the metal detectors and fences of the State House lawn wore body armour and carried assault weapons, no shots were fired, no arrests were made, and no violence of any kind had erupted as the protest dispersed in the early afternoon.
The event was expected to draw white supremacists and militia groups, leading many to fear a repeat of the racist Charlottesville rally in 2017 that ended in a woman’s death, but if they were present, none made themselves evident. Instead, some protesters accused gun-control advocate Gov. Ralph Northam of racism, invoking a blackface photo of him that surfaced last year.
The protest Monday, planned to oppose the gun-control plans of the newly elected Democratic majority in Virginia, took place on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday that commemorates the life of the Black civil rights leader who was assassinated in 1968. In the run up to Monday, Northam declared a state of emergency, banning the carrying of guns and other weapons on capital grounds, citing what he called credible threats of violence by white nationalist and out-of-state militia groups. In the week leading up to the event, six alleged white nationalist terrorists were arrested — including one Canadian who was being ushered out of the armed forces after his ties to racist groups became known — after reports said they planned to attend and possibly cause violence at the event.
President Donald Trump did not allow the threats of violence to stop him from offering support to the rally, tweeting on Friday night, “Your 2nd amendment is under very serious attack in the great Commonwealth of Virginia. That’s what happens when you vote for Democrats, they will take your guns away. Republicans will win Virginia in 2020. Thank you Dems!”
Virginia Republicans, briefed on the apparent threats to public safety, took a different approach, bluntly condemning anyone planning violence at the event. State Republican leader Todd Gilbert issued a statement on the weekend saying, in part, “Any group that comes to Richmond to spread white supremacist garbage, or any other form of hate, violence, or civil unrest isn’t welcome here. Thousands of law-abiding Virginians simply want to have their voices heard at the seat of government.”
Speeches at the event promised to defend the second amendment and vote for Trump and against Democrats, and invoked Martin Luther King Jr.’s denied application for a gun permit to insist gun ownership rights are civil rights. Protesters wearing bright orange “Guns save lives” stickers chanted “We will not comply” throughout the day. Rather than violent, the event seemed quiet, almost placid, despite the heavily armed crowds on the perimeter and a large police presence that included helicopters hovering above the crowds throughout the day.
Protester Dan Helm from Fauquier County, Virginia, says in his experience there are few crowds more orderly than second amendment activists. “We’re here to let the legislative body know that the laws they’re trying to pass are not what the Virginia commonwealth is interested in. We need less going after gun rights and more enforcing the laws we already have and going after the criminal element.”
In elections held in November, Democrats took control of all three branches of Virginia’s government, partly on the promise of stricter gun-control laws after a mass shooting in May 2019. In response, gun advocates sounded the alarm, and more than 100 cities in the state have declared themselves “Second Amendment Sanctuary” cities.
Though organizers of the rally have said they planned for a peaceful protest, there were reports in advance it was being seen as a rallying point for racists.
Late last week, the district attorney’s office in the neighbouring State of Maryland announced that the FBI had arrested three men, including Canadian Patrik Jordan Mathews, on weapons and drug charges, alleging they are members and recruiters for the white supremacist group The Base. Mathews disappeared in August amid accusations he is a neo-Nazi. At the time, according to The Canadian Press, Mathews was a combat engineer with the 38 Canadian Brigade Group in Winnipeg, though the military said then it was investigating his alleged links to The Base and fast-tracking his request to be released from the Canadian Armed Forces.
Three more alleged members of The Base were also arrested last week in Georgia on charges of conspiracy to commit murder and participating in a criminal street gang.
Gov. Northam said last week that hate groups and militias from across the country were coming with violence in mind. “They are not coming to peacefully protest. They are coming to intimidate and to cause harm.”
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