Professional personalities and professional grifters, Second Amendment activists, militia members, and weirdos just wanting to show off their fancy firearms—ranging from decked out as hell AR-15s to Barrett M107 sniper rifles—all made their way to Richmond, Virginia, on January 20 ready for something extreme to happen.
And, fortunately, despite much prognostication, the boogaloo (the far-right’s favourite term for a new civil war) did not break out. Despite a stunning lack of muzzle discipline (and perhaps thanks in part to the Virginia governor declaring a state of emergency ahead of the rally), no one got shot. If nothing else, we can call that a success.
Twenty-two thousand people—many donning tactical gear two sizes too small and handling high-powered weapons in a way that would make a firearms safety instructor weep—marched on the capital on the frigid Virginian morning. Once there, the groups showed off their weapons, had a good lil’ vent on the Virginia State Capitol, and then made their way home. A single soul was arrested (a 21-year-old woman, for covering her face with a bandana) and you would be hard-pressed to find anyone with a bruise. It was as normal as a day featuring thousands of armed people rallying against the government could be.
“It went peaceful, it went good,” said former U.S. Marine Braden Chesser, who was decked out in full tactical gear. “Some people spread an extreme violence narrative but that's not what we're here for. All wanted to do was have a show of force to say ‘Hey, if you change all these laws then you know we're gonna show up like this.’”
The day was the result of the Virginia government coming under full control of the Democrats for the first time in over 20 years. Among the new laws the lawmakers promised to bring in were gun control measures such as enforcing background checks and limiting the purchases of firearms a person can buy per month. These changes didn’t sit well with many, and the Virginia Citizens Defense League organized a rally. This was predictably seized upon by far-right and conspiracy circles, who hyped the event into something massive. What happened Monday wasn’t about Virginia, but rather a pushback on gun-control advocates in general.
Many in YouTube-land spoke of government schemes to open fire on citizens, and claimed that they were ready to fight back with as much firepower as they could muster. After much, much fire-stoking and conspiracy-mongering, the situation became so tense that in the week prior, Governor Ralph Northan declared a state of emergency last week, essentially banning those on the Virginia State Capitol property from having weapons.
The security measures taken by law enforcement certainly did a lot to prevent any tensions from boiling over into chaos, but this was also an event where Alex Jones was driving around in an armored car. Perhaps the biggest thanks should go to the far-right's favorite foil, Antifa, for letting the Call of Duty cosplay convention carry out in peace. Antifa had earlier in the week made a call to their supporters to not attend the rally out of safety concerns, and it seems everyone heeded the word.
But old YouTube-hewn habits die hard, so naturally a few vigilant crowd members confused some of black-clad anti-government protesters for the hard left.
“There’s one there in the black, I’ve been eyeing him for a while,” a man with a fully loaded AR-15 told his pal with a tactical shotgun. “He hasn’t taken any stickers, he’s definitely Antifa. Watch him.”
Also missing from the protest was the presence of the more extreme right. Last week, three men associated with the neo-Nazi group The Base were arrested in Georgia and charged with conspiracy to commit murder. Authorities told NPR that the members of the group discussed going to Richmond to create chaos. After the arrests, Telegram channels tied to the extreme right told their people to hold off attending the rally.
And so, despite the fears of a full-blown throwdown between a mixed bag of gun nuts, neo-Nazis, the police, and various versions of Antifa super-soldiers, the rally was split between two groups: the armed contingent surrounding the capital, and the unarmed crew on government property who had to be frisked by a line of cops and walk through metal detectors, not unlike entering a music festival.
Camo-clad groups armed (typically) with AR-15s patrolled the streets doing their best to offer “extra security.” One, the III% Security Force—a militia made up of people from across the United States—arrived at 7 a.m and were armed to the teeth (but without mags loaded) and told VICE they were ready for anything.
The day prior they had conducted live-fire training and had prepped themselves on what they believed to be their two main threats: MS-13 and Antifa. They would encounter neither as the day went on.
The group, led by leader Chris Hill (who is called General Blood Agent by the group), marched their way through the crowd, broke into three five-man teams, set up a perimeter and provided “security” to the crowd.
“I don't know that it could have gone any better,” Christopher Gill, of the III% Security Forces command crew told VICE at the end of the rally. “I think there was absolutely no violence at least what I saw. Our goal the entire time was a nice peaceful protest and I'll be darned if that didn't exactly what we got.”
“No boogaloo today, hopefully none ever.”
Not everyone took the event as seriously as General Blood Agent and the rest of his militia. Inside the unarmed zone stood a lone banana in the crowd of camo. William Balderson, the man inside the banana, said that he wasn’t able to open carry, so he decided to bust out a banana costume. Balderson told VICE that the amount of misinformation he found about the rally online was immense.
“Oh, I was reading stuff on the way here, on meme pages and stuff, saying like it's a trap and I'm like nah, it was really calm,” said Balderson.
“Anyways, who is going to shoot a banana?”
While it was calm enough on the ground, the event—which, again, was meant to protest gun regulations in the state of Virginia—was a battle royale for the national misinformation industrial complex. Some said the entire event was a trap to arrest everyone and strip them of their weapons. Others, including Alex Jones, prophesied a false flag attack, whose professed aim would be to strip people of their guns. A smattering of those opposed to the rally portrayed it as a white nationalist rally akin to Charlottesville.
One of the only groups of men publically sporting far-right iconography— in this case, the skull mask associated with neo-Nazi accelerationist groups who want society’s collapse—told VICE they were essentially just trolling. The men, who were there representing a meme Facebook page called P A T R I O T Wave, were vehement they weren’t associated with a far-right group.
“We're trying to take it back,” said a member-only wanting to be known as Merch of the mask he was wearing. “We're tired of people labelling shit and owning it. Exactly the Patriots. It’s ours. You call me a fucking racist, but I know I'm not.”
As with everything said by shitposters, you can’t take their claims at face value, but the crew adamantly railed against racists. The group wore other patches on their body armour featuring hentai or a boogaloo-afied Pepe the Frog. Other attendees sporting skull masks would not answer any questions. Several other attendees sported RWDS patches, which stand for “right-wing death squad.” There were racists in attendance, no doubt about it, but most seemed to want to hide their power level rather than revel in just how racist they are. Certainly in this contingent large groups of the far right—be it neo-Nazis or anti-government extremists—exist, but the rally in Richmond certainly didn’t have an explicit white nationalist bent in the way the infamous one in Charlottesville did.
That doesn’t stop those from attempting to co-opt the rally or recruit from it. Further up, from the shitposters, Qanon flags flew proudly and Jones ranted at anyone who would give him attention. One rally attendant told VICE that he “saw Alex Jones riding around the street in a giant car like the pope.” Elsewhere in the crowd, people connected to the far-right group Patriot Prayer marched ineffectively and Proud Boy turned extreme-right weirdo Jovi Val gave talks about how the Holocaust never happened. Expect narratives about how this was a massive win for the “patriot movement.”
It felt like the gap between keyboard warfare and real life ended up wide enough to prevent actual violence. The only sort of civil disobedience I came across were people wearing masks to hide their face—against the rules for the rally for which one woman was arrested—and Braden Chesser, who set off a smoke grenade in a guillotine and yelled that he loved everyone.
“I backed out, put my hands up in the air and said, ‘Sic semper tyrannis. Death always to tyrants. This is why America is free,’” said Chesser.
On government grounds, it was a bit of a different story. The people inside missed the distinct (and armed) quirkiness of those stationed outside. Speeches were given, petitions were signed, and hands were clapped. Everyone I spoke to just said they were there to support the Second Amendment because, to simplify it greatly, they didn’t trust the government. In the end, when you were away from the guns—and of course that’s a big qualifier, considering we’re talking about thousands of armed citizens taking over the downtown of a state capital—the event seemed rather tame.
Be it overhype, a last-minute decision not to attend by the extreme-right, a lack of organized counter-protest, or whatever, the Richmond rally was, above all else, extremely calm compared to other protests. But it’s hard not to look at Richmond as anything but a win for Second Amendment activists, who've shown just how much attention a bunch of people with guns can get. It’s also clear some in the far right are going to grab on to the victory. In the end, while there were thousands of heavily armed people in the protest itching for a fight, they just couldn’t find an enemy. That’s probably the best thing that could have happened.
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.