RICHMOND, Virginia — Busloads of pro-gun activists and armed militias are expected to gather in Richmond on Monday, and Virginians are on edge, afraid it could turn into another violent, ugly tragedy, like what happened 70 miles away in Charlottesville two years ago.
There are plenty of reasons why people might be worried. In the past week, federal and local law enforcement arrested seven people allegedly affiliated with The Base, a violent neo-Nazi organization, in three different states. At least three of the arrestees were apprehended with large amounts of ammo and improvised weapons — and had allegedly discussed opening fire during Monday’s rally, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The rally was originally billed as an open-carry event and an opportunity for gun lovers to flex their Second Amendment rights in the face of gun control bills introduced by the newly Democratic Legislature in Virginia. But in recent weeks, some of the rhetoric around the event morphed into something more sinister — with some online comments framing it as a “boogaloo,” a term that the far right uses to refer to a second Civil War.
A maze of metal barricades encircled the Capitol in downtown Richmond on Sunday. Anyone entering the grounds had to first pass through a security checkpoint where uniformed officers searched people's bags and coats and scanned them with a metal detector.
Two large poster boards were positioned in front of the checkpoint: One reeled off an extensive list of prohibited items, pursuant to Gov. Ralph Northam's declaration of emergency last Wednesday. Top of the list was "firearms"; other banned items included blackjacks, drones, numchucks, knives, helmets, and caustic substances. The second board was a statement regarding Northam's executive order. Clusters of onlookers snapped pictures of the signs — some flipped them off.
Meanwhile, the streets around the Capitol were a dead zone. By Sunday afternoon, many restaurants and businesses had already closed.
Northam declared a state of emergency last Wednesday, fearing a repeat of the 2017 Charlottesville rally, which left one dead and dozens injured. Virginia Citizens Defense League (VCDL), the pro-gun nonprofit that organized the event, filed an emergency appeal with Virginia’s Supreme Court trying to get Northam's ban on weapons overturned. The court, which is majority conservative, upheld the ban.
A Facebook event page for the rally shows that 5,000 people plan to attend, but VCDL has warned the state that as many as 100,000 people could show up. If attendees want to rally on Capitol grounds, they’ll have to do so unarmed. Some online have been discussing convening elsewhere in the city, where the ban doesn’t apply. Some leaders of militia groups have posted assurances on social media that they’re coming for a peaceful protest, and law enforcement is working closely with VCDL, according to Reuters.
It’s not clear whether there will be a counterprotest. Many activist groups are urging their members to stay home over fears that violence could transpire at the rally. The Coalition Against Gun Violence released a statement on Friday saying they couldn’t in good faith allow their volunteers, many of whom are teenagers, to attend in light of the threats that have eclipsed the event.
On Friday, President Donald Trump seemed to express support for the rally by posting on Twitter that Second Amendment rights are under attack in Virginia.
Cover: A view of the Virginia State Capitol, February 9, 2019 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)