Identity

Holding a City Hostage Is ‘Peaceful’ Now?

I’ve been to peaceful protests before. The gun rally in Richmond was not that.
January 22, 2020, 7:53pm
police carrying a gun
NurPhoto / Getty Images

“How was Richmond?” I’m asked. I pause, overwhelmed with the task of summing up the hours spent in the cold, surrounded by more white men with guns than I’d ever seen in one place in my life. “Uneventful, thankfully,” I respond. I refuse to use the word “peaceful,” even though it’s in the word I now see popping up in most headlines to describe Monday’s gun rally downtown and at the capitol. It was not peaceful—it never escalated, but it was far from peaceful.

Coverage of the protest has largely embraced the label of “peace.” Local news stations like the CBS affiliate, right-wing pundits like Tucker Carlson, and the major news outlets including CNN, BuzzFeed, and even VICE have used this term to describe the rally. It's an understandable word choice given what was expected, and what happened in Charlottesville in 2017. But I’ve been to peaceful protests before, protests where people sing songs and chant and stand by; protests where no one watching the protesters would even consider the possibility that being an observer might be taking your life in your hands. This was not that.

After Governor Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency and banned weapons from the capitol grounds, many of the non-gun-related lobbyists and special interest groups planning to attend the annual Lobby Day frenzy cancelled their plans to gather, choosing to stay home and far away from the open carrying masses (22,000 at last count) rather than participate in this annual meet and greet with their representatives. Lobby Day is usually a day where local interest groups and lobbyists show up en masse to kick off the early weeks of the General Assembly session with dozens of meetings with representatives about their various issues and concerns. It’s not usually just the gun rights crowd, it’s everyone from unions to healthcare orgs to educators to anti-abortion groups.

I stopped in the building midway through the rally, curious what the mood was like inside. I ran into a friend who’s currently working as a lobbyist. She had worked around the General Assembly in years past, and has seen many Lobby Days over the years. I asked her how it was. “Quiet,” she said. “Weirdly quiet. It’s the least-crowded Lobby Day I’ve ever seen, so it means I’m getting all my stuff done here, but everyone’s either at home or outside.” While the thin attendance of Lobby Day may have been fortuitous for her interests, it represented the overall sentiment in the city surrounding this rally: People were afraid.

Staffers were calling in sick en mass, and the youth-led gun control advocate group March For Our Lives: Virginia bussed in the night before and slept in their representatives’ offices rather than wade through the crowds of protesters (many of whom displayed poor gun safety form, like wearing handguns on belt clips that could easily fall off, or resting the muzzle of a loaded semi-automatic weapon on the tops of their shoes, or leaving guns piled on the ground outside of the rows of porta potties while they did their business). Delegate Elizabeth Guzmán, a Peruvian-American representing the 31st District, said she felt the need to disguise herself and remove her delegate pin from her jacket as she made her way in to work.

Her fears weren’t unfounded—in the weeks leading up to the event, the far-right 4chan message board /pol, where the rally organizers met to strategize, were full of anonymous posts expressing enthusiasm for driving Governor Northam out of office and starting the “Boogaloo,” a slang term referring to race-based civil war. Throughout the day I could hear this term being thrown about in snatches of conversation, and watched as the crowd swelled from just older white men in Carhartts with guns to younger men in expensive tactical gear decked out with stickers and emblems from the Punisher skull to the III%ers logo. Later in the day my group and I would run into known neo-Nazi Jovi Val talking to a local activist and loudly denying the Holocaust.

Back outside in the cold, protesters were cramming themselves into the center of the rally at the corner of Bank St and 10th. I followed a reporter friend into the thick of it, until bodies and guns pressed into me at every turn—think trying to get on public transit right as a stadium event lets out, but add multiple AK-47s being slung into your back and sides by accident. Many of the protesters were heavily bundled up in Carhartt jackets, wearing hats and ski masks to cover their mouths and noses in the biting wind. Some wore camo-patterned bandanas for the same purpose.

Wearing a mask in Virginia is a felony crime, and local Antifa members I spoke with were frustrated to see the protesters wearing masks without being stopped by the police and asked to remove the covering. The law was designed to help aid law enforcement in unmasking and detaining members of the KKK back in the 1950s, but now it’s been largely used as grounds to detain Antifascist protesters. Some police officers were also wearing similar half-face ski masks, and I asked multiple of them if the law was being waived today due to the cold, but was met with “no comment,” until one responded with merely, “I’m cold.”

When we ran into Jovi Val, my friend the reporter stepped in to get the conversation on video because Val was starting to spout Holocaust denial arguments. As we watched them talk, a crowd began to gather. What had been six or eight people swelled to close to 20. Then we were suddenly surrounded by police on bikes, who rode into the group in rows that resembled the spokes of a wheel, trying to break up the discussion between Val and Richmond, a local organizer known as “Goad Gatsby” (it was admittedly loud, but the mood of the group was quite calm and simply curious).

This sudden feeling of being surrounded by police brought me back to a similar situation, when I had attended the counter-protest of Unite The Right 2 in Washington, D.C., a year after the murder of Heather Heyer and the neo-Nazi groups marching on the grounds of UVA in Charlottesville. At UTR2, after the protest itself had died down, my friends and I had stepped out of a restaurant where we had eaten lunch, and found a right wing YouTuber harassing an unhoused man with questions near Lafayette Square. Stopping to observe the interaction, we found ourselves part of a gathering crowd, and then were immediately surrounded by triple rows of police officers on bikes in riot gear—three rows to my right and three rows to my left. They moved their bikes in toward us in unison, restricting the space the group could take up in the street until the conversation at the center of it was compressed and everyone began to feel anxious and heated.

That day in D.C., the police were clearly there to protect Jason Kessler and his neo-Nazi group. The counter-protesters were treated as the threat, and Antifa members were tailed all day long. In Richmond, the policing felt similar, but less intense—no cops in riot gear, and local Antifa was not counter-protesting. Instead, local Antifa groups had organized themselves to place civilian medics throughout the crowd to serve as first responders in case of escalation or violence, but these medics (mostly young, visibly queer individuals) were unarmed and stood out among this camo-wearing, largely white crowd. And as the day went on, I realized that the police were following the same procedures as they had in D.C.: they were tailing the medics, they were tailing my friend and me. Essentially, the police were surveilling anyone who wasn’t armed.

After the protest wore itself out and Alex Jones and his tank stopped careening through the streets, the group I was with got word that an (unarmed) spectator had been arrested for wearing a bandana over her face for warmth. Mikaela E. Beschler, 21, posted a video of the encounter on Instagram. In it, police warn her to remove her bandana, and she explains she was wearing it to keep warm. In the Richmond Times-Dispatch article about her arrest, you can see a photo of her face: She’s young, diminutive, and not white. The Virginia Mercury posted a photo where you can see her bandana, a selfie taken in a window downtown where she’s got her hood up and is wearing a transparent fanny pack, a clear signal of the intent to be a non-threatening presence.

There was no violence in Richmond because no one made the gun-carrying protesters feel threatened. It was a display of white supremacy in action. Every person I asked to take their photo—people wearing symbols of hate groups, people carrying their guns improperly, people decked out in the most intense displays of militarized citizenship—immediately said yes, of course, and stood tall and proudly for my camera. There is no shrinking from their intent: intimidation, a flexing of cultural might to remind those seeking to make the world a little less violent for future generations that they will not change their ideas quietly.

Richmond was paralyzed, a hostage afraid to move for fear of a jumpy trigger finger. This was not a peaceful protest. This was a de-escalated one.

Eve Ettinger is a writer, editor, and adjunct professor living in Roanoke, Virginia. She edits nonfiction for The Rumpus_, serves on the board of the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, and is working on a memoir._