In early 2019, a right-wing militia leader from Georgia named Chris Hill launched a Facebook group to promote a rally scheduled for Nov. 9 that would cross from northern Virginia to Washington, DC, highlighting the differences between gun laws from one jurisdiction to the other.
As reported by Triad City Beat, the now-defunct Roll Call Facebook page attracted dozens of first responders, law enforcement and detention officers, along with neo-Confederates, members of Bikers for Trump, QAnon enthusiasts and Proud Boys. Billed as a Second Amendment rally, the Roll Call page vaguely threatened that “if no remedies” were “timely available,” the protesters would, “without further notice… seek all remedies afforded” under “the Constitution.”
The rally promoted a big tent of far-right demands that align with many of President Trump’s major themes: the border wall, voter ID and restrictions on abortion. And while much of the discussion on the Roll Call page was centered on the longstanding far-right paranoia about the government taking away people’s guns, comment threads and live videos also featured Hill and others advocating violence against Muslims, immigrants, abortion providers and progressive politicians.
The Security Force III% network led by Hill splintered a couple months before the scheduled event. No surprise that the reconstituted “Declaration of Restoration” rally turned out to be a dud, with only about a hundred people showing up.
In the meantime, voters in Virginia handed control of the legislature to the Democrats, who had campaigned on a slate of gun-control measures in response to the May 31, 2019 mass shooting in Virginia Beach. The agenda, according to the Guardian, includes “universal background checks, bans on military-style ‘assault weapons’ and high-capacity ammunition magazines.”
Gun-rights activists are expected to pour into Richmond on Jan. 20 for a lobbying day. The Virginia Citizens Defense League, one of the lead organizations, has reportedly asked supporters to refrain from carrying military-style rifles and other long guns, but others, including out-of-state activists from as far away as Indiana and Alabama may not heed the call for restraint. Meanwhile so-called “Second Amendment sanctuary” resolutions have swept counties and municipalities across Virginia.
And while Republicans remain firmly in control of the legislature in Raleigh, three North Carolina counties, including Wilkes and Surry, have already passed pro-Second Amendment resolutions, with Davidson County commissioners expected to consider a resolution today and Sheriff Greg Seabolt calling for a similar measure in Randolph County. The proposed Davidson County resolution stipulates that the county will not appropriate any government funds or provide staff time for the purpose of enforcing any laws “that infringe on the right of the people to keep and bear arms.”
I first learned about the furor swirling over Richmond through a Facebook message from John Bielski, a firefighter in northern Michigan. Bielski had joined the Roll Call Facebook page set up by militia leader Chris Hill. When I contacted Bielski last fall, he disavowed Hill, calling him “reckless.” He also told me that he’s a member of a different militia, that coordinates with law enforcement. They had been invited to travel to Dearborn, outside of Detroit, to provide security for a film shoot, but Bielski said they backed out when they learned that the purpose of the endeavor was, as he put it, “to rile up the Arabic nation.”
In early January, Bielski messaged me: “What is your take on the issue in Virginia and all the gun controversy?” He added, “It’s pretty serious: UN troops are supposed to be involved. The Virginia National Guard as well.”
Neither of those claims is true.
A user named “Catholic Charismatic” tweeted a photo on Dec. 31 showing UN armored vehicles on a flatbed truck on Interstate 81 near Lexington, Va., accompanied by the text: “As predicted! UN vehicles in Virginia to assist with shock-troop gun control! Are you ready! Photo captured yesterday! Foreign troops! Retweet this vigorously (as 90% of my Followers aren’t receiving my Tweets.)”
The photo shared by “Catholic Charismatic” is similar to one shared on social media in 2016. Snopes.com determined at the time that the trucks were manufactured by Alpine Armoring for use abroad by the United Nations.
Similarly, in response to a suggestion by Rep. A. Donald McEachin (D-Va.) that Gov. Ralph Northam might have to call out the National Guard to enforce gun laws, a spokesman for the governor has indicated he has no such intentions.
Some Virginians are literally contemplating a civil war to prevent their duly elected state government from carrying out the will of the voters.
One speaker told county supervisors at a hearing last month in Pulaski County, “I really do think we may be on the brink of another war,” while arguing that citizens might need guns to overthrow a tyrannical government, according to the Roanoke Times.
Maybe talk like that could be written off as hyperbole if local elected officials, including sheriffs, weren’t more or less pledging to defy state law. As an example, Culpepper County Sheriff Scott Jenkins wrote on Facebook that if the Virginia General Assembly carries through on its promise to enact gun-control measures, he would not only challenge the laws in court, but also “deputize thousands of our law-abiding citizens to protect their constitutional right to own firearms.” And the Tazewell County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution asserting its right to raise a militia to frustrate lawmakers in Richmond.
It may seem that Americans are embroiled in multiple culture wars. But as the violently Islamophobic, anti-immigrant and anti-reproductive justice rants on the Roll Call page show, the points of polarization are all intertwined.
In a Jan. 11 Facebook Live video arguing that “gun confiscation” is the first step towards “mass extermination,” a Second Amendment supporter named Kevin Holland argued that, contrary to reporting in the Guardian and other reputable media outlets, it’s actually people who care about racial justice who embrace conspiracy theories. The threat, as Holland articulated it, is not just restrictions on gun ownership, but also any attempts to force a reckoning with the United States’ history of racial injustice and to build an inclusive society.
“You’ve got groups of people that are out there hollering that black and brown people are just so badly mistreated, this that and the other,” Holland said. “And then you’ve got people saying, ‘Oh, well, we need to have this mass amount of refugees flow into the country.’ All the while, good Americans are setting back and saying, ‘Guys, listen: A lot of what y’all are saying is the conspiracy theories. Y’all are the ones that are being led by the nose who believe fallacies that aren’t really there.’
“Yes, there’s racism,” Holland acknowledged. “Yes, there’s bad things that has happened in history. But that doesn’t mean that we have to gauge our future from the bad things that have happened.”