Outside the Virginia Capitol grounds on Monday, thousands of Second Amendment supporters, predominantly white, roved the streets of downtown Richmond, many of them wearing camo, helmets and body armor while wielding high-capacity, military-style rifles.
It was a genial and high-spirited crowd, united in purpose and brimming with the energy generated from being in the same presence of kindred spirits — almost a conservative equivalent of the Women’s March.
Notwithstanding fear-mongering social-media hoaxes warning about busloads of antifa “thugs” planning false-flag attacks while posing as MAGA supporters, the actual antifascists, with their beards, Carhartt jackets and own high-capacity, military-style rifles, passed mostly unnoticed. When the Richmond police broke up an argument between an antifascist and Jovanni Valle, a national socialist who reportedly organized a celebration for Hitler’s birthday, a traditional Second Amendment supporter misunderstood the cue and flung the epithet “commie” at Valle. A bystander concluded, “This may be the first antifa of the day.”
The dozen or so leftists fanned in an intersection for a brief period and handed out fliers.
“De-escalator folks in the front; armed folks in the back,” directed Mitch Fryer, an organizer from North Carolina.
The reason for their presence, Fryer said, was to challenge the conventional conservative-liberal narrative on guns, and to assert the right of people in marginalized communities to defend themselves with firearms.
In taking a pro-gun stance in a crowd that included many militia activists who have openly advocated violence against Muslims, immigrants, abortion providers and progressive elected officials, they found themselves striking a tricky balance.
“I don’t necessarily believe we’re in partnership with any of these folks by stating a different position,” Fryer said of their group, which was predominantly, although not entirely, white. “We are tangential to their position. We don’t have to necessarily be at each other’s throats. But it also means that if there’s this common ground around firearms, we’re able to build rapport and get into space socially where we can start calling out other behaviors, such as allowing nazis in the movement, allowing fascists to gain influence. That does not happen just by shouting at each other. When the stakes are as high as they are, we have to do as much as we can to de-escalate the situation and not just abandon the space.”
The Second Amendment supporters and the Democratic governor they were protesting celebrated that the day passed without any incidents of violence. But the potential for a bloodbath was most certainly there.
“We’ll have a fucking rifle, you’ll have your fucking kit set up,” Patrik Jordan Mathews told Brian Mark Lemley, according to a government motion to detain the men. “We’ll have radios, nods [night vision goggles]. Holy fuck.”
Mathews and Lemley were among three members of the white supremacist terrorist group the Base, who were arrested by the FBI five days before the Richmond rally. According to the government, members of the Base have discussed creating a white ethno-state and committing acts of violence against blacks and Jews.
Mathews’ description of their gear could have described hundreds of clusters of young, white men roving the streets of downtown Richmond on Monday. And while Lemley allegedly admonished his co-conspirators against wearing Base patches in Richmond so they could remain “clandestine,” the skull masks favored by the group were in abundant supply in the crowds surrounding the Capitol.
According to a motion for detention filed by the government on Tuesday against Mathews, Lemley and a third defendant, William Garfield Bilbrough IV, “Lemley discussed using a thermal imaging scope affixed to his rifle to conduct ambush attacks, including against unsuspecting civilians and police officers.” And during the same discussion with Mathews on Dec. 23, he reportedly said, “I literally need, I need to claim my first victim.”
The three men repeatedly discussed their hope that they could help start a second civil war during the rally that took place in Richmond on Monday, according to the court documents. On New Year’s Eve, Mathews and Lemley allegedly discussed the idea of throwing or slingshotting fireworks into the crowd in Richmond to “cause shooting to go off.”
Lemley reportedly ordered about 1,500 rounds of ammunition before the three men were arrested by the FBI five days prior to the rally.
Considering the threat of violence, with law enforcement consigned as collateral damage, the absence of tension between the police and protesters was notable. And in some sense, the two were one and the same.
Sheriff Richard A. Vaughan and two uniformed deputies from Grayson County, in southwest Virginia, held a banner reading, “We support the Second Amendment.”
In between shaking hands and accepting thanks from well-wishers, Vaughan said in an interview that he would defy the gun-control measures proposed by the Democratic majority in Richmond, if need be.
“We are the last line of defense for the citizens of our county,” he said. “So, we will not enforce unconstitutional laws, and we’ll stand toe to toe with anyone else that tries to take guns from our citizens.”
The sheriff remained sanguine when I asked him if his stance could put him in conflict with Virginia State Police.
“I think our Virginia State Police use common sense as well when it comes to this gun legislation,” he said, “and there will be a lot of discretion used by the officers when it comes to enforcing these bills.”
Speaking of discretion, the police arrested a 21-year-old woman an hour and a half after the end of the rally and charged her with a felony violation of the state’s anti-masking law for covering her face, although hundreds of people, some of them carrying long rifles, wore masks throughout the day without interference from law enforcement.
Chelsea Higgs Wise, the executive director of Marijuana Justice Virginia, said she stayed home on Monday and lobbied lawmakers by phone. She helps organize Brown Virginia, a coalition of 21 black-led organizations that traditionally take advantage of the day off work for Martin Luther King Jr. Day to lobby the legislature. They canceled plans to come to the Capitol to lobby lawmakers to protect members from violence.
Nothing about Monday’s rally felt “peaceful,” Higgs said. “Staying and hiding in our homes doesn’t feel like peace. The letter from the governor said that progress is hard. If this is what progress is, the dream has turned into a nightmare for many.
“For us to ignore how citizen militias are a part of silencing black people after an entire year of talking about reconciliation, it’s showing a blind spot as well as our resistance to implementing that change in current policy,” Higgs continued. “We talk about the citizen militia: They were used to keep enslaved people in their place. That’s very much how it felt like yesterday with the governor saying through an emergency order that the best way for you to stay safe is to stay home.”
Lacette Cross, who pastors Restoration Fellowship RVA, attributed the lack of violence to the absence of opposition.
“There was no kindling; there was nothing for a spark to catch,” she said. “And I’m saying this from some of my white activist friends who believe in directly confronting white supremacists. These same mediocre white men, they ain’t gonna shoot each other; that would be counterproductive to their purpose. They’re gonna open fire on black people, brown people, openly queer people, anyone they can rightfully deem they can kill and not be held accountable.”
Cross was one of the clergy members who hastily organized an interfaith prayer vigil at a church six blocks away from the capitol as the rally was kicking off.
Even at the prayer vigil, Cross was one of only about 10 black people in a group that was made up of predominately white allies. Many black people are weary, she said, and feel that “prayer vigils fall flat when actual change does not happen for a segment of our population.”
Cross read an excerpt from Martin Luther King Jr.’s book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community at the vigil. But she acknowledged it’s a difficult question to answer.
“History has proven to us that if the color of that group that assembled at the numbers they did were black and people of color, it would have been a different outcome,” Cross said. “I can tell you as a 44-year-old black woman who is a bisexual, a Baptist ordained pastor in the seat of the Confederacy who believes in justice, I can galvanize people to pray together in a church and recite words of peace and prayers and hope, and I can take that same energy and galvanize people to go to the Capitol, and have violence break out. There’s no answer to how we move forward. The emotional toll it takes on people of conscience, regardless of their color but specifically black people, is really heavy. It’s really heavy for those of us who have inherited this version of racism and are doing our level best to change the system.”