An estimated 22,000 people attended the rally against looming gun restrictions in Virginia yesterday in the state capital of Richmond. The week leading up to it was filled with warnings of potential violence, wild conspiracy theories, threats against lawmakers, and indications that white supremacist groups would attend. Three neo-Nazis were arrested before the event for threats related to it, and the governor passed an emergency decree banning guns inside the rally due to threats. After the buildup, the rally itself was anticlimactic; there were no incidents and only a single arrest. But the events have energized the Patriot movement and militia groups to encourage the formation of new, armed political forms in rural Virginia counties, many of which have vowed to reject the gun restrictions.
The last election left Virginia with a Democratic governor and majority in the legislature. New gun control bills include limited measures like restricting handgun purchases to once a month, background checks, and barring guns from public buildings. But to the far-right gun rights crowd — including militia and Patriot movement groups — this is already halfway down the road to confiscation of all privately owned guns.
The rhetoric was white hot the week before the rally. In addition to the militias, “alt-right” groups promoted the rally. Discussion groups were abuzz with chatter about the “boogaloo” — right-wing internet speak for a coming civil war. In the far right’s mind, this has long been imagined to be kicked off by Democrats confiscating guns.
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While threats of — or, more accurately, hopes for — such a war are typical for any large event that militias attend, more worrisome was the arrest of three neo-Nazis for planning violence at the rally. Law enforcement officials said they had “discussed opening fire from different positions at Monday’s planned pro-gun rally in Richmond, Va., in the hopes of causing chaos,” according to The Wall Street Journal. Virginia state representative Lee Carter, a member of DSA, the Democratic Socialists of America, was flooded with death threats after his position on a gun bill was reported wrongly. And, although Virginia is an open carry state, Governor Ralph Northam went so far as to ban firearms in the official rally area after receiving “credible” threats — further antagonizing the gun rights crowd.
Owing to the ban, only 6,000 people entered the marked rally area, while another 16,000 marched outside, many of them carrying assault rifles. They said the Pledge of Allegiance, sang the national anthem, and chanted “USA!” Many carried Trump flags; the president had tweeted his support the night before, writing falsely — as usual — “That’s what happens when you vote for Democrats, they will take your guns away.”
But the presence of organized far-right groups was muted, despite Richard Spencer telling Alex Jones, “I might come down if you’re there, sure.” Nazi-cheerleader Jovi Val came but left his swastika apparel at home. The League of the South — a neo-Confederate group that had been prominent at the 2017 Charlottesville demonstration — reportedly attended; but watchers on Twitter could not find a picture of them. There were activists from the “alt-lite” — the more moderate part of the alt-right that allows people of color, gay men and Jews to join — including the violent Proud Boys (who came armed) and Joey Gibson. Alex Jones of Infowars drove around in what Jared Holt dubbed a “battle truck,” shouting into a megaphone that it was “1776 for all Americans.”
Even the militia presence was subdued. While numerous groups like the Three Percenters, Oath Keepers, and different Light Foot militias came, they did not parade as military units in uniform, unlike in Charlottesville in 2017. While members of the Oath Keepers — the largest Patriot movement group, which said they would attend as security — were in the crowd, they did not have a visible organized presence.
But, to the chagrin of the image-conscious organizers, Confederate flags were on display, a particularly bad look for a march that landed on the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. One freelance photographer, Jeff S., told me, “These people hijacked MLK day and did an armed occupation of the capital campus.” He noted the presence of numerous armed young men with “fashy haircuts” — a reference to a hairstyle popular among younger fascists in the alt-right today, which copies a style that was popular in Nazi Germany. This was a sign that they were fellow travelers, at the least, of the alt-right.
Militias on the Rise
A strong showing in the streets still doesn’t necessarily translate into legislative muscle, and as the debate over gun restrictions was part of the last election campaign, pro-restriction Democrats have good reason to argue that they have a mandate for new laws.
But this gives organizing opportunities for Patriot movement activists. Before the Trump administration, when Republican presidents were in power, their movement would periodically slump; their claims that the federal government was controlled by secret communists worked better against Democrats like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama than Republicans like George W. Bush.
But the militias have avoided a predicted collapse under Trump by joining his fanatical base of supporters who favor street rallies and clashes with antifascists. This period has seen the militias move closer to younger, online and more urban far-right factions like the alt-lite. But the main strategy of the more organized Patriot groups like the Oath Keepers isn’t to aid street fighting, but rather to establish paramilitaries with the support of the local governments. And it looks like the situation in Virginia will give them this opportunity.
The New York Times reported that recently in Virginia, “more than 100 municipalities have designated themselves ‘sanctuaries’ for the Second Amendment.” County sheriffs, including some in attendance at the rally, said they will refuse to enforce new state laws, claiming that they are unconstitutional. “Nullification” — the claim that a lower level government, such as a county sheriff, can refuse to enforce a law passed by states or the federal government — has no actual legal basis. But the Patriot movement has spent decades encouraging local governments to adopt this strategy, and because county sheriffs have a high level of autonomy, with little oversight other than elections, it can be effective in practice.
At least one county in Virginia has taken this a step further, saying it will both form an official county militia and create a sheriff’s posse. Oath Keepers’ leader Stewart Rhodes, in a speech on Sunday, said “that is exactly the right thing to do.” He announced that “we have an ongoing training mission for the next two weeks … but hopefully on in the next few months, we’ll be going around to all the counties, offering our assistance to the sheriffs to train posses. We’ve already reached out to several and [are] offering our assistance to country supervisors to help them form up and train those militias.”
Therefore, we must be aware that even if the Virginia legislature passes the new gun laws, the battle isn’t over. Instead, it may well move to rural areas and become a fight over whether the laws will be enforced. The Patriot movement activists hope to use hostility to gun laws to promote their larger agenda of radical right-wing decentralization, which also seeks to exempt localities from numerous federal laws, including civil rights protections, labor laws and environmental restrictions. If the Patriot movement groups can get their claws into county governments, this will create a bigger, and more complicated, issue than just managing problems at a single march.