On Monday, the streets of Richmond, Virginia, were flooded with a spectacular arsenal of weaponry; some 22,000 people from all over the country had turned up to protest the gun control laws recently passed by the Virginia State Senate. Fearing a repeat of the deadly violence that had gripped the city of Charlottesville, Virginia, three years earlier, governor Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency and barred weapons from the Capitol grounds. Some 6,000 protesters grumblingly abided. But just outside the legions of police barricades, twice that number of people roamed the streets of Richmond bearing a bristling mass of rifles, from AR-15s to massive Barrett sniper rifles. Some wore skull masks; others waved Confederate flags. Members of hate groups like the League of the South and the American Guard, as well as the Proud Boys, mingled openly; some of the latter were wearing patches that said “RWDS”—an acronym for “Right-Wing Death Squad.” Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones gave a speech from a Terradyne battle tank. Adding to the bellicose mood, some attendees paraded with a massive guillotine as a prop, and others held up an effigy strung on a noose, emblazoned with the slogan, “Thus always to tyrants.”
No one was shot—a frankly extraordinary turn of events given the sheer amount of weaponry, the density of the crowd, and the weapons stuffed casually into backpacks or held loosely in the crooks of pale arms. This happy vicissitude of fate led right-wing groups to declare the event a triumph—in the words of fringe-right publications Gateway Pundit and InfoWars, a “peaceful protest.” Mainstream media, too, bought into this analysis: “Pro-gun rally by thousands in Virginia ends peacefully,” was the assessment of the Washington Post. Having made Northam the butt of their rhetorical ire during the rally, conservative groups further condemned his choice to declare a state of emergency in the state’s capital: “Gov. Northam fantasizes he saved Virginia from volatile situation,” crowed a headline at Breitbart.
All this confidence belied the fact that bloodshed—great and heavy and perhaps unprecedented on American soil—was narrowly averted. A federal motion for detention released Tuesday revealed that three members of neo-Nazi terror group The Base had planned to attend Monday’s rally in Virginia, kitted out with a home-built, functioning fully-automatic rifle capable of firing several rounds at a time; survival gear; and 1,500 rounds of ammunition. They had planned to open fire into the crowd.
According to the affidavit, one of the men had postulated that there were enough “radicalized” individuals slated to be in Richmond that “all you gotta do is start making things go wrong and Virginia can spiral out to fucking full blown civil war.” Their goal, one of the men stated in a video, was to “bring the collapse…If you want the white race to survive, you’re going to have to do your fucking part.” The three men were arrested four days before the Richmond rally—held at bay from fulfilling the fantasies they had described of “literally hunting people” in a heavily armed crowd, and setting into motion a chain of violent events that would extend far beyond Richmond.
But even with the Base threat—which was thoroughly ignored by right-wing media—neutralized, it seems myopic at best to describe the Monday event as “peaceful.” There was, it was true, an absence of immediate bloodshed; but what abounded, in that armed and insurrectionist sea of humanity, was the promise that bloodshed might happen at any time, should the will of the mob be thwarted. America’s exceptional tolerance towards armed white gunmen—its brooking of gun-toting militias around the country, and the po-faced seriousness with which the media takes claims of “freedom” when it comes to the right to own weapons of mass slaughter—is entirely restricted to this demographic. Famously, California enacted gun-control legislation prohibiting the open carrying of firearms after a demonstration of armed Black Panthers on the steps of the state house; this swift reactive prohibition was enacted by then-governor Ronald Reagan. The threat of white supremacist violence, despite resulting in multiple shooting massacres against black people, Jews, and Latinos in the last several years, has yet to pierce the national consciousness as the vast and threatening specter it is. Terrorists were intercepted on the way to this rally with the open goal of sparking civil war; the thousands of armed individuals roaming the streets of an American city openly proclaimed their intent not to obey laws they might disagree with. Yet their very whiteness rendered them invisible as a threat: in America, if you are white, you can wear a mask and carry a gun and hang a governor in effigy, and go home quietly at the end of the day, unmolested.
On Monday, itself the sea of armed men kept the city in a kind of artificial stillness—not safety but fear. There is a difference between peace that consists of calm and security, and the false peace of being held under threat. One may be silent when held at gunpoint, but it is not the silence of contentment; it is the silence of mortal terror.
Reporter friends who planned to attend the event went in with a sense of dread, a war-zone fatalism at what might happen. Molly Conger, a Virginia-based leftist activist and citizen journalist, told me that she had cautioned other activists to stay far from the capital and avoid counterprotest. She attended, she told me, because she felt an obligation to document the event, rather than to protest it. “I still think it was the right thing to do,” she told me Tuesday, of her decision to warn other activists away. “I would be distraught if I had the power to keep people away and didn’t and they died in a mass shooting.” At the event, she said, “the crowd was so thick I got knocked in the face and chest with rifle barrels.”
The effects on locals amounted to a sweeping petrification. Due to Monday’s event, Richmond natives closed their businesses downtown—from a 7-11 near the Capitol to a barbershop to the entirety of Virginia Commonwealth University, which suspended all activities for the day, including internships and clinical placements; a university statement made clear that this was in response to the threat, not the federal holiday. NBC reported that some residents of Jackson Ward, a historically black neighborhood in the city, left town entirely for the day—which was Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Due to the state of emergency declared by the governor, legislative business slowed to a crawl; nonessential personnel stayed away from the capitol. So did other political groups that had planned to lobby the legislature on Monday, part of a “Lobby Days” tradition that dates back decades. The Northern Virginia Association for the Deaf had planned to lobby the legislature in support of a bill that would require movie theaters to include captions. Its president, Maryrose Gonzalez, told me they’d stayed home to avoid “getting caught up with the gun people.”
The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, a group that had hosted a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event in Richmond for 28 years, canceled its vigil. “Advocates have faced armed individuals trying to intimidate us each year,” wrote the group’s president, Lori Haas, in a press release. “But this year is different; we have received information that heavily armed white supremacists will be seeking to incite violence, and our organization has decided that the safety of our volunteers, advocates, and staff, many of whom are survivors of gun violence, must be our top priority.”
An annual, long-planned march for the rights of immigrants, criminal justice reform, affordable education, and more, coordinated by New Virginia Majority, an advocacy group for working-class black and brown Virginians, was cancelled on the Friday. Ibby Han, a representative of the organization Virginia Student Power, which had partnered in the MLK Jr. Day event since 2015, told me that the New Virginia Majority event had expected around 1,000 attendees, many of whom were undocumented. The advocacy event was centered around drivers’ licenses for undocumented immigrants and criminal justice reform. “We are enraged,” the organization wrote, “that we cannot use our voices today at the General Assembly.”
That the zeal of armed activists should crush the rights of others to advocate is neither novel nor unexpected, for all their loudly proclaimed adoration of “freedom.” Americans weary of mass shootings at malls, churches, kindergartens, concerts, nightclubs, abortion clinics, hospitals, universities, and movie theaters—in short, in any place where people gather—have long pointed out that the fear marring any movement through the commons constitutes an infringment of the right to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. We speak the names of towns that have become synonymous with mass shootings like a litany, a kaddish for the dead. This state of affairs is enforced by a minority that is both well-heeled and well-armed. As if to underscore the point, the NRA handed out 1,000 free 30-round magazines to gun owners before the rally. The event on Monday served the only possible purpose thousands of armed men gathering en masse can serve: it served as a threat, in this case against democracy itself.
The Virginia state legislature that rally-goers were eager to call “tyrants” had been elected, democratically, the previous year, in a wave election that shook off a 20-year Republican chokehold on the legislative body of the state. One of the major issues that propelled Democrats to victory was the promise of gun-control legislation, particularly after a mass shooting in Virginia Beach left 12 city residents dead and four others wounded in May 2019. For all their loud objection to “tyranny,” the purpose of the armed crowd was to thwart the will of an electorate that had outvoted them. Virginians’ overall enthusiasm for gun control measures has not waned since last year’s election; a poll conducted in December revealed that Virginia voters strongly support requiring background checks on all gun sales, 86% to 13%, and passing a “red flag” law to remove guns from someone who may harm someone, 73% to 23%. A majority, 54% to 44%, support banning assault-style weapons.
Nonetheless, in advance of Monday’s event, socialist state legislator Lee Carter, the target of a whirlwind of pro-gun conspiracy theories, went into hiding. Carter’s bill had been proposed in a prior legislative session, intended to support teachers’ rights to strike; responding to safety concerns about the potential of police strikes, he had amended it to maintain the status quo prohibiting law enforcement officers from public-sector striking. This was interpreted, in a whirl of YouTube rants and conspiracy chatter, as a bill to punish sheriffs who might refuse to enforce gun-control laws. The death threats were so relentless, he told GEN, that he chose to hide out in an undisclosed safe house on the day of the rally. “I’m not interested in becoming a martyr,” he said. The message was clear enough, it has been clear enough for years: to oppose the monopoly of gun owners over the American commons is to risk death.
The rally was, as one attendee put it to Vice reporter Tess Owen, intended to be “a show of force.” Not the force of popular will, nor the force of solidarity, but the kind of force that comes packed into magazines, with barrels cocked, effigies hung in nooses, white skulls etched on black masks. It was a force that silenced others who sought to raise their voices, and was meant to. Monday was a day of a clenched fist raised in menace; rather than be lulled by the temporary absence of bloodshed, Americans would do better to be poised for the inevitable falling of the blow.
Talia Lavin is a writer based in Brooklyn. Her first book, Culture Warlords, is forthcoming in 2020 from Hachette Books.
The Bureaucratic Method
There's no telling how many guns we have in America—and when one gets used in a crime, no way for the cops to connect it to its owner. The only place the police can turn for help is a Kafkaesque agency in West Virginia, where, thanks to the gun lobby, computers are illegal and detective work is absurdly antiquated. On purpose. Thing is, the geniuses who work there are quietly inventing ways to do the impossible.
Originally Appeared on GQ