Virginia on edge as pro-gun activists seethe over governor’s state of emergency

Moments after Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam approached the podium at the state capitol building on Wednesday to announce that he was issuing a temporary state of emergency ahead of a gun rights rally on Monday in Richmond, the angry comments started pouring in.

Though Northam had cited “threats of violence” from militias and other extremist groups as justification for banning protesters from bringing weapons to Monday’s rally, those opposed to the decision blasted him as a liar and a tyrant, accused him of fearmongering and called for his resignation.

“This is what your 2A rights being stripped looks like,” Mitchell Heather Snow commented on a live stream of the press conference that was being broadcast from the Governor’s official Facebook page. “Please show us proof of these threats,” wrote David Still, as the Governor explained that the decision to temporarily ban firearms from the capitol grounds was based on “credible intelligence from our law enforcement agencies that there are groups with malicious plans for the rally that is planned for Monday.”

“I want transparency of these threats,” read a similarly skeptical comment from Ian Ellsworth. “You are using fear to take away my rights!”

A gun rights activist carries a handgun in a hip holster outside the Virginia State Capitol building
A gun rights activist carries a handgun in a hip holster outside the Virginia State Capitol building as the General Assembly prepares to convene in Richmond on Jan. 8, 2020. (Jonathan Drake/Reuters)

By the time the press conference was over, more than 300 comments had been posted on the Facebook live stream. (By the following morning, that number had ballooned to more than 3,500, and it continues to grow.) While about a handful of the initial comments praised Northam’s decision, thanking him for taking action to prevent potential violence, the vast majority were dubious, dismissive and, in some cases, defiant. Rick Weiss posted: “If you want my guns then COME AND GET THEM!!!”

Similar sentiments reverberated through the Governor’s Twitter feed as well.

The reactions to Northam’s announcement reflect the blend of frustration, paranoia and fear that has been fomenting both online and throughout Virginia in the weeks and months leading up to Monday’s rally. Tens of thousands of armed Second Amendment supporters were expected to descend upon Richmond, including members of out-of-state militia groups.

What started in November as a fight between rural Virginia gun owners and newly elected Democratic lawmakers seeking to propose gun control legislation has since been warped and amplified by extremist groups which, for different reasons, have sought to exploit real tensions around Virginia’s gun debate to advance their own agendas. Over the last two months, these groups have wielded unsubstantiated rumors and fake news reports to promote conspiracy theories about a Democratic plot to forcibly confiscate guns. Such theories have successfully fueled outrage and helped amplify rhetoric online. More recently, as the governor and others have discussed concerns about potential violence at the capitol in Richmond Monday, additional theories have begun to circulate online that the event is actually a setup, and any violence that may take place at the rally is a false flag operation designed to discredit the gun rights cause.

“I just know that all the intelligent people are ducking this [rally],” said Bret Lynn, one of the hosts of the Southern Nationalist Network’s podcast “Rebel Yell,” during a discussion about the pro-gun rally in Richmond on the podcast earlier this month. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “Rebel Yell” is the “primary recruiting organ” of Identity Dixie, an influential neo-Confederate propaganda organization that was involved in organizing the violent Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017.

“They don’t want to be a part of it. Because they don’t want to give Northam another mouse to put in his trap,” said Lynn.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, center, at podium. (Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP )

Northam’s emergency declaration, which followed a vote last week by the Democratic majority to ban guns from inside the State Capitol, only seemed to validate those conspiracies — even as the FBI announced the arrests on Thursday of three alleged members of a violent white supremacist group who’d reportedly discussed bringing weapons to Richmond for the rally.

I think many extremists would be pleased with the most recent developments following Gov. Northam’s declaration,” Alex Friedfeld, a researcher at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism told Yahoo News. “While there are many on social media who are trying to temper extreme reactions and stress with the need for peaceful, legal responses, there is a culture of paranoia surrounding this event that is being fed by extreme actors and conspiracy theories that is only raising tensions.”

On Friday, President Trump appeared to throw fuel on the already-heated situation.

“Your 2nd Amendment is under very serious attack in the Great Commonwealth of Virginia,” Trump tweeted. “That’s what happens when you vote for Democrats, they will take your guns away. Republicans will win Virginia in 2020. Thank you Dems!”

Tensions over proposed gun control regulations began brewing across Virginia after Nov. 5, when a wave of Democratic candidates were elected to the state legislature, toppling the Republican majority in both legislative chambers for the first time in more than two decades.

The results of the November elections not only reflected changing demographics in the former confederate state, but also the new Democratic majority presented a particular concern for Virginia’s gun owners, who suddenly saw the state’s lax gun laws in the government’s crosshairs. The blue wave that swept Virginia last fall was largely fueled by donations from gun control advocacy groups, including Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund and Everytown for Gun Safety Victory Fund, which are backed in large part by Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York City and current presidential candidate.

Republicans had long been able to thwart attempts to impose tighter restrictions on Virginia’s lax gun laws, including this past summer, when Northam convened a special legislative session to consider a number of proposals that would include, among other things, an assault weapons ban and universal background checks, following a mass shooting that left 12 dead in Virginia Beach that spring.

But now, with Democrats in control, the passage of new gun control regulations seemed not just likely but inevitable.

Gun rights protesters hold signs prior to the start of a meeting of the Senate Judiciary committee at the Capitol in Richmond, Va.
Gun rights protesters hold signs prior to the start of a meeting of the Senate Judiciary committee at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., on Monday. (Steve Helber/AP)

As incoming Democratic lawmakers began to outline their gun control proposals, gun owners and Second Amendment activists began calling on local officials to defend their right to bear arms from what they feared would be government overreach and widespread confiscation of guns. Within weeks of the November election, several predominantly rural counties had declared themselves Second Amendment Sanctuaries, with local officials adopting resolutions to oppose any unconstitutional restrictions on Second Amendment rights that may be passed at the state level. Soon, though, thanks to strong promotion by the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a grassroots gun rights group, the Second Amendment Sanctuary Movement had spread throughout the state, with more than 100 counties, cities and towns approving similar resolutions within less than two months.

Legally, the Sanctuary movement is mostly symbolic — Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring confirmed in a written opinion last month that such resolutions, as written, “have no legal effect.” Not only are local governments and law enforcement unable to nullify state laws, but, Herring emphasized, “neither local governments nor local constitutional officials have the authority to declare state statutes unconstitutional or decline to follow them on that basis.”

Still, some pro-gun state officials have taken things even further. In addition to adopting a sanctuary resolution, the Board of Supervisors in Tazewell County passed another resolution to allocate money from the county’s budget for the specific purpose of maintaining a well-funded and regulated militia. In Culpeper County, Sheriff Scott Jenkins vowed that, “if necessary,” he would “deputize thousands of our law-abiding citizens to protect their constitutional right to own firearms.”

Culpeper County Sheriff Scott Jenkins speaks at an anti-gun control rally in Culpeper, Virginia
Culpeper County Sheriff Scott Jenkins speaks at an anti-gun control rally in Culpeper, Virginia on Jan. 12, 2020. (Vincent Vala/Culpeper Star-Exponent)

In early December, the ADL’s Friedfeld said he first started noticing conversations about Virginia popping up in various extremist forums — particularly alongside the word “boogaloo.”

Derived from a much older joke based on the 1984 breakdancing movie “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo,” over the past year or so, Friedfeld explained, “Boogaloo” has been adopted by members of various extremist movements online as shorthand for a coming civil war.

The term “boogaloo” takes on slightly different meanings depending on who is using it. Among gun rights activists and militia groups, it is used to describe a violent resistance to government attempts to take away their guns. “Boogaloo” has also been appropriated by white supremacists, in particular the accelerationist faction of that movement, who seek the violent destruction of modern society in order to rebuild a new, all-white world in its place.

“For them, boogaloo is this kind of, society-wide civil war that will break everything down — sometimes it's a race war, sometimes it's just general strife,” explained Friedfeld. “Chaos creates an opportunity for them that they want to take advantage of.”

The three men arrested by the FBI Thursday were alleged members of the Base, a violent accelerationist group. The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that, according to law enforcement officials, the men had discussed opening fire at the Richmond rally from different locations to create chaos.

The situation in Virginia has seemed to fit the narratives of both camps. And soon, mentions of “boogaloo” and a second Civil War starting in Virginia began to spread from encrypted chat rooms and other dark corners of the internet frequented by white nationalists and other extremists to more public social media platforms like Reddit, Facebook and YouTube.

“It's going down it's boogaloo time boys..This is what our forefathers intended and we need to make it happen,” reads one of the initial comments on a YouTube video titled “Civil War 2 Beginning in Virginia?” which has been viewed more than 150,000 times since it was posted on Jan. 13. Other initial posts on the same video include such comments as “Locked and Loaded!” and ”Blood is going to spills all over the streets in Virginia very soon! Be prepare for the worst to come to Virginia!”

Legitimate policies, such as a proposed “red flag” law that would allow guns to be temporarily confiscated from people deemed to be a danger to themselves or others, have been conflated with conspiracy theories and fake news reports, including one circulated by white supremacist radio personality Hal Turner, that erroneously claimed Northam was planning cut off the electricity and internet to certain parts of the state where he’d ordered the National Guard to begin forcibly confiscating guns.

To Friedfeld, it’s the violent rhetoric that has emerged in the comments sections of such posts that poses the real concern.

“The fact of the matter is, we look at this stuff every day … and 99.9 percent of it is meaningless, it's just people spouting off online,” Friedfeld said. Still, he warned that the more this kind of messaging spreads, the greater the chance that one person will believe that violence is necessary to stand up to tyranny. “If you frame things in the most extreme way possible, these extreme reactions start to seem like the only way forward,” Fairfield added.

The dangerous combination of outrage and misinformation swirling around Virginia’s gun control debate has already resulted in multiple reported death threats targeting state Delegate Lee Carter, a Democatic Socialist, over a proposed legislation that has nothing to do with guns, but would prevent certain government employees from being fired for striking. Intended to protect public school teachers and not applying to police officers, the proposal has been misinterpreted by some gun rights activists as an attempt to fire law enforcement officials who refuse to comply with potential new gun control laws. In the face of numerous threats, Carter has said he plans to avoid the statehouse on Monday and take shelter at a safe house instead.

Volunteer Tom Kennedy from Campbell County passes out "Guns Saves Lives" stickers.
Volunteer Tom Kennedy from Campbell County passes out "Guns Saves Lives" stickers on Tuesday at a Lynchburg City Council public hearing on whether to declare Lynchburg a Second Amendment sanctuary city. (Emily Elconin/The News & Advance via AP)

The Virginia Citizens Defense League, the grassroots gun rights group that led the charge behind the Second Amendment Sanctuary movement, has toed a fine line between not totally disavowing such rhetoric and misinformation while trying to discourage those planning to attend their annual Lobby Day rally from engaging in violence or other kind of bad behavior that might discredit their cause.

The VCDL’s official Facebook page, for example, has posted several Civil War memes and even shared a YouTube video titled “Does the Boogaloo Begin in Virginia?” Still, VCDL president Philip Van Cleave, who wrote a letter to the Winchester Star in July declaring that “VCDL is proud to be categorized as an extremist organization,” has repeatedly reiterated the message to supporters that Lobby Day is not a protest but “a peaceful day to address our Legislature.”

Prior to Northam’s gun ban, Van Cleave urged rallygoers who chose to open carry at the rally to leave their long guns at home to prevent bad optics and has instructed participants not to engage with anyone who might try to provoke them. “There is probably someone secretly recording the interaction, with the intent of capturing some kind of inappropriate reaction on your part,” Van Cleave warned in a written guidance for supporters. Van Cleave also made clear that, while out-of-state militias do not need to provide security at the rally, their members are more than welcome to join in.

The Virginia state Capitol building is surrounded by fencing
The Virginia state Capitol building is surrounded by fencing on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020 in preparation for Monday's rally by gun rights advocates (Dean Hoffmeyer/Richmond Times-Dispatch)

After VCDL and other gun rights groups unsuccessfully attempted to overturn Northam’s emergency declaration in court, Van Cleave outlined a new plan for the rally in an email to VCDL supporters late Friday.

“We are separating our responsibilities, in this otherwise untenable and unconstitutional situation foisted on gun owners by Northam,” read the email, explaining that the group needed “at least 10,000 members to commit to ‘taking one for the team’ by entering the Capitol grounds unarmed around 10 am and being in place for the rally by 10:45 am.”

“For every one gun owner on the Capitol grounds, we need another two to five people outside the Capitol grounds's fence on 9th Street,” the message continued. “Those doing so can be legally armed.” Once again, he noted at the bottom of the email: “Monday is going to be a day of lobbying, with a peaceful rally.”

Members of the Oath Keepers militia group act as security to those leaving a rally by President Trump in Minneapolis, Minn.
Members of the Oath Keepers militia group act as security to those leaving a rally by President Trump in Minneapolis, Minn. (Jim Urquhart/Reuters)

Stewart Rhodes, founder of the Oath Keepers, a far-right anti-government militia group that has been rallying supporters since the beginning of the year to gather in Richmond on the 20th, told Yahoo News he did not agree with VCDL’s request for 10,000 gun owners to enter the gun-free zone unarmed.

“I think it sends a terrible message of submission,” Rhodes wrote in a text message to Yahoo News. Members of his group, which include current and former military and law enforcement officers, he wrote, “WILL NOT be inside the Governor’s no gun square” on Monday, but rather planned to focus on keeping everyone cool” in the streets of Richmond Monday, where they will still be allowed to carry firearms.

“We expect there to be a large group of armed patriots on the streets outside the fended off no guns zone,” Rhodes told Yahoo News, arguing that “Northam has made the situation worse instead of better.”

“He’s not keeping anyone ‘safe.’ He [sic] putting more people at risk,” Rhodes said.


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