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Oh, and people. A police-estimated 22,000 of them.
They came from across Virginia and the nation, driven by memes, Facebook videos, and calls from the president himself. Organizers were sensitive to reports of violent white supremacists planning to attend, and possibly wreak havoc. Perhaps as a result of their precautions, there were few signs of trouble. Violence was merely threatened, often with a smile.
The vast majority of attendees were white and male. Many were in costume. They identified themselves as “militias” and various kinds of “guards.” Just outside the perimeter of the statehouse, I found myself in the middle of a sort of LARP security briefing. Their commander (?) dismissed them with instructions on patrolling the streets in pairs. What they were patrolling for, and under what authority they were allowed to do so, was not remarked on.
The cops were there too, dressed as cops, but in a very specific way: in their soft blue winter coats, woolen hats, and high-visibility-yellow vests. What they were not dressed as were soldier-cops, with riot helmets, body armor, or riot shields. (The only riot shields I saw were in the hands of one of the militias.) Nor were there any intimidating police Mine Resistant Armored Vehicles in sight. Only one person, a 21-year-old woman, is reported to have been arrested under Virginia’s anti-Klan masking law for concealing her face with a bandana, even though far more threatening masks were everywhere.
Veterans of past protests in Virginia, particularly the Nazi riots that rampaged through Charlottesville in 2017, credited the police’s permissive attitude for the lack of violence.
Lois Beckett @loisbeckettSaw more riot cops at a protest march organized by college kids at UVA for the anniversary of Charlottesville than are visible at this VA gun rights rally. One reason the vibe has been so calm today: despite all the fencing + helicopters, there aren’t aggressive lines of police.
The few exceptions I saw—protesters getting visibly agitated at the sight of a possible police sniper on the roof of an office building, a little cussing here and there at the sight of police helicopters—makes me inclined to agree.
As my friend and colleague Jamelle Bouie, who I went around the rally with, pointed out, it’s hard to imagine police would take such a cavalier attitude toward a crowd made up predominantly of 22,000 armed black men closing in on the statehouse. (On Martin Luther King Day, no less.)
Or Spanish-speakers. Or, God help everyone, masked Muslims.
But that’s ultimately what Lobby Day 2020 was about. Virginia, like much of America, is going through a marked demographic shift, in which white conservative men are losing not their power but their hegemony. It didn’t seem to matter to the protesters that a clear majority of Virginia citizens elected a Democratic statehouse, nor that promises of gun control were key to that victory. It would have been asking too much to bring up the incident that prompted the outpouring of electoral support: the massacre of 12 people at a municipal office building in Virginia Beach, less than a year ago.
The fact that the gun-control measures passed so far have been mild in the extreme (mandatory background checks, limiting gun sales to twelve handguns per person, per year, etc.) is entirely beside the point.
That’s because the gun rally was not so much about guns as a signal of who has, and who can be entrusted to wield, power. The absence of overt white-supremacist symbols—and media-bait reminders of term-limited Virginia Gov. Northam’s own racist scandal—was a victory of messaging. The carnival-like atmosphere, punctuated by friendly “militias” greeting each other in the streets (“You’re all kings. You’re all fucking kings,” one armed group yelled at the other shorts-wearing militia pictured up top), was to be read as proof of the protesters’ law-abiding natures. But it was all wrapped in a muffled threat.
One of the few official speakers on the statehouse lawn was Stephen Willeford, a plumber from Sutherland Springs, Texas. He was a hero to the crowd because he shot a mass shooter at a church with an AR-15 in 2017 (though, it should be said, only after the shooter used his own AR-15 to murder 26 people and injure 20 more). Willeford punctuated his speech with an old saying. Americans, he said, can use three boxes to protect their rights: the soap box, the ballot box, and the cartridge box.
His point was clear: If the ralliers can’t win with the first two, they will turn to the third.
I doubt many in the crowd would care who originated that saying: a slave-holding governor of South Carolina back in 1830. Nor would it have bothered them to learn that it was said in an arcane legal fight over tariffs. Southern whites saw that tariff as a slippery slope to ending their minority rule over an enslaved black majority. In their pre-Confederate imagination, that tax was as much of an existential threat to them as mandating background checks on gun purchases is to their ideological descendants today.
The idea that freedom emanates from a gun—that guns equal freedom, tout court—is so ingrained in a very specific, yet widely held conception of America that it didn’t even bear discussion.
When the speeches were over, even the tens of thousands too far away to hear them turned to peacefully go home, confident their point had been made.
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Jonathan Myerson Katz is a freelance journalist and author. His next book, Gangsters of Capitalism, traces the origins and price of America’s empire through the life of a legendary Marine, Smedley D. Butler. Follow him on Twitter @KatzOnEarth.
Photos by the author. Updated with additional photo 4/17/20.