Only a few dozen gun-rights activists converged on the Virginia state capital on Monday for an annual demonstration that typically draws thousands, with this year’s protests dampened by tensions in the wake of the Jan. 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol.
The annual “Lobby Day” gathering had put authorities on high alert in Richmond, about 110 miles (175 km) south of Washington, D.C., where Democratic President-elect Joe Biden will be sworn in on Wednesday, replacing Republican President Donald Trump, an outspoken defender of gun rights.
Lobby Day in Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy during the U.S. Civil War, always falls on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a national holiday honoring the civil rights leader assassinated in 1968. Until this year, Virginia also commemorated the birthdays of Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson with a state holiday in January, but last year the state legislature passed a bill eliminating it.
By midday, Lobby Day – which gives voters an opportunity to petition state lawmakers on any issue – had drawn fewer than 50 pro-gun rights protesters, many from the far-right Proud Boys and the anti-government boogaloo movement who were openly carrying semi-automatic weapons.
“Welcome to the biggest non-event of 2021,” said one of a small group of men that included Philip Van Cleave, leader of Virginia Citizens Defense League (VCDL), a pro-gun advocacy group that organized a caravan of demonstrators to drive through the capital on Monday.
The demonstrators, including some who wore military fatigues, the boogaloos sporting their trademark Hawaiian shirts and the VCDL members dressed in business suits, were outnumbered by reporters.
“Yes, and that’s disgusting,” said a man hawking Proud Boys shirts for $20 who refused to give his name. “It’s sad.”
Police estimated last year’s crowd at about 22,000 people at an event that was tense but peaceful.
This year, about 20 members of two Black self-defense groups – the Original Black Panthers of VA and Black Lives Matter 757 – demonstrated separately from the far-right protesters, standing about a block away from the statehouse.
Windows were boarded up at the statehouse, and temporary fencing had been erected to block off the usual public entrance to the building. About 50 officers – a mix of Richmond police, Virginia state police, and Virginia Capitol police – patrolled the grounds and the area where protesters had gathered.
This year, Lobby Day is taking place in a highly polarized climate, after a year in which anti-racist and white nationalist demonstrators clashed across the United States, and as strident Trump supporters cling to hope he can remain in power.
Nationwide, pro-Trump demonstrations on Sunday largely fizzled after the FBI issued warnings and several states deployed the National Guard.
“We’re showing up to remind them that we’re still here,” a gun rights activist who identified himself only as Trevor, told Reuters outside the Virginia statehouse on Sunday evening, walking the perimeter to help plan the protest.
Virginians traditionally petition their lawmakers on Lobby Day at the start of the state’s General Assembly session, with the VCDL taking a leading role in recent years.
The VCDL’s Van Cleave had predicted that demonstrators would come from as far away as New York and Texas. His group says it planned to petition state lawmakers to loosen gun curbs, as it had done during many Lobby Days in the past.
“We’ve been doing this for 25 years,” Van Cleve added. “We’ve never had a single problem. No arrests, nothing.”