RICHMOND, Va. -- The bell tower at Richmond’s Capitol Square is typically the center point for advocates and activists during Virginia’s annual Lobby Day event, where citizens usually meet with lawmakers to lobby on various topics.
In 2021, the day invited a hodgepodge of people, from gun rights advocates to members of extremist groups to hordes of people with cameras and plenty of police.
The day brought an air of tension to downtown Richmond after officials had urged people to avoid the area because of threats of violence against state capitols leading up to the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden.
“We deal with gun rights in Virginia. That’s it,” said Philip Van Cleave, President of the pro-gun group Virginia Citizens Defense League.
VDCL urged their supporters to travel to Richmond Monday but to do so in a caravan of cars that rolled through downtown with signs and flags promoting 2nd Amendment rights. Van Cleave said after last year’s lobby day, where 20,000 mostly armed individuals flooded the State Capitol grounds, they expected their supporters would not create a disturbance.
“Liberty and freedom are worth the risk to be here today. We cannot hide and not lobby the government because somebody might do something,” he said.
Gathering on various street corners near the State Capitol, members of various anti-government extremist groups, including the “boogaloo” movement, stood in militia-like outfits and carried long guns. Most of those groups, however, were outnumbered by the throngs of people with cameras following along and documenting them.
"In pure defiance of this unconstitutional city ordinance,” said Mike Dunn, a self-described leader in the boogaloo movement. Dunn told the assembled cameras that they did not support the approach of groups like VCDL.
Despite posting signs throughout downtown Richmond banning weapons near permitted events or those that would require a permit, many of those around the Capitol were allowed to openly carry. Richmond Police put out a statement on social media addressing the issue, seemingly saying the groups were small enough that officers could not intervene.
“In reference to city ordinance banning firearms at gatherings where posted, firearms are banned at permitted events/events that would require a permit. Gatherings that would require a permit are groups of 11+ people obstructing pedestrian/vehicular traffic in vicinity of signs,” RPD wrote on Twitter. “As a reminder, Virginia is and remains an open carry state. The RPD recognizes the public’s right to assemble and will enforce all laws appropriately.”
Due to the threat and potential for violence in Richmond, traditional Lobby Day events like the vigil to remember Virginians lost to gun violence were moved online this year. Gun control advocates who pushed to help pass a slew of laws they call common-sense gun safety measures said their message is often distorted by their opponents.
"The government’s going to come and take all your guns! When I’ve been in rooms where all they said if you’re suicidal, you need to lose your gun rights for 14 days, if you’re deemed a harm or threat to someone else,” said Dr. Emanuel Harris, Pastor of Jerusalem Baptist Church during the virtual vigil.
Monday ended without incident, though some expressed dismay on social media that they felt threatened enough to avoid the downtown areas because of the presence of armed groups.
“It’s kind of tense times right now,” said Farhan Ahmad, who works at VCU Medical Center and walked through the scene. “Just walked by and heard people having conversation about politics and such.”
Ahmand said he did feel nervous seeing several people walking around with weapons, and that he is thankful all he saw was conversations.
"I’m thankful for that, and I hope it stays that way. We need things to kind of cool down a little bit,” he said.