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Virginia's Capitol Square to close on annual lobbying day

Virginia State Capitol security .jpg
Posted at 8:25 AM, Jan 13, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-13 08:25:10-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- Amid reports of possible armed protests at state capitals across the country, Virginia officials plan to close Capitol Square in Richmond to the public Monday, an annual day for constituents to lobby lawmakers.

Dena Potter, a spokeswoman for the Department of General Services, confirmed the closure and said her department had also denied permits to four advocacy groups that had been seeking to hold small gatherings on the square Monday.

“We informed them that efforts to prepare for the reported civil unrest means resources wouldn’t be available to accommodate their events,” she said.

Potter said the public would soon see security measures like fencing being put in place in the area around the Thomas Jefferson-designed Capitol. She also said the closure could be extended.

Monday, the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, is typically a chance for citizens to use a day off work to meet with their legislators in what's informally known as lobby day.

This year's event was already going to look different because of the coronavirus pandemic. The Capitol building has long been closed to the public, and when the session convenes Wednesday, House lawmakers will meet virtually and the Senate will meet offsite at a science museum. The groups seeking permits would have been limited to 10 people under restrictions imposed by Gov. Ralph Northam to control the spread of COVID-19.

Gun-rights activists typically make a large, organized appearance each year. Last year's lobby day attracted tens of thousands of gun-rights activists from across the country who packed Capitol Square to protest plans by the state’s Democratic leadership to pass gun-control legislation.

Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, said the Capitol Square closure won't affect his group's plans to make their voice heard with four “major” caravans of vehicles decked out in pro-gun messages that will drive through the capital city.

Van Cleave said he expects participants to number in the thousands and said there are no centralized plans to decamp anywhere for speeches or any kind of in-person event.

The timing of this year's lobby day coincides with the run-up to President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, when the FBI has warned about the possibility of armed protests at all 50 state capitals and in Washington, D.C.

An internal FBI bulletin warned, as of Sunday, that the nationwide protests may start later this week and extend through Biden’s Jan. 20 inauguration, according to two law enforcement officials who read details of the memo to The Associated Press.

“Armed protests are being planned at all 50 state capitols from 16 January through at least 20 January, and at the U.S. Capitol from 17 January through 20 January,” the bulletin said, according to one official. The officials were not authorized to speak publicly and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity.

The warnings have stoked fears of more bloodshed after last week’s deadly siege at the U.S. Capitol. State officials have said they are taking the threats seriously and planning accordingly.

Richmond police, Capitol police, Virginia State Police and state emergency management officials announced Tuesday they would be working together in a unified command as the legislature opened.

“Through advance planning and multi-agency cooperation, the Unified Command is prepared and has the resources to protect those who live, work and visit Richmond during the 2021 legislative session,” the entity's joint information center said in a statement Tuesday.