Virginia Gun Rally Was Only Peaceful Because Of Preventative Measures
Mark Potok is an expert on the American radical right who was a senior official at the Southern Poverty Law Center civil rights organization for 20 years and is now a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right.
In the end, no one was shot. But it wasn’t for want of trying.
The right-wing media spent much of last week — when they weren’t busy decrying the ongoing impeachment trial of President Trump — crowing that January 20’s massive gun rights rally in Richmond, Va., had been “peaceful.”
And it’s true that some 22,000 demonstrators, huge numbers of them toting semi-automatic weapons, body armor and other military gear, managed to protest gun control measures now in the Virginia Legislature without anyone being killed — even though the self-described “extremist” who hosted the rally explicitly welcomed militias and other radical-right groups to join the protest.
But the boasting was wildly misplaced. In fact, in the days before the Richmond rally, the FBI arrested seven men who were connected to the radical-right group “The Base,” a name that is a rough English translation of Al Qaeda. Three of them, according to prosecutors, were planning to attend the Richmond rally with apparent intentions to ignite violence. One had explosives expertise.
One of the men had stated in a video that “all you gotta do is start making things go wrong and Virginia can spiral out to fucking full blown civil war.” Another said, “If you want the white race to survive, you’re going to have to do your fucking part.” One spoke of “literally hunting people” in Richmond.
The FBI also warned that extremists had been talking extensively about plans to attend the rally. Many of them spoke in online forums of starting “the second Civil War.” Others urged gun activists to come heavily armed because of supposed plans by Antifa demonstrators to violently attack their antagonists.
As a result, virtually no counter-demonstrators appeared in Richmond. Much of the downtown business establishment shut down in anticipation of violence. A judge upheld the governor’s prohibition on guns inside the rally perimeter, although they were allowed nearby. Several liberal groups, including a pro-gun control nonprofit, canceled plans to hold their own demonstrations.
The right-wing media also sneered at news media and authorities who warned of white supremacist violence similar to what occurred in a 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., where a neo-Nazi murdered a woman and injured scores of others by driving into a crowd. There were plenty of non-white pro-gun demonstrators, they claimed. In fact, the huge crowd was overwhelmingly white and male, with only a tiny smattering of people of color. Members of several white supremacist groups were far more visible in the swollen crowds.
There’s a reason for this. For decades now, the American radical right has been tied to an extreme interpretation of the Second Amendment, which says that “the right to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed” — a view that weapons up to and including fully automatic rifles should be freely available to all citizens.
The militia movement of the 1990s, remnants of which still exist, was centered around guns. Its organizations routinely appeared at gun shows around the country. Its rhetoric was focused on the claim that the real purpose of arming the civilian population was to keep the federal government in check. A core belief was that the government was secretly planning to confiscate citizens’ arms in a nationwide sweep. And even the purportedly more “mainstream” National Rifle Association, an immensely wealthy and powerful lobbying group, embraced the radical views of the militias.
In 1995, a top official of the NRA slandered federal law enforcement agents as “jack-booted thugs” who wore “Nazi bucket helmets and black storm trooper uniforms” and wanted to “attack law-abiding citizens.” The rhetoric was so over the top that President George H.W. Bush, a Republican, publicly quit the NRA. Later, the group accused President Bill Clinton of allowing people to be killed by guns in order to drum up support for gun control. During Barack Obama’s first campaign for president, it suggested that he planned to confiscate all guns.
The bottom line of the Richmond rally was not that the thousands who gathered there were mainstream Americans. It was, instead, a prime example of how extremism has increasingly become commonplace in American life.
One look at Philip Van Cleave, the organizer of the rally and the head of Virginia Citizens Defense League, makes that fairly clear. In 2018, the satirist Sasha Baron Cohen posed as a gun rights activist and interviewed Van Cleave for his “Who Is America” television show. Before it was over, a clueless Van Cleave had agreed to film a gun-training video for preschoolers, “Kinder Guardians,” complete with weapons named “Poppy Pistol” and “Gunny Rabbit.”
It was thoughtful police work in controlling crowds, a remarkable last-minute intervention by the FBI, a ban on weapons inside the protest perimeter, and the lack of counter-protesters, that were responsible for the lack of violence in Richmond — not the bogus “moderation” of radical American gun enthusiasts.
This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world.