RICHMOND, Va. — Despite fears of violence and a country on edge ahead of the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden, gun rights activists rallied outside the Virginia Capitol on Monday, drawing in right-wing groups increasingly hostile toward the government and openly armed in defiance of the law.
They came to Richmond flying flags and shouting slogans, a volatile collection of extremists and militants whose politics and rancor have unsettled the nation in recent weeks. Among the first to arrive were the Boogaloo Bois, then the white nationalist Proud Boys, the Black Panthers and several Virginia militias. All brandished AR 15-style rifles and deep suspicions that Democrats under Biden would tighten gun regulations.
Some armed activists gathered outside the cordoned-off Capitol, ignoring a gun-free zone where protesters were not supposed to openly carry firearms. Dozens of Capitol, city and state police patrolled along metal barricades but didn’t confront the protesters.
The annual rally — held on the state Legislature’s lobbying day — usually draws more than 20,000 people, but was scaled back by the grassroots Virginia Citizens Defense League this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some stood shoulder to shoulder, but hundreds of other gun rights proponents from across the state drove in caravans in solidarity through the streets of this former Confederate capital.
But a united cause quickly gave way to tensions. A dozen Boogaloo Bois, wearing signature Hawaiian shirts and patches revealing their alliance with Black Lives Matter, cheered as Black Panthers marched past. The Proud Boys taunted the Boogaloo Bois. The Panthers condemned America’s racist past even as others in the crowd blamed the Black Lives Matter movement for defacing Confederate monuments. Some decried the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol in support of President Donald Trump while others said they had participated in it.
Tom Speciale, 52, a government contractor and Army veteran, said he feared a movement by liberals to regulate guns would gain momentum under Biden.
“If they can disarm you,” he said, “they can control you.”
Speciale joined the Jan. 6 rally in support of Trump, but he said he didn’t break into the Capitol with others in the mob, adding that those who did should be investigated for “potentially criminal acts.”
“People’s passions are very high,” Speciale said. “They ultimately got taken advantage of by agitators.”
Throughout Monday afternoon, in a city that once epitomized the Old South, men and women with rifles stood their ground 110 miles from the White House. The nation’s ever restless fault lines were evident. Trump was not a focus of the rally, but his specter and the divisions and rage it incites resonated. It raised questions — on a national holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. — over the threats far-right extremism and white supremacy pose in an era of widening demands for civil rights and racial justice.