Annual Gun Rally Heats Up Tensions in Virginia Capital

Some of those arrested for ties to the Capitol insurrection have been seen at the massive annual event held in Richmond, which in recent years has drawn a mix of gun rights advocates and right-wing extremists from rural parts of the state to its liberal enclave capital.

Crowds gather for the 2020 Lobby Day in Richmond, Va., to protest gun-control laws that were later signed by Democratic Governor Ralph Northam. (Photo via Virginia Citizens Defense League/Facebook)

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — Days after Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol in an effort to stop the confirmation of President-elect Joe Biden’s win, gun-rights groups are heading to Virginia’s capital for an annual rally that shares faces and themes with the Washington mob.

The Virginia Citizens Defense League’s Lobby Day is set for Monday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in Richmond. It’s gone on peacefully for nearly two decades but last year’s rally was shaken up by the arrest of three men who planned to use the firearm-friendly event as an opportunity to start a race war. 

Peace was maintained under heightened security as thousands of heavily armed attendees flew American, Gadsden and Trump flags while members of groups like the Proud Boys and the anti-government “boogaloo” movement, who have praised President Donald Trump’s worst tendencies, milled about. 

Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio, who was spotted among the 2020 Lobby Day attendees, was arrested ahead of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot on destruction of property charges following the burning of Black Lives Matter flags at a Washington church, but charges for extended magazine possession were added after he admitted to bringing the devices, illegal in the District of Columbia, as part of a private sale. Tarrio has been released from custody but the FBI has since said his arrest was an effort to prevent an outbreak of violence.

Several Virginians were arrested in the wake of last week’s riot in Washington, and at least one of them was identified among attendees of last year’s Lobby Day.

Douglas Sweet and Cindy Fitchett, both residents of coastal Virginia towns, were arrested and charged with unlawful entry for their role in the Capitol siege. Sweet can be seen attending the 2020 Lobby Day in private photos and video reviewed by Courthouse News. He also participated in pro-Confederate monument rallies in Richmond as recently as 2018, according to an interview with Richmond outlet Style Weekly.

Robert Keith Packer was also arrested this week. A resident of Hampton, Virginia, another coastal town east of Richmond, he was photographed wearing a “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirt as he strolled through the U.S Capitol. He was reportedly taken into custody by U.S. Marshals on Wednesday but his charging documents remain under seal. It is unclear whether Packer has attended past Lobby Day events.

In addition, two Rocky Mount, Virginia, police officers, Thomas Robertson and Jacob Fracker, were charged Wednesday with unlawful entry and disorderly conduct after they admitted to entering the Capitol during the riot and taking photos of themselves.

Local ABC affiliate WSET-TV spoke with the officers, who said “they would never participate in any activity that put law enforcement officers in danger,” even after attending the riot that left one Capitol Police officer dead. 

The FBI warned the attack in Washington was not an isolated event and similar insurrections are planned for state capitals around the country. Adding to the tension, CBS News reported an FBI bulletin warned “agencies moving in to arrest suspects in the Capitol attack ‘to use caution and consider the use of SWAT when affecting the arrest.’”

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, said at a press conference Thursday that the state is working to balance the right to free speech with the heightened security risk.  

While he sent 2,000 members of the Virginia National Guard along with members of the state police force to help protect Biden’s inauguration next week, he said additional troops will be on standby to help as needed.

“If you’re planning to come here or Washington with ill intent in your heart, you need to turn around and go home,” he said. “Virginia will be ready.”

Virginia State Police, Richmond City Police and Virginia Capitol Police all referred questions about Lobby Day 2021 to a statement posted on a Twitter account for the United Command force of the agencies ahead of the event. 

“Last week’s attack on the United States Capitol and recent credible threats of violence concerning capital cities in states nationwide underscore the importance of being prepared and vigilant,” the agencies said, pledging to protect Richmond and the Virginia Capitol during Monday’s rally and beyond.   

A statement sent Wednesday afternoon from Virginia’s Department of General Services said barriers would be built around the state’s main government building, but Unified Command said no such fortifications would be erected around the nearby Science Museum, where the Virginia Senate meets. Senators will gather in a room adjacent to the building’s rotunda, which allows for social distancing. 

A second release sent out by Richmond Police similarly shows road closures around the government building but not around the Senate’s makeshift home, though a spokesperson said additional roads could be closed if the need arose. 

Crowds gather for the 2020 Lobby Day in Richmond, Va. (Photo via Virginia Citizens Defense League/Facebook)

Philip Van Cleave, president of Virginia Citizens Defense League, or VCDL, said he’s taking steps to cool down the temperature at the annual rally.

The coronavirus outbreak has forced most of the state’s legislative session online, creating a barrier between citizens and elected officials that has impeded Lobby Day’s goal of advocating for legislation. To address the lack of access, Van Cleave designed the 2021 event to be a caravan-style parade of trucks and busses bearing pro-gun messages.

“We’re not going to do anything with people getting out of their cars to lobby, but we’re encouraging members to contact their legislators individually,” Van Cleave said in a phone interview. “Monday is all about a generic message about gun rights.”

The anger Van Cleave and VCDL members are expressing is linked to the recent power shift in the Virginia Legislature, which saw Democrats take control of both chambers and the executive branch for the first time in decades. This allowed stalled gun-control measures like red-flag laws and expanded background checks to make it to the governor’s desk for the first time, after years of Republican roadblocks.  

Van Cleave and other Second Amendment activists have argued the changes pushed by the Democratic majorities could lead to the government taking guns from citizens.

Numbers show 2020 was likely a record year for firearm sales in the commonwealth, as background checks were up 83% by the end of October compared to the same period in 2019.

The National Rifle Association, based in northern Virginia, had long aided in the state GOP’s legislative blockade, but the organization’s waning influence, caused partly by financial impropriety claims by the state of New York, has allowed groups like the VCDL to rise in its place. 

Now boasting tens of thousands of members and a large footprint on Facebook, Van Cleave’s annual Lobby Day has become a meeting place for a mix of firearm enthusiasts and those who espouse political ideologies that led to the violence in Washington.  

But Van Cleave promised a safe event and claimed he has a direct line to members of the Unified Command, which was not confirmed by the police agencies.  

“We can contact them and they can contact us if anybody needs anything,” Van Cleave said.  

The VCDL’s promises to keep the event peaceful appear to have fallen on deaf ears with social media giant Facebook. Following the Capitol riot, the company removed Van Cleave’s personal Facebook account as well as the Lobby Day event page. 

As for legislators, only the Virginia Senate and its 39 members, down one due to Covid-19, are still meeting in person during the 30-day session, while the state’s House of Delegates will meet entirely online. 

Among those in Richmond this year will be Senator Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax. The General Assembly’s main building will remain closed to the public and press during the coronavirus-marred session, but Boysko spoke with Courthouse News on a nearby sidewalk and said she was confident police will keep her and other lawmakers safe. 

“I also hope people who are interested in participating in [Lobby Day] realize we are people in the community who are working on their behalf, we’re public servants and have families and people who rely on us,” she said behind a mask as the brisk winter wind whipped through the street. 

Van Cleave’s mobile lobbying event will also be missing some of its usual counter-protesters. 

Kristopher “Goad” Gatsby, an anti-racist activist, has come toe-to-toe with Lobby Day attendees over the last two years. Gatsby tracks hate groups in and around Virginia and the country and took part as a counter-protester in the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, which left one woman, Heather Heyer, dead. 

“Most of their events are pretty tame, with exceptions of course,” Gatsby said of the VCDL.

While he usually brazenly attends events held by the Proud Boys, boogaloo movement and other groups, he’s leaning towards not attending this year’s Lobby Day.

“I’m worried democratically elected officials are going to be executed because of their legislative efforts,” he said, noting other groups have latched onto the VCDL’s annual event.

“I don’t think Van Cleave wants to end the democratic process, or have people storm the building,” the full-time chef said, suggesting Van Cleve was more interested in the “gun economy.” 

“But for people who follow the VCDL, who genuinely believe tyrants are going to come and take their guns, we’re at risk of those people overreacting,” he added.

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