The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Pro-gun caravan hits Richmond streets without incident; extremist groups protest peacefully

A gun rights advocate walks near a closed Virginia Capitol on Monday in Richmond. (Julia Rendleman for The Washington Post)

RICHMOND — The pro-gun caravan that was supposed to send thousands of vehicles pouring into Virginia's capital on Monday turned out to be a sporadic affair, as clusters of flag-bedecked cars and trucks were slowed by the humbling force of traffic lights.

“We were hoping it would have a continuous flow, like a funeral procession,” gun rights advocate Kevin Hulbert said, standing on a street corner with several supporters holding “Don’t Tread on Me” flags.

Instead, groups of pro-gun vehicles passed intermittently along Broad Street, too few in number to dominate traffic and separated from one another by the need to stop for red lights. A day officials had feared could descend into anti-government violence settled into something stranger, as a sideshow of heavily armed protest groups held competing news conferences outside Capitol Square before throngs of media and an even greater number of police.

The federal holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is traditionally known as Lobby Day in Richmond, a time for citizens to visit their lawmakers soon after the General Assembly begins its annual session.

In recent years, the Virginia Citizens Defense League (VCDL) has dominated the day with a pro-gun agenda — last year bringing some 20,000 activists to Richmond, including self-styled militia groups from all over the country.

This year’s event was converted into a vehicle caravan, partly in response to restrictions against public gatherings to slow the coronavirus’s spread but also because gun-control groups snapped up the public event permits before the VCDL could register.

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Officials feared the gun caravan would attract extremists bent on mayhem in the wake of the Jan. 6 mob attack on the U.S. Capitol and amid threats of violence and demonstrations at state capitols across the country. Downtown streets were closed off and blocked by dump trucks; metal barricades ringed the elegant Virginia Capitol building, its windows boarded up; and hundreds of police officers filled the area. National Guard troops were on standby.

“Uneventful,” state Public Safety Secretary Brian Moran said by text message as events wound down. “A few armed pedestrians but no issues so far.”

Outside the Science Museum of Virginia, where the state Senate convened at noon in a large room that allows for social distancing, the first part of the caravan passed just after midday. The slogan “Guns Save Lives” was plastered onto cars and pickup trucks, along with images of assault-style weapons on fluttering flags. Some drivers leaned on their horns.

“It’s not last year, but it’s still a statement,” said one man holding a roll of orange VCDL stickers who refused to give his name, citing the recent social unrest.

At the Virginia Capitol early Monday, members of the media initially far outnumbered demonstrators. Over the course of a chilly morning, small groups of extravagantly armed people began showing up on the street outside the barricades. Often it was hard to tell what they were advocating.

One group of five men in military garb and carrying assault-style rifles said they were just buddies who like guns — and like to kiss one another, as two kept demonstrating for reporters who eagerly snapped photos.

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At one point, a colorfully dressed squad of self-styled “boogaloo boys” — extremists who have called for race war and like to wear tropical shirts — held court with reporters just uphill from a cluster of dark-clad men holding Proud Boys banners.

In the most tense moment of the morning, someone yelled out: “Proud Boys, go home!”

“Say it to my face,” one of the Proud Boys responded, and began running into the crowd to find his detractor.

He didn’t find the person, and peace returned quickly — under the watchful eyes of scores of city and capitol police.

Though signs around town said it was illegal to carry weapons under new city ordinances, the protesters ignored them, and police made no issue of it.

“We’re not going to comply with unconstitutional city ordinances,” said Mike Dunn, 20, who pointed out that the high-capacity long rifle he was carrying was in violation. Dunn leads a Virginia group he says is affiliated with the boogaloo movement.

He said the group would not provoke violence but was prepared for it. “You should always expect violence,” Dunn said. He added that the attack on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of President Trump this month was wrong — but only because he thinks it was carried out for a misguided purpose.

“Making government fear you is definitely the right thing to do all the time,” he said. “The wrong reason is doing it for another tyrant — Trump.”

By early afternoon, with the VCDL caravans passing a few blocks away, a group of about 20 Black Panthers showed up and stood in formation near the Virginia Capitol. Many held weapons.

They glared pointedly away from a group of Proud Boys across the street. The Proud Boys have been connected with white-supremacist beliefs, but those in Richmond on Monday insisted that they were not racists.

Walking past the Black Panthers, one Proud Boy called out, “Hey, God bless you guys.”

Later, as the Black Panthers marched around a city block, the boogaloo boys raised their fists in what they said was solidarity. The Panthers didn’t respond. But one member, asked about the significance of the day, said: “It’s Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. That’s what it is.”

Across town, at the massive statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee that Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has ordered removed, Black Lives Matter supporters held a cookout in honor of King. Police prevented vehicles from accessing the streets around the statue, which has become the focal point of the city’s social-justice demonstrations.

With nearby streets blocked to all but foot traffic, there was no way for the gun rights caravan to roll past. A planned right-wing rally to “defend” the monument never materialized.

Those bracing for confrontation saw only a brief internal squabble over whether the people grilling food should blast recorded music, while Isaiah Prince “Trombone” Robinson was playing his horn on the Lee statue’s graffiti-covered base.

Tensions rose around 3:30 p.m., when a White man in a red “Make America Great Again” hat walked toward the circle. Black Lives Matter supporters approached, and photographers swarmed. But it turned out that Doug Matze Jr., 71, a retired credit union employee who had driven up from Chesterfield to take part in the gun rights caravan, had only stumbled on the gathering.

“I saw the smoke [from the cookout], and I thought it might be tear gas, so I was wondering if something was going on,” he said minutes later. “But once they realized I wasn’t here to stir up trouble, they were friendly, even offered me some of the food over there.”