Thousands of protesters, several of whom were heavily armed, descended on the streets of Richmond, Monday morning for a gun-rights rally opposing a host of gun-control legislation currently before the Virginia Assembly.
Protesters gathered from 7 a.m. Monday and sung the national anthem and chanted "we will not comply," hours before the rally was scheduled to begin.
People held Trump 2020 flags and gun-rights posters — at least one QAnon conspiracy flag was also spotted — and sold t-shirts calling for the removal of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam.
After some short speeches, the crowds began peacefully dispersing from the grounds of the Capitol around noon.
A 21-year-old woman was arrested shortly after the rally for refusing to remove a bandana (it is against the law in Virginia to wear masks in public).
While authorities only let those without guns inside the Capitol to protest, many armed protesters, including militia, packed the streets outside the Capitol grounds, where the gun restrictions are not in place.
Officials estimated that around 6,000 people attended the protest on Capitol Square and 16,000 attended the protest on the streets outside.
The rally, organized by the Virginia Citizens Defense League, is held every year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, to advocate for gun rights.
This year authorities feared the rally had been co-opted by extremist and hate groups, whose members have travelled across the country to participate after the Virginia state parliament flipped Democrat in the 2019 elections, with the promise of further gun regulations.
Authorities warned last week the rally had attracted "threats of violence" from hate groups, militias, and white nationalist groups who were expected to attend. Last week, multiple white supremacists were arrested in the lead up to the rally.
Authorities feared a response similar to the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville in August 2017, when a counter protester was killed and over a dozen injured after a protester drove his car into the crowd.
Northam announced last Wednesday a state of emergency — including banning all guns from the Capitol Square area — from Friday to Tuesday due to "threats of violence" from hate groups.
"We're seeing threats of violence," said Northam. "We're seeing threats of armed confrontation and assault on our capital."
Most gun-violence prevention groups and antifascist groups decided not to hold counter protests to the rally, choosing to keep away out of safety concerns. At least one small counter protest was held during Monday's rally, although their chants could barely be heard above the yells of the pro-Trump catchcry "four more years."
A group of young March for Our Lives activists slept on the floor in the offices of Representatives Dan Helmer and Chris Hurst, so they could lobby lawmakers Monday in support of tighter gun regulation without having to walk through the armed protests.
Three men the FBI identified as members of the white supremacist group "the Base" — Patrik Jordan Mathews, 27; Brian Mark Lemley Jr., 33; and William Garfield Bilbrough, 19 — were arrested last week on federal gun charges. Two of them had military experience, and Mathews fled the Canadian Army Reserve last year after it began investigating his ties to the white supremacist organization. It's believed the three had discussed traveling to Virginia for the rally.
Three other members of "the Base" were arrested in Georgia last Thursday, although it's unclear if they intended to come to Virginia.