RICHMOND, Va. — As gun rights activists, white nationalists and militia groups prepare to rally at the state Capitol on Monday to protest proposed gun control laws, residents are praying it won’t be a repeat of the violent 2017 rally in Charlottesville that ended in a woman's death.
The Virginia Citizens Defense League, which organizes the annual gun rights rally, said it wants a "peaceful event," but the crowd is expected to be larger than usual because Democrats took control of the Legislature last year and are proposing several gun control bills that would limit handgun purchases and require background checks, among other regulations.
The proposals come after a mass shooting in May in Virginia Beach, in which a disgruntled city employee killed 12 people in a municipal building.
“I’m very worried,” Francisca Benavides, a student at Virginia Commonwealth University, said.
Benavides, who's studying photography at the 31,000-student public research university, wanted to attend the rally to document it but is having second thoughts after Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, declared a state of emergency last week in anticipation of the event. He said "credible intelligence" indicated the rally would draw armed militias and hate groups.
“All my friends are trying to convince me not to attend,” Benavides said, adding she was reassured when Northam temporarily banned guns and other weapons from the grounds of the Capitol, and the state Supreme Court struck down the rally organizers' challenge to the order.
But on Thursday, three members of a neo-Nazi group called The Base, which advocates for a white ethno-state, were arrested on the East Coast, and law enforcement officials said they had been planning to attend the rally. The next day, officials announced the arrests of three men from Georgia and one from Wisconsin, all allegedly members of The Base.
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Richmond residents said they were glad to see the men apprehended, but it doesn’t do much to calm their nerves. President Donald Trump’s tweet on Friday, “Your 2nd Amendment is under very serious attack in the Great Commonwealth of Virginia,” was seen by some as a call to join Monday’s rally, further stoking anxieties.
Gabby Safley, a VCU student from Charlottesville who studies history, saw what happened to her city when neo-Nazis marched through the streets and white supremacist James Alex Fields ran over and killed counterprotester Heather Heyer in August 2017. She had friends near Fields’ car when he sped into the crowd, students she mentored were traumatized by the event, and her aunt served on the jury for Field's trial, she said.
Safley fears Monday’s rally will be Charlottesville all over again.
“I’m not surprised it’s happening,” she said, “and it wouldn’t be surprising if it turns into something like Charlottesville.”
She said she will stay away from the Capitol on Monday but is upset by the strong response to what she views as practical gun control measures.
“My family hunts, but I think gun control is necessary,” she said. “You shouldn’t be worried if you’re not doing anything illegal.”
Anthony Berrios, who lives near the Capitol, said he will stay with his girlfriend, who lives in a different part of the city, on Monday. He said the premise behind the rally is misguided.
“It’s a myth that the government is trying to take their guns away,” he said. “I just wish people would really take an objective look at what’s best for society versus what’s good for themselves.”
Just a block from the Capitol, Quisha Jefferson manages a 7-Eleven that's usually open round-the-clock, but she plans to close Sunday night and reopen Monday when calm returns.
“I’m not going to do it,” she said. “We’re going to close. We don’t want to be a part of what’s going on.”
Even if she wanted to stay open, it would be difficult for her employees to get to work because road closures forced by the rally will impede bus routes, and they are nervous about showing up for their regular Monday shifts anyway.
“I don’t want to put them in danger, and I don’t want to put myself in danger,” Jefferson said, pointing to the store’s large glass windows that she thinks would be vulnerable to attack. “I’m going to lose a lot of business, but I’d rather my workers be at home, be safe.”
Some Richmond residents, whose jobs are near Capitol Square, said they don’t want to go to work Monday either, but they have no choice. Many area businesses will be closed for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but a few retail and service employees whose workplaces will remain open still have to show up.
“We’re terrified,” said one woman, who works nearby and asked not to be named because she feared retribution from her employer.
In Jackson Ward, the city’s historically black neighborhood, Marvin Smith is taking a different approach from that of his neighbors, who are leaving town. The barbershop he owns about a mile north of Capitol Square won't be open, but he will be in his store.
“I’m going to be here for the community,” Smith said. “I want to know what’s going on and be on call.”
Organizers say thousands of people will be at the Capitol on Monday as the Virginia Citizens Defense League buses people in from across the state, while other rallygoers are expected to travel from out of state.
At her two-week-old clothing store, Serendipity, Kim Williams said her customers were talking about the rally all day Saturday. Tourists from Boston told her they had chosen the wrong weekend to visit Richmond, and a college student said her father planned a last-minute visit but couldn’t get a hotel room because they were all booked up.
“I don’t want anything to happen that will make Richmond look bad,” Williams, who has lived in the area all her life, said. Her store isn’t open Mondays, and she won’t be going near the Capitol. “I’ll be home, probably watching the news.”
Not everyone in the city feels on edge.
“A lot of it is just talk,” Sean Taplett, who works and studies in Richmond, said.
He used to live in Portland, Oregon, where anti-fascist and far-right groups often clash.
“I’m familiar with the hysteria around these events," he said. "The violence is usually self-contained.”
Taplett wants to check out the rally and see for himself what transpires.
As of Sunday, no major counterprotest had been planned, and many anti-fascist groups encouraged their members to stay away from the rally.
Gun safety groups also canceled their annual MLK Day vigil at the Capitol, citing “ongoing, credible threats to public safety that have been promoted and encouraged by gun extremists.” The vigil, which has been hosted for the last 28 years, was supposed to begin after the gun rights rally.
While Richmond residents wait to see what happens Monday, Safley, the VCU student from Charlottesville, is stuck on the fact all this is happening on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
“They really hit all the stops with this one,” she said, before referring to a phrase from the Second Amendment right to bear arms. "A ‘well-regulated militia' doesn’t mean you get to go buck-wild.”