Virginia Authorities Brace For Violence At Richmond Gun-Rights Rally

Jan 20, 2020
Originally published on January 20, 2020 7:26 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

This morning, thousands of gun rights activists are gathering in Richmond, Va., for a rally in support of the Second Amendment. This rally is an annual event. It's part of a Virginia tradition known as Lobby Day. This year, though, authorities are getting ready for the possibility of violence. The governor has even declared a state of emergency. NPR's Hannah Allam is in Richmond, and she's with me now. Good morning, Hannah.

HANNAH ALLAM, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: Where are you, and what have you been seeing this morning?

ALLAM: Well, right now I'm a block from the rally site. I'm actually in a building that's overlooking the Capitol. And so you can see down below this huge crush of people. I've actually just come from down there, from the crowd. And yeah, it's just, you know, guns everywhere - long guns, hand guns, body armor, Civil War uniforms, Revolutionary costumes. I interviewed one guy, asked for his name, and he said George Washington. So, you know, it's a really big and colorful crowd. One guy had a big banner - pro-Second Amendment banner. And he was, you know, walking around, getting autographs from all the people to show kind of, you know, the diversity of where people have come from for this event. In addition to several states, he had autographs from Liverpool, England, and Iceland.

KING: This rally is an annual event. It happens every year, and yet this year something is different. The authorities were worried enough to declare a state of emergency. What are they so concerned about?

ALLAM: We don't know exactly the nature of the threat that led to the state of emergency. But we do know that there were lots of groups making noise about coming. And these are groups that are of concern to law enforcement. They range from some of the more militant militia groups to white nationalist groups and some militant leftists.

KING: And, Hannah, I know that you went to a private event last night, a private militia event. Let's take a listen to some of your reporting.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Good evening, everybody. And welcome to the State of the Militia 2020. This will be our first, not our last.

ALLAM: At a rural lodge half an hour outside of Richmond, 75 or so militia members are gathering on the eve of the gun rights rally downtown. They're eating corned beef and cabbage at banquet tables. Pretty much everyone in the room is armed. The centerpieces are glass jars filled with red carnations, American flags and ammunition.

TAMMY LEE: I think it's cute, kind of describes freedom in the most simplest way, right?

ALLAM: That's Tammy Lee. She's one of the organizers of the State of the Militia event. She warns that not everybody is happy that a few journalists have shown up. In fact, she doesn't really want us here.

LEE: I don't really like reporters, to be honest with you. So it's hard to allow me to have you guys here, to be honest.

ALLAM: But letting outsiders into an intimate event like this, they decided, is the only way to fight what they call the distortion of their movement. Yes, most of the people here are committed to armed rebellion if the government tries to take their guns. No, they say, they aren't white supremacists or bigots.

LEE: We're now moving toward what we call the American movement, which is neutral people, constitutionalists, you know, people who don't hate. They welcome all sexes and races and creeds and religions and - you know, so that's part of what we're doing here tonight. But that's what we're doing out in public. That's what we're doing out at these events now.

ALLAM: One of the speakers, John Cody, head of the South Carolina Light Foot Militia, brought dozens of members to Richmond. Some of them were also in Charlottesville in 2017. Cody said his group learned hard lessons from that deadly weekend.

JOHN CODY: I think the whole - the narrative and the perspective has changed a little bit. Charlottesville was more of a white supremacist or whatever that were there. This is about the Constitution, about people's constitutional rights.

ALLAM: The mood at the gathering is festive, but there's an undercurrent of tension. Maybe the rally will go off without a hitch, and all the fears will be for nothing. But Tammy Lee knows there are instigators both on the right and the left, she says, who want to mess up the day for everybody.

KING: OK, so that was a lot that you heard there. When you left this meeting, what did you take away from it.

ALLAM: I guess the big takeaway for me is just the sheer number of different factions that were there. And I think it's a microcosm of the crowd that's going to be at the rally today. Labeling these groups as difficult is not as easy as saying that's mainstream. That's extreme.

KING: NPR's Hannah Allam in Richmond, thank you.

ALLAM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.