Virginia gun rights rally attracts massive American militia turnout
Bearded men in camouflage were the most conspicuous group on the streets around Virginia's state capitol ground in Richmond on Monday for the city's pro-gun "Lobby Day" rally.
Most of those in military garb marched with AK-styled rifles slung across their shoulders as they made their way through the densely packed crowd.
The rally was planned in reaction to lawmakers in Virginia working to pass legislation that seeks mandatory background checks and monthly caps on gun purchases.
Last week the state's Democratic governor, Ralph Northam, declared a temporary state of emergency and banned firearms and other weapons from the state capitol grounds out of fear that extremist groups were planning an attack.
Due to the ban, the vast majority of protesters chose to march outside the capitol grounds.
Local police reported that around 6,000 demonstrators entered the gated area; meanwhile 16,000 more chose to march in the streets where they were free to carry their guns.
While the protest ended peacefully, Northam's fears were not unwarranted.
At least six men were arrested in Georgia, Maryland and Delaware over the weekend, all allegedly involved with a white supremacist group known as The Base. Authorities reported that the men were suspected of planning an attack against counter protesters at the rally.
In the end, the counter protest was cancelled due to safety concerns.
In the lead up to Monday's rally, Richmond's "Lobby Day" was being compared to the deadly "Unite the Right" march that happened in nearby Charleston in 2017.
Unlike Charleston's rally, there was no violence reported in Richmond on Monday, and there were very few overt signs of white nationalism or Nazi propaganda.
Instead, apparent white nationalists were more subtle, waving flags and wearing patches with the symbols of far-right groups like the Proud Boys and various white nationalist militias such as the III Percenters and Oath Keepers.
Others wore meme-inspired far-right symbols like Pepe the Frog, a cartoon character appropriated by the internet's racist underbelly.
Red Knights Templar crosses and other mediaeval symbols adopted by American extremist groups were also patched onto the outfits of many demonstrators throughout the march.
Although the march unfolded largely without incident, protesters were not shy about threatening violence against the government, were it to try to come for their guns.
In fact, that's what all the military clothes and gun-toting was about, one protester told Middle East Eye.
"The point is intimidation," Chris Johnson said, pulling down an American flag mask that protected his face from Monday's freezing temperatures.
"If the government is scared of the people, then it will no longer think that we can be controlled," Johnson said.
"They are our representatives - they represent us, they don't own us."
Johnson travelled to Richmond all the way from the Midwestern state of Indiana, he said, pointing to the large Indiana state flag he brought to the rally.
While the protest was aimed at Virginian legislation, like Johnson, most of the protesters at the rally said they see gun rights as a national issue.
Paul Miller, 31, also travelled to Richmond for the rally.
A New Jersey resident, Miller said he did not trust the media to give an honest account of what happened at the rally and needed to see for himself.
"I knew the media was going to lie, so I wanted to come out here and get footage of the peaceful march and stand with everyone here to do what needs to be done," Miller said.
Decked out in full military gear, including a bullet-proof vest, a large rifle and a helmet equipped with a body camera, Miller said he wore his militia gear to protect himself in case violence erupted from counter-protesters or false flag attacks.
Miller, who wore a Knights Templar cross on his chest, said rumours of planned white supremacy attacks at the rally were invented to scare people off.
In fact, Miller cast doubt over the existence of any white supremacy movement in America.
"There is no white supremacy, this idea that there's a bunch of white people going around saying 'we're so much better than you - no'," Miller said.
"What we're saying is we believe in Western culture and Western values, and the left try to twist that. They say by Western value we mean white values, but what we mean is European Christian values … that doesn't necessarily mean you're white, there's all types of people who live in the West."
Still, some critics argue that "Western civilisation" is merely a dog whistle for more direct advocacy for white supremacy.
Case in point is Republican Congressman Steve King, who for years sang platitudes in defence of "western civilisation" before being rebuked by his own party as a racist after explicitly defending white supremacy.
Miller said he thought most of the people at the march would agree with his assessment.
"If you asked everybody here, 99 percent of the people are going to tell you that Western values built this country, and they have set the world on a course for the better good for centuries," he said.
Chad Barrett, another protester, had a very different view.
"Yeah, there may be white nationalists here, but that's unfortunate," the 36-year-old Virginia native said.
"The Second Amendment applies to everyone of every race, of every gender and of every background," Barrett said.
"I wish that everyone could come support the Second Amendment together and leave their hateful ideology at home, leave that for another time - that's not why I am here," he continued.
Barrett is not part of any particular militia group, but he said he and other gun-rights enthusiasts in his area meet up from time-to-time to train and shoot, just in case a militia is ever needed.
The Second Amendment of the US Constitution guarantees citizens the right to bear arms. But proponents of strict gun regulations say easy access to deadly weapons is perpetuating an epidemic that is killing thousands of Americans every year.
"I don't want war," Barrett said. "A lot of people are saying that we're the ones perpetuating war, but it's really in the control of the government. As long as the government respects the right that the citizens have, then there won't be war and we can all get along fine."
Essentially, Barrett said Virginian gun owners take the Second Amendment very literally in that they believe the government has no right to limit access to any arms of any sort.
They just want to be left to have their guns in peace, he said.
"All that we ask is that our rights be respected and just leave us alone. My gun has never killed anyone; I have never killed anyone, so I don't understand why there's a need to go after these guns of people who have never killed anyone," Miller said.
"We should really be going after the people who are perpetuating violence and crime and go after them."