RICHMOND, Va.—The “Lobby Day” gun rally at the Virginia State Capitol was winding down and the crowd slowly dispersing when I came across a young man holding up a sign reading, “I have a dream of a Boogaloo.” I stopped in my tracks. “Boogaloo” is extremists’ short-hand term for what they see as a looming civil war. More discreet displays of the term were to be found for those looking for them—I had just passed by a camouflage-clad protester wearing a “Boogaloo Boys” patch—but no one had so prominently called for a rumble. But with an absence of counterprotesters—antifascist leaders made a strategic call to stay away—there was little hope for a melee.
“Were you hoping for Antifa?” I asked the man, who identified himself as Tyler Lloyd of Richmond.
“Yeah, I really wanted a shooting,” he said.
The rally, hosted by the gun-rights group Virginia Citizens Defense League, drew an estimated 22,000, according to local law enforcement, to Virginia’s capital of Richmond. While an estimated 6,000 decided to enter the grounds of the capitol, where guns were not allowed as a result of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s issued state of emergency, many more decided to roam the streets outside of the Capitol grounds with their firearms. The VCDL lobby day is an annual event in Richmond, but this year it drew gun enthusiasts—and a smattering of white nationalists—from across the country in answer to the governor’s support for gun-control measures. In November, control of the state legislature was won by Democrats, making passage likely. This year’s lobby day also fell on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
Decked out with AR-15 rifles, holstered pistols, and orange “GUNS SAVE LIVES” stickers, protesters in the heavily male crowd milled about the streets surrounding the capitol building in the morning chatting with other gun owners bundled up against the cold, the smell of cigarettes and cigars filling the air. “Trump 2020” flags and red “Keep America Great” hats dotted the sea of attendees, along with “2ND AMENDMENT SANCTUARY” signs and Gadsden flags. Chants caught on slowly and died quickly: “Four more years!”, “U-S-A!”,”We will not comply!” It felt a bit like a Trump rally, but more subdued.
The rally attracted not only gun-rights activists from around the county, but a host of far-right groups. After the FBI arrested three white supremacists who had discussed committing violence at the gun rally and three more for a plot to murder an anti-fascist couple in the days leading up to the rally, it appeared that many open white supremacists were scared off from attending.
With the convivial atmosphere on the day of the rally, one could have been fooled into thinking that all the comparisons to Charlottesville in the days leading up were unfounded. But in attendance, along with the many who said they came simply to advocate for guns rights, were hate groups and conspiracy theorists and their followers, including members of the Proud Boys, as well as Alex Jones of Infowars and the neo-Nazi Jovi Val. Had counterprotesters or Antifa been on hand, the day could have easily turned.
Members of the Oath Keepers, an anti-government group, covered their faces in violation of mask laws. The Proud Boys, a group with a history of violence and whose members have spread white supremacist beliefs, were also in attendance. Enrique Tarrio, the group’s Miami-based chairman, roamed the streets in shiny black shoes, a tie, and a bullet-proof vest while other Proud Boys members in yellow and black sweatshirts followed in tow, and one member sported a megaphone covered in Infowars and “Epstein didn’t kill himself” stickers.
From atop his black “battle tank”—a tricked-out humvee featuring a sunroof styled as a turret—Infowars host Alex Jones yelled conspiracy theories into a megaphone. “Northam said there would be shooting and death. He failed,” Jones yelled before climbing down from his perch on top of the truck and entering a mob of fans who followed him as he walked down the street, still shouting into his bullhorn.
Earlier that week, Jones had warned about “false flags,” preemptively claiming that any violence that might occur at the rally would be by leftist plants dressed up as white supremacists or Trump supporters. Dotting the landscape at the rally were signs admonishing “Don’t get duped by deep state false flags,” and attacking Northam.
I was following Jones when I passed by Lloyd and his “Boogaloo” sign.
“I went to Charlottesville, and I was really hoping there would be, like, more clashing between counterprotesters, but it looks like conservatives outnumbered everyone today,” Lloyd told me.
“Yeah, I really wanted a shooting. So this is really disappointing that everyone is so peaceful and organized, and I mean nothing bad happened. I guess there’s plenty of people walking with guns outside the capitol, but I don’t know, I thought there was more statements saying we were going to go storm the capitol,” he said. “This might as well been Storm Area 51 for me. This is stupid. I don’t know what all of these people wasted all their time for.”
When asked about his sign, Lloyd said he first heard of the term two weeks ago. “But it was kind of like what will it actually do to start a, you know, civil war in America? And everyone is already so divided. It’d be nice for people to finally be able to solve those problems with violence,” he said.
When I pressed him to tell more about what he meant, Lloyd said he didn’t want “too much out there on the media,” but he did go on to compare the event to Charlottesville.
“I mean, I went to Charlottesville. The National Guard were way cooler [than the muted police presence in Richmond]. I’d rather see, I don’t know, I was expecting a bigger police state,” he said. “I guess I really wanted the friction today, and it looks like everyone is just going to go get lunch now.”
Lloyd has been arrested twice before on Virginia Commonwealth University’s campus after he trespassed holding a racist sign in December 2017.
Monday’s rally ended without a violent incident, but that’s not to say that some groups weren’t hankering for a fight. The decision by groups supporting gun control and the antifascist groups to not protest the rally simply meant there was no one to turn on.