Anti-fascist activists will not mount a counter-protest at a gun rights rally at Virginia’s state capitol on Monday that is expected to attract thousands, including white supremacists and anti-government militia groups.
Anti-fascists from Richmond and Charlottesville publicly advised supporters to avoid the rally altogether, citing serious safety concerns. Molly Conger, a journalist and activist, told the Guardian activists in Charlottesville had agreed to encourage supporters to stay away.
“There is no counter-demonstration planned for the 20 January convergence of armed militias on Virginia’s capitol,” Conger wrote on Twitter on Saturday. “Conditions [on] Monday will not be safe. This is not an outcome we can affect.”
Anti-fascist groups cited several reasons for their decision, including serious threats of violence, their own opposition to some gun control measures proposed by the Virginia government and concern for ordinary gun owners planning to attend the rally.
A number of arrests have highlighted the risk of white supremacist violence at the event. Among those arrested are alleged members of a neo-Nazi group, including men who reportedly discussed opening fire at the Richmond rally, and men who were charged with plotting to murder an antifascist couple in Georgia.
As white supremacists, militia groups and conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones announced plans to attend, the event has drawn comparisons to the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in August 2017, which produced extensive violence and the murder of counter-protester Heather Heyer.
Some local activists who monitor the far right, however, said there were clear differences this time.
“The Charlottesville event was, from the beginning, an event by neo-Nazis and for neo-Nazis,” a Twitter account run anonymously by a longtime Richmond anti-fascist activist said on Saturday.
“There were no other players. Everyone going into that event knew exactly who would be participating and there wasn’t the risk of 5,000 unknowing subjects caught in the middle.”
In contrast, Monday is Lobby Day, an annual event organized by a gun rights group, the Virginia Citizens Defense League, that attracts a range of local residents.
“I expect a lot of the participants to be older, working class Virginians that are not far-right and do not fit into the category of any hate group,” the anonymous anti-fascist activist who runs the Richmond Twitter account told the Guardian. “Part of the concern is their safety.”
The activist said many locals showing up to the rally will likely have had no experience with volatile protest environments.
As conspiracy theories about what “antifa” activists might do at Lobby Day continue to circulate on the right, one Richmond-based anti-fascist group has publicly pushed back against such rumors.
“Hey! Antifascists are NOT bussing [people] in,” Antifa Seven Hills wrote on Twitter. “In fact we are encouraging folks to stay away from the capitol and downtown [Richmond] because of far-right escalations like this.”
In a direct message, the group told the Guardian: “We are against the [gun control] legislation and the racists attempting to take advantage of this typically calm and multi-issue lobby day.”
Skepticism about government gun control is a point of agreement between rightwing activists and some US leftists, who argue that marginalized Americans should have the right to defend themselves with firearms.
Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, said last week his supporters had been told antifa “is actually on our side of the fence, because they don’t like these gun laws either”.
“If they show, it’s not going to be to protest us,” Van Cleave told the Guardian on Wednesday.
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