MONDAY, JANUARY 18, 2021, RICHMOND, VIRGINIA — The revolution was occupied by the absurd on Monday. A day officials feared would descend into anti-government violence instead stumbled into a surreal pageant of YouTube celebrities dressed in colorful wigs and clownish outfits interviewing heavily armed militias. All had converged on the state Capitol of Virginia, the gun rights activists openly defying city ordinances a year after Governor Ralph Northam had banned the open display of firearms at protests in the Capitol area.
It was a day of calls for unity among disparate groups — Boogaloo Bois, Proud Boys, local militias, and an independent Black Lives Matter gun club — that share no inherent politics except a profound, almost religious reverence for protecting their right to bear arms. They had all come with a clear public relations agenda.
The New York Times and Reuters were there, too, alongside the YouTube personalities, the media far outnumbering police and protestors. Reporters asked grave questions about the state of American democracy. Camera crews from all over — Japan, the Netherlands, France — tailed the milling militias, fascinated by the spectacle of an America fracturing in armed revolt.
“It’s all bullshit,” said a reporter, who asked not to be named so his opinion would not break the line of neutrality his news organization prizes. “This is about normalizing guns at protests. The politics of the absurd are a key part of fascism. We’re all buying into it.”
Some Virginia residents call this annual protest “Lobby Day,” because it comes early in the General Assembly of Virginia’s annual legislative session. Since 2002, thousands of mostly second-amendment hard-liners, many of whom come armed, swarm the state Capitol, demanding that the government loosen restrictions on guns. Lobby Day was scheduled to coincide each year with Martin Luther King Jr. Day because, as one gun rights site states, “Many people are off work, street parking is free, and the Delegates and Senators are in their offices.”
One wonders what the towering civil rights advocate, who preached and practiced nonviolent protest during the 1950s and ’60s, and who was slain with a Remington rifle 52 years ago, might have thought of such a dubious tribute.
One mile down the road from the militias, the media throngs, and the BLM gun rights group marching under a “Fred Hampton Gun Club” banner, a small and peaceful assembly organized by the local Black Lives Matter chapter was staging a cookout around a 60-foot-tall stone and bronze equestrian statue of General Robert E. Lee.
The Confederate commander is now draped in a BLM flag. The statue sits in the middle of a traffic rotunda, which was occupied last summer at the height of the George Floyd protests. The stone base is covered with graffiti reading “BLM” and adorned with portraits of Floyd.
These two assemblies, one for gun rights and one for civil rights, have peacefully coexisted since 2002. But this year, with the country on edge two days before the inauguration of Joe Biden, officials mounted an aggressive defense. A brigade of state police circled the street at the base of the state Capitol, perched high on a rolling hill and sectioned off with steel fencing; the lower windows of the Capitol building were boarded with plywood. The National Guard had been activated days in advance. A state police helicopter hovered overhead.
But despite all of this, the day began with a brash display of defiance of Richmond’s rule of law. Mike Dunn, the leader of the Virginia faction of the Boogaloo Bois — an extremist group with fantasies of civil war against the government — marched his unit of about a dozen armed troops, clad in Hawaiian shirts and carrying assault-style rifles, to the threshold of the gun-free zone. Dunn then turned to address the crowd of police and armed militia groups, holding a battered “GUN FREE ZONE” sign, which had been ripped from a lamppost, over his head.
“This means infringement on our second amendment,” he proclaimed. Then he threw the sign at the feet of a police officer, who did not react. “This means we don’t care,” he added.
A reporter in the crowd asked what would happen if the police arrested them for breaking the local gun laws. “We will exercise our second amendment the way it was intended to prevent that from happening. We will defend ourselves. I hope that paints a picture for you.”
The police stood idly by as Dunn turned and commanded his unit to pass through the gun-free zone and up the hill to the fences encircling the Capitol. Some of the officers shifted uncomfortably, others looked on with loathing, though most just presented blank stares.
But the final battle would be for media attention. Mike Dickinson, who owns a local strip club and consistently fails to be elected to Richmond’s 1st District City Council, marched into the rally spewing anti-government rhetoric, shouting through his bullhorn that the boarded-up Capitol “looks like a ghetto.” A wannabe YouTube celebrity named Crackhead Barney, who earns views from her 800 subscribers by attending far-right events and asking absurd questions, trailed close behind him.
Performing for her camera crew, Barney did three takes of her opening act, pulling an American flag from her underwear. Then she approached the Boogaloo Bois for an interview as they stood calmly in armed formation with police ranked behind them. When I asked why they chose to pose in front of the police, a Boogaloo Boi named Peezy said casually to me, “We thought it would be a meme-able picture. Plus, I think a lot of them are glad we’re openly defying gun laws in their city.”
Barney approached Dunn, and in front of her camera crew and about 30 other journalists, asked, “So, why are you here?”
The Boogaloo Bois leader spoke in the sly, quick vernacular of the internet culture that birthed their movement. He was well equipped to match the absurdity of Crackhead Barney.
“We’re here to support an armed revolution against the government,” Dunn said matter-of-factly.
“That’s scary,” she replied, adding that she, as a black woman, would be arrested for saying the same.
Dunn cocked his head. “Can you do me a favor?” he asked. “I want you to say it.”
For a brief moment, Crackhead Barney broke character, analyzing the risk of what she was about to say. She then snapped back into it.
“I want to do an armed revolution against the government,” she said into the camera. ❖