The stage was set for a showdown. Less than two weeks after the US Capitol building was overrun by rioters, amid calls from extremist groups for similar actions at state buildings across the country, armed protesters converged in Virginia for an annual gun rights rally.
Last year, at the same event, thousands of gun rights activists, militia groups and a handful of neo-Nazis gathered outside the Capitol building in Richmond in a show of strength to lawmakers who might consider gun control legislation. It was a peaceful affair, littered with warnings of insurrection.
In the wake of the Capitol attack in Washington DC, officials feared a repeat this year — perhaps worse. But when the day came only a small smattering of armed protesters showed up. A convoy of protesters in cars passed through without incident.
Instead, the event turned into a media frenzy for the various armed groups whose memberships have swelled during the upheaval of the Trump years, and prompted more questions than answers about their future.
In the streets outside Richmond’s Capitol building, a handful of members from the far-right Proud Boys marched past armed members of the Original Black Panthers, who subsequently marched around the block and past a gathering of Boogaloo Boys, an armed anti-government group whose members wear Hawaiian shirts — both sides raising their fists in recognition. At times, journalists outnumbered protesters.
At an event that many feared would be a follow up to attack at the US Capitol, few seemed eager to talk about it. A lone man sold t-shirts with the words “Biden is not my president.” Most stuck to the message of the day.
“The only answer to our problem, the only answer to this governmental infringement, is armed revolt. I am proudly guilty of sedition,” said Mike Dunn, a Boogaloo member, flanked by a man with a Go-Pro camera on his helmet.
They were there to protest gun control measures passed in Virginia last year, and to stand against any further legislation that they believed would infringe on their Second Amendment rights. They carried out their protest in full military attire and camouflage clothing, dressed as if they were heading for a war in a foreign land. They threatened insurrection through bullhorns as bored police officers watched on.
“We’re here openly carrying in pure defiance of this unconstitutional city ordinance,” Mr Dunn said, referring to a measure which banned the presence of guns around Capitol Square. “We’re rocking mags with double the legal limit and I do it proudly. If you want to arrest me, arrest me. If you want to charge me, charge me. But I’ll stand by the constitution.”
Police later issued a statement clarifying the ordinance only applied to groups of larger than eleven people. Mr Dunn’s group did not meet the threshold to be in violation.
Nonetheless, Mr Dunn promised that “any further gun legislation will be seen as an act of war.”
Around the corner, a member of the Proud Boys who declined to give his name said he was there to protest with anyone who was in favour of gun rights. The group, which is a haven for white supremacists, strolled by a gathering of Original Black Panthers and Black Lives Matter 757 — an armed group not affiliated with the national movement.
On any other day, there might have been a risk of violence between the two groups. But Mike Pain, who described himself as a general in the Original Black Panthers, said they were focused on their shared support for gun rights.
“We’re just focused on our task at hand. As Black people we walk through life and see these things on a regular basis, in our jobs. We’re kinda used to that. It doesn’t bother us,” he said.
“We came out to show action and be a beacon of light to all Americans and let them know you can come to a place like this regardless, never fear, arm yourselves. It’s something good for every American,” he added.
The hodgepodge of armed groups around the Richmond state capitol may not have been large in number, but federal authorities are increasingly concerned about the rising threat of extremist violence as Donald Trump’s presidency comes to an end.
The Capitol attack was led by the same hodgepodge of militias. Members of large groups like the Oathkeepers have also been arrested over the past week in relation to the attack.
The outgoing president has fanned the flames by promoting conspiracy theories about the November election, claiming falsely that it was rigged against him. His incitement fuelled the violence in Washington DC earlier this month, and is likely to continue to do so.
The capital city has been turned into a fortress ahead of Joe Biden’s inauguration on Wednesday, with a mass of road closures and checkpoints and some 25,000 National Guard troops on hand.
But for all the talk of civil war among those who attacked the Capitol and in right wing online forums since, the weekend passed without any major incident. Some groups had called for militias to take control of state Capitols across the country, but after states took precautionary security measures, none followed through.
So far there has been little sign of any kind of organised insurrection against the state from any large militias. Many Virginia militias said they stayed away from Monday’s rally because they did not want to be associated with any violence that might have broken out, the Washington Post reported.
For now, at least, they are laying low.