America Can’t Exhale Just Yet

Members of a pro-gun group called the Last Sons of Liberty stand with their weapons near the state Capitol on January 18, 2021 in Richmond, Virginia. Capitol Square in Richmond has been closed until January 21, in anticipation of possible unrest after the riots at the U.S. Capitol on January 6th.
Stephanie Keith / Getty

This weekend, every mayor of an American state capital was trying to answer the same question: How do I keep my city safe? Steven Reed in Montgomery, Alabama, and Frank Scott, in Little Rock, Arkansas, increased police patrols. In Richmond, Mayor Levar Stoney declared a state of emergency. Governors in Virginia, Michigan, and Wisconsin placed the National Guard on standby. The FBI had warned that armed protests would take place in all 50 state capitals in the lead-up to President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration tomorrow, and everyone I spoke with worried that if they weren’t prepared, their city could be home to the next riot.

As the long weekend wore on, leaders waited, with their police forces at the ready, but the massive, armed marches of extremists never materialized. Still, in Virginia, Lobby Day, the day of the year when thousands of armed gun-rights supporters go to the state capitol to press their cause, troubled state leaders. In 2020, the peaceful rally drew nearly 20,000 supporters. And after a year of protests that had led to the removal of several Confederate monuments—and an insurrection that saw a man carry the Confederate battle flag through the nation’s Capitol—leaders worried that the annual tradition might descend into violence. But Lobby Day was small and uneventful yesterday. Stoney’s vigilance, however, was not unwarranted.

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The January 6 insurrectionists in Washington were able to break into the halls of Congress, in part, because of lax security. The Capitol Police had a standard unit on shift, or about enough officers “for a routine day,” the Associated Press reported. The heightened security outside the Capitol (fencing, barricades, Humvees) since the rampage, the arrests that followed, and the increased police presence in states across the country may have kept some would-be rioters away this weekend.

In Richmond, one self-styled militia leader said her group would boycott Lobby Day in protest. “This year Halifax County Militia will protest the continuing disrespect and invasion of our rights, by our absence from Richmond,” Mitzi Thompson, a leader of the group, said in a statement. Other far-right militia groups urged their followers to stay away from protests, arguing that they were a “trap.”

Monday’s relative calm does not mean that insurrectionists were cowed by the arrests that followed January 6; the rioters may simply have gone dormant. On August 12, 2018, the first anniversary of the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Jason Kessler, one of the rally’s organizers, sought to organize a similar march in the nation’s capital. Police were out in force, and a throng of reporters gathered, as did thousands of counterprotesters. But fewer than 50 people took part in Kessler’s anniversary march.

What lies dormant is perhaps most dangerous. In 2001, Timothy McVeigh wrote a letter to Fox News explaining why, six years earlier, he’d bombed the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City. The 11-day siege at Ruby Ridge in Idaho in 1992, and the federal siege in Waco roughly six months later, had radicalized him. But they had not led him to act immediately; he waited for two years before the bombing. Though McVeigh was a singular case of destruction, the anti-establishment sentiments and conspiratorial thinking that motivated his terrorism also undergirded the far-right movement that stormed the Capitol and attempted to overturn the results of the election.

In February 2020, FBI Director Christopher Wray told the House Judiciary Committee that racially motivated extremists were a national threat priority. Yet when dozens of people on the bureau’s terrorist watch list gathered among the throngs in Washington, according to The Washington Post, the government failed to take the threat seriously. As my colleague Robinson Meyer noted recently, security theater will not stop the next insurrection. Nor do more militarized police forces reduce crime. But until America stops treating white supremacy with kid gloves, it will never be in the clear.

By 5 p.m. yesterday, Stoney had plenty of thanks to go around—to the law-enforcement agencies for keeping the peace, to the citizens of Richmond for their patience. If the city’s preparedness had anything to do with preventing violence from happening, it’s going to keep at it. “We’ll stay vigilant in the coming days,” Stoney said in a statement.

Reed has his eyes on the days ahead as well. “Regardless of the challenge, Montgomery is ready.”