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Richmond police plan weapons ban at pro-Confederate protest Saturday on Monument Avenue

Posted 09/15/2017 1:20 pm by

Authorities are planning to cordon off a “weapons-free assembly zone” around the statue of Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue in an effort to head off any potential violence at a rally to support preserving Confederate monuments planned for Saturday.


“We do not want what happened in Charlottesville to happen in Richmond,” said Richmond Police Chief Alfred Durham in a letter distributed to residents this week.


Durham described plans to ban items such as sticks, bats and knives at a community meeting held by Councilwoman Kim Gray last week, according to several people who were there. It’s unclear whether the ban would extend to guns — a potentially thorny legal issue in a state that allows the open carry of firearms.

Although authorities acknowledge they’re preparing for the worst, so far they’ve downplayed the parallels between the rally planned for this weekend and the one that took place last month in Charlottesville, which was heavily promoted for months by several large white nationalist organizations.


The Richmond rally, in contrast, is being planned by a small, largely unknown Confederate heritage group based out of Tennessee, and so far, only about 50 people have signaled they plan to attend.


Durham declined to comment Wednesday on the police department’s plans for the protest, saying officials would answer questions at a community meeting scheduled to take place Thursday. In his letter, he asked residents to avoid the area if possible and report any suspicious activities to police.


Gray reiterated this week that officials planned to block weapons.


“They are cordoning off the area and making it a specific assembly area where you can’t bring certain items in,” she told the Fan District Association board on Tuesday evening. “They’ll be listing items you can’t bring into that area, and weapons will be at the top of the list.”


Legal uncertainty


City officials have not addressed whether the weapons ban would extend to guns.


“I can’t say what types of weapons because the law is unclear,” said Gray, whose council district includes much of the Fan, “but it has been a topic of discussion — what particular items can and can’t be banned from these types of rallies.”


State and Charlottesville officials weighed enforcing a ban on weapons at last month’s white nationalist rally in Charlottesville.


At least one shot was fired into the ground by a white nationalist demonstrator toward a counterprotester during the melee, though the majority of the violence involved sticks, clubs, shields, chemical irritant sprays and – most deadly – a vehicle that was driven into a crowd.


Charlottesville authorities ultimately did not impose any restrictions, despite the last-minute urging of Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who took the unusual step of calling Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer to relay security concerns, including the possibility of banning weapons. Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, however, is a close confidant of McAuliffe and before running for mayor served in his Cabinet as secretary of the commonwealth.


The question of whether firearms can be banned at political demonstrations dominated discussion Tuesday during the first meeting of McAuliffe’s task force on civil unrest post-Charlottesville. First Amendment scholar Rodney A. Smolla, who gave the panel a briefing on constitutional law, called the topic “uncharted legal territory” but said authorities aren’t powerless to control armed crowds.


“If I am marching armed and loaded and expressing violent statements, the idea that that’s a threat is not at all far-fetched. It’s not at all theoretical,” Smolla said. “I would rather protect somebody’s life and then deal with the legal consequences after the fact.”


Meanwhile, the leader of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, the state’s influential pro-gun group, said Richmond authorities “cannot ban firearms” under any circumstances, citing a state law that prohibits all forms of local gun control not explicitly authorized by the General Assembly.


The group’s president, Philip Van Cleave, said he sees no reason why the upcoming rally should be treated as an exception, adding that he called the police chief and city attorney Wednesday to seek clarification on the city’s plans.


If the ban covers guns, Van Cleave said, the group would likely file a lawsuit. “The law’s the law,” he said.


Van Cleave said the VCDL has no issue with the city banning sticks or other objects that could be used as weapons.


“Pretty much anything but guns,” Van Cleave said.


Statue off-limits


McAuliffe has ordered a temporary freeze on permitted events at the Lee statue and reiterated this week that the planned pro-Confederacy demonstrators “will not be allowed” to rally there.


“We’re going to enforce our executive order, of course,” McAuliffe said. “Maybe they’ll march down the entire Monument Avenue. Walk down the sidewalks. They’re entitled to do that.”


Gray said she expected police to set up the weapons-free zone in the streets around the statue but that, in keeping with McAuliffe’s order, the grassy area around the statue itself that’s owned by the state would be fenced off.


It’s uncertain how many people will actually attend the rally, which is being planned by a small neo-Confederate group based in Tennessee called CSA II: The New Confederate States of America, a for-profit business whose primary focus appears to be selling Confederate-themed T-shirts and other paraphernalia.

The group is largely unknown and the state’s most well-established Confederate heritage group, the Virginia Chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, has advised its members not to participate in the event.


“We’re trying to figure out who they are,” said Frank Earnest Sr., a spokesman for the SCV. “Nobody’s ever heard of them. … We really wish people would just let things die down right now and that these people would stop using our symbols.”


The Tennessee group falsely promotes the idea that slavery was not a factor in the South’s decision to secede from the union. Its website advertises a “Threat Condition (THREATCON) Level System” similar to terrorism threat levels published by the federal government. The current level is listed as “REDCON-1,” advising that “this level means prepare any and all safety measures needed such as weapons, provisions, bug out bags, medical supplies, and safety/shelter for your family and fellow Confederates to survive should the need arise.”


The group has billed the event as the “Protect the General Robert E. Lee Monument Rally.” On the event page, it’s listed as beginning at 10 a.m. and ending at 6 p.m. The group stressed that the event will be peaceful and that no racist groups will be allowed to participate. “This rally is a Heritage ~ Not Hate Rally and any Hate will NOT be stood for on our side whatsoever,” the page said.


Counterprotests planned


Several counterprotests are planned, including an “RVA Stands United Rally and March,” which will begin at the Maggie Walker statue at Adams and Broad streets at a time that has not yet been announced.


“This event will be a ‘yellow zone’ opportunity for those who wish to be active and stand against racism in Richmond but do not want to directly confront racist groups,” according to a news release distributed by the Virginia Interfaith Center.


Gray told the Fan District Association on Tuesday that she is most concerned about violent left-wing protesters who identify as “Antifa,” of anti-fascist, which engaged in repeated clashes with white nationalist groups in Charlottesville.


The day after the Charlottesville rally, a group marched through Richmond and, at one point, attacked a WTVR television journalist, hitting him with a stick in the back of the head. His scalp was stapled together at a hospital. According to accounts published by WTVR, the protesters who attacked the reporter objected to his filming their march.


Gray said others were attacked and harassed that night.


“I’m really concerned about the actions of the Antifa group,” she said. “They beat people with bats. … This is why we are urging people to stay home and not travel outside.”


Katherine Jordan, the president of the Fan District Association, said residents are confident in the police department’s ability to manage the situation, however it might turn out.


“It’s easy to get wound up about this,” she said. “But Monument Avenue has been the backdrop to some of the city’s best events. … The city and police department are used to this type of activity, and we’re just going to follow Chief Durham’s lead on staying calm, seeing what develops and preparing if necessary.”

One response to Richmond police plan weapons ban at pro-Confederate protest Saturday on Monument Avenue

  1. Richmond police plan weapons ban at pro-Confederate protest Saturday on Monument Avenue - Grassyknoll September 15th, 2017 at 1:42 pm

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