The mother of a civil rights activist who died while demonstrating against the 2017 neo-nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia has a message for those planning to attend a major guns rights demonstration in the state on Monday: “To anybody planning violence: stay the hell away from Richmond.”
Susan Bro, co-founder and president of the social justice foundation named after her daughter Heather Heyer, spoke to The Independent on Friday after the FBI arrested multiple suspected neo-Nazis who had reportedly discussed opening fire at the demonstrations next week.
Ms Bro said she was concerned about an “incitement of violence” ahead of the annual Lobby Day demonstrations at the Virginia capitol.
“I just think everyone needs to take a moment and breathe," she said, "but I think we’re past that point.”
The guns rights rally was expected to draw thousands of Second Amendment activists and counter-protestors to the state after the Virginia General Assembly passed a series of sweeping gun control measures earlier this week. Many have said the incendiary comments leading up to the event have featured echoes of the contentious rhetoric seen before the Charlottesville rallies three years prior, including Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, who declared a state of emergency on Wednesday.
Ms Bro describes herself as a gun owner who believes “in common sense gun laws” and noted that she did not support several of the measures the newly-elected Democratic majority passed in Virginia's General Assembly.
“Some bills are extreme measures, and I have seen those backed off from,” she added. “You also have to think about enforceability: you have to think, are you really going to be able to enforce these things?”
In declaring a state of emergency, Mr Northam said his administration “received credible intelligence from our law enforcement agencies of threats of violence surrounding the demonstration”.
“This includes extremist rhetoric similar to what has been seen before major incidents, such as Charlottesville in 2017”, he added.
Ms Bro also noted she has recently heard “extremely violent rhetoric” and added that she was “glad to see that [Governor] Northam has taken some precautions”.
“The violence is not okay, and extreme measures are not okay either”, she said.
Lobby Day is organised each year by the Virginia Citizens Defence League and includes both outdoor demonstrations near the grounds of the capitol, as well as actual lobbying events with state lawmakers, according to Philip Van Cleave, the president of the guns rights group.
Mr Van Cleave said the governor was “poking gun owners” with his declaration of a state of emergency, which temporarily bans firearms on Capitol grounds.
He also predicted the demonstrations could bring upwards of 100,000 people to Richmond — some of whom he said would be “riled up” by the recent gun control measures and state of emergency.
“I cant tell if it’s stupid or malicious,” he told The Independent of the governor’s temporary ban on firearms on capitol grounds. “This isn’t about statues. It’s about an enumerated civil right.”
The men arrested ahead of the rally included 27-year-old Patrik Jordan Mathews, a former combat engineer in the Canadian Army who was removed from his post when his associations to white supremacist groups first emerged. He later entered the US illegally and began serving as a lead recruiter for the neo-Nazi group called the Base.
Other suspected neo-Nazis who were arrested ahead of the demonstrations included 33-year-old Brian M Lemley Jr, a former cavalry soldier in the US army, and 19-year-old William G Bilbrough. The New York Times reported the men were planning to attend the rally with firearms while possibly anticipating a race war to ensue. Three additional suspects linked to the Base were arrested in Georgia this week and charged with plotting a murder.
The Virginia governor noted in his emergency declaration that he also received evidence of “militia groups and hate groups” from out of state who were planning to come to the Capitol and “disrupt our democratic process with acts of violence”. It was not clear whether the arrests were associated with the evidence Mr Northam cited when declaring a state of emergency.
Mr Van Cleave pushed back against those statements, saying his organisation has been working with police and has “no control” over other groups attending the Lobby Day demonstrations.
“What a joke, those are groups that want to stop this, they’re going for Hail Marys because they see the power in it,” he said, adding: “Our organisation is a slice of America: we’ve got everything, we have no litmus test regardless of any beliefs.”