Katharine DeRosa, News Editor
Anna Chen, Contributing Writer
While protesters strapped with guns and tactical gear were outnumbered by reporters Monday morning at the Virginia State Capitol, Richmonders on the other side of town at Marcus-David Peters Circle played basketball, danced and barbecued to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
A year ago, Lobby Day demonstrations drew thousands of people to the state Capitol grounds to protest gun control legislation. This time, protesters in small groups trickled into the area that was already filled by police and journalists.
Billy Healy, a member of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, came to the Capitol on Monday to protest. He was sporting an orange beanie, an orange bowtie and denim overalls. Healy said he is against gun control legislation because he believes he owns many of the guns that could be “taken away.”
“They’re not going to hurt anyone,” Healy said. “They’re just sitting at home in a safe.”
The Original Black Panthers of Virginia were also present for Lobby Day, assembling on Main Street near the Capitol around 12:30 p.m. Leading member Mike Pain said the group came to show their support for the Second Amendment.
When asked about the presence of far-right groups in the area such as the Proud Boys, Pain said they all had the right to assemble for the Second Amendment.
“We’re not here to fight with anybody,” Pain said.
Later in the day, spirits were high at Marcus-David Peters Circle. People danced under the tall statue of Confederate leader Robert E. Lee, and volunteers bundled in coats handed out hot food under tents.
Eli Swann from housing support service Va Hubb said he partnered with nonprofit Richmond Food Not Bombs and other local organizations to serve food at the circle. Swann said Hubb stands for “help us be better.” Richmond Food Not Bombs distributes groceries every Sunday at 4 p.m. in Monroe Park.
“We will occupy until change comes,” Swann said regarding occupying the grassy area of the circle.
The space was reclaimed by protesters this summer. The Lee monument, in its current graffitied state, was named “The Most Influential Work of American Protest Art Since World War II” by The New York Times in 2020.
Black Lives Matter RVA member Lawrence West said the day was meant for celebration. West said the group was being proactive instead of reacting to demonstrations at the Capitol grounds.
“We’re out here having a good time like we’re supposed to on Martin Luther King day,” West said.
The VCU Police Department and health leaders were aware of the events pertaining to the state Capitol and the presidential inauguration, according to public information officer Cory Byers. Byers said in an email that VCU PD is actively working with local, state and federal law enforcement partners to surveil traffic and encourage safety during these events.
“The VCU Police Department is committed to the safety of every person within our community here in Richmond and we are committed to treating every person with dignity and respect,” Byers said in an email.
On Jan. 6, in an endeavor to block the presidential election results from proceeding, supporters of former President Donald Trump swarmed and charged at the U.S. Capitol building, causing the House of Representatives and Senate to evacuate and for the National Guard to be deployed.
Regarding the upcoming Virginia General Assembly sessions and its related activities, Capitol Police are working with their security partners, the Virginia State Police and Richmond Police, said Joe Macenka, public information officer for the Division of Capitol Police, in an email.
“We provide a safe environment for not only the legislators to do their jobs, but for their constituents to be heard,” Macenka said in an email. “Ours is a government of the people, and it is vital that the people be given a chance to have input in the legislative process.”
Sophomore English major Marisa Ruotolo said she noticed ironies when analyzing the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol building versus Black Lives Matter protests last summer. She said the BLM protests were about human rights issues, while the insurrection was simply a disagreement with the government.
Police in Richmond often responded to protests last summer with hostility, deploying chemical agents and using rubber bullets to disperse crowds and nearby journalists. The Richmond Police Department spent $2 million responding to citywide protests during late May and June, according to Virginia Public Media.
“It took so long for the police at the Capitol to fire back at the protesters who were actually violent,” Ruotolo said, “but when police see the BLM protests, they would often break out tear gas and plastic bullets immediately.”