In 2020, some images of modern America are so shocking that even a nation of political ranters with our incandescent Twitter accounts can be stunned into near numbness. So it was on Monday — not coincidentally, the national holiday to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — as first dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of armed, overwhelmingly white men streamed onto the grounds of Virginia’s state capitol in Richmond.

On a day set aside to celebrate a fighter for peace and human rights who was shot and killed in Memphis on April 4, 1968, with a .30-06 Remington rifle, our social media streams were filled with middle-aged white men in absurd camouflage, wearing helmets or flak jackets, some (illegally) covering their faces with masks, with assault rifles or grenade launchers or weaponry to shoot down a small aircraft strapped to their bodies. VICE News tweeted out, “Virginia declares state of emergency after armed militias threaten to storm the capitol,” making a large U.S. state sound more like a faraway banana republic, overthrown by the latest junta.

As they marched a stone’s throw from what had been the capitol of the Confederacy, the marchers argued to a man (and they were virtually all men) that, in essence, they want their country back. “I don’t like what they are doing to our rights,” Raymond Pfaff, an 85-year-old man from Louisa County, Va. — where the public schools remained segregated until Pfaff was in his late 30s — told the New York Times at the rally, adding: “I’m a patriotic American. The left is going so far left right now.”

The event — part of a just-OK idea to make the King holiday a “Lobby Day” to allow citizens to air their grievances which increasingly has become a gun-lobby day in the last few years — was a rally led by the Virginia Citizens Defense League that drew an estimated 22,000 to a state capital on a total lockdown, with guns banned from the fenced-in site of the actual event. Most attendees milled around outside the fences — armed to the teeth, waving their long guns to see who had the biggest one. When the event ended early Monday afternoon, there was a palpable sigh of relief both in Richmond and around a nation that had just watched the armed hijacking of MLK Day.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam held a news conference — and angered thin-skinned right-wingers — when he declared his state of emergency, partial gun ban and other measures “successfully de-escalated what could have been a volatile situation.” The front page of Tuesday’s Washington Post summed up a lot of the post-rally media coverage with its headline which read, “Virginia gun rights rally is passionate but peaceful,” and which sounded like someone was pointing an AR-50 at the headline writer.

Brandon Lewis, of Bergen, New York, carries a .50-caliber Barrett M82A1 rifle at a pro-gun rally in Richmond, Virginia, on Jan. 20, 2020.
Brandon Lewis, of Bergen, New York, carries a .50-caliber Barrett M82A1 rifle at a pro-gun rally in Richmond, Virginia, on Jan. 20, 2020.

To use a popular buzzword of 2020 by way of 1920, I’m here to call “malarkey” on the popular notion that what went down in Richmond was “peaceful.” To the contrary, America — although we may be too frightened to even admit it — just witnessed arguably the most successful use of terrorism on U.S. soil in nearly a generation, even if this time was non-lethal.

It’s so fitting for MLK Day that the slain civil rights hero once uttered the exactly perfect words for this travesty, occurring nearly 52 years after he was killed by an assassin’s bullet. “True peace is not merely the absence of tension," King once wrote. "It is the presence of justice.” In Richmond on January 20, 2020 — almost three years to the hour after President Trump revealed his vision of our nation as a place of “American carnage” — the absence of tension when the rally ended without bloodshed masked a gross, unconscionable injustice.

What really happened in Richmond was that men with enough firepower to defeat the Ukrainian army, with the very real threat of violence strapped to their backs, aimed to intimidate not just the state lawmakers just elected by the majority of Virginia voters on a gun-safety platform, but to scare away any citizens wishing to use their 1st Amendment rights to speak out against them.

And the shameful thing is that, on too many levels, it worked.

Plans for a counter-demonstration by progressive groups — the same kind of folks who pushed back against the now-notorious hate marches through nearby Charlottesville in 2017 — were scrubbed because of fears that someone would get hurt, much as Heather Heyer was run over and killed by a white supremacist at that event. One local activist tweeted to “please, please encourage anyone you know who is thinking about counter protesting this event to stay away from downtown [R]ichmond on [M]onday.”

Terrorism? People were terrified. People who owned businesses in downtown Richmond shuttered their doors for the day. Folks who live in the immediate neighborhood of the protests left because they were scared of the gun-toters and what might happen. One of the legislators who was supposed to be lobbied on “Lobby Day” — Lee Carter, a democratic socialist and a progressive backer of new gun safety laws — instead went to a “safe house” because he was received so many death threats from these “patriotic Americans.”

Think about the rights that we hold most dear as Americans. The rights to move around freely from place to place, to assemble in public and to hold rallies to air grievances, and to counter people one disagrees with by exercising free speech and giving the opposing point of view. American citizens were deprived of those basic rights on Monday — on Martin Luther King Day, of all days — by an intimidating bullying, armed mob. Do not dare call this “peaceful.”

Yes, it could have been worse. Over the last week, authorities have arrested six members of a white supremacist group that is building bombs and advocating other violence to advance its warped causes of attacking African-Americans and Jews to advance a so-called white ethno-state. At least three of these white supremacists had been planning to attend Monday’s rally. In the you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up department, the group calls itself The Base, which in Arabic would be ... al-Qaeda. The goals of those two groups are exactly the same: Fanatical religious and racial purity, enforced by wanton violence against innocent people.

All of this was cheered on yesterday by America’s bully-in-chief, Trump. On a national holiday that the nation’s president was eager to forget — his more politically-minded veep Mike Pence finally dragged him out for a photo op lasting all of 30 seconds — The Donald was much more animated by “the base” down in Richmond. Sandwiched around one tepid, canned MLK post, the 45th president tweeted that Democrats in Virginia are taking away your 2nd Amendment rights and “don’t let it happen,” and when Fox News showed rally-goers chanting “USA! USA!” he tweeted the same. The president didn’t condemn an armed mob; he joined it, virtually.

This is all part of a vicious downward cycle in America, where the bullying instincts of citizen mobs and the cheerleading from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, from a president who won in 2016 after encouraging his followers to beat the living crap out of protesters, continue to feed upon each other.

The sad, maddening, infuriating thing is that Trump is also showing how, politically, bullying can work...and take years to undo. Look at his Republican Party and the people who once showed potential to stand up to his tactics — the Mitt Romneys and the Martha McSallys and the Lindsey Grahams. They are all lapdogs now, and they are all getting ready to say guilty in a make-believe trial on Capitol Hill.

The fact that an armed mob roamed unrestrained through an American state capitol on the eve of this sham impeachment trial was no accident. They are all ruling by fear and intimidation, and America will end as any kind of moral force if we don’t come up with a way to stop them.

Many people are doing what they can to fight back. In particular, I applaud citizens like the folks of Moms Demand, who spent Monday phone-banking Virginia lawmakers and encouraging those who are voting for sensible gun laws. And those lawmakers have done exactly that this week, voting down right-wing proposals that would have increased the risks of gun violence. That’s courage, but I’m still worried that it’s not enough.

The world learned in the 1930s that we can only yield the public space to bullies and brownshirts for so long until the going gets very, very tough. Reigning in an authoritarian, rogue president through the legal means of impeachment will likely be thwarted by a cowardly, intimidated GOP. We must do all we can to beat back Trump and his thuggish allies through our activism and our votes in November, but we may need to summon the courage to somehow do more.

This week would be a good time to channel the ferocity of King, who stood up to bullies with non-violence and won more victories against entrenched white supremacy than anyone dreamed possible. MLK understood that an absence of tension, also known as silence, was the path to injustice. He also would have called out the violent intimidation of Monday’s mob for what it was — terrorism — and so should we.