The bus trip – part of a statewide effort organized by the Virginia Citizens Defense League in time for Monday’s traditional lobby day on the Lee-Jackson-King state holiday – got a sendoff from Wise County Commonwealth’s Attorney Chuck Slemp III and two leaders of the Wise County Patriots Group.
Riders and supporters began gathering around 10 p.m. as Norton Masonic Lodge volunteers manned a table with coffee, hot chocolate and snacks. A few Trump ballcaps and watchcaps were visible among the cold weather gear shielding the crowd from light snow and breezy 21-degree weather.
Susie Peters, wife of Wise County Patriots Group organizer Clarence Peters, said at least 92 people had signed up for seats and that at least eight more people had boarded without signing her list.
“We’re cold, but we’re fired up,” Slemp told the group as they stood in front of a grocery store in a shopping center in Norton. He told the group he saw several of the gun bills advancing through committees in the state Senate and House of Delegates as unconstitutional and an attack on the rights of gun owners.
“We’re going to make sure we have our voices heard loudly, calmly and boldly,” Slemp told the crowd.
Clarence Peters, one of two Wise County Patriots Group leaders with Appalachia Town Council member Travis Anderson at the gathering, talked about concerns over possible violence in Richmond Monday during the protest in Capitol Square.
“I don’t think any of it is going to happen,” Peters said. “There’s too much publicity. We’re not there to riot or cause an insurrection.”
Governor Ralph Northam last week announced his order to ban all weapons inside the Capitol grounds through Tuesday evening after saying the State Police and other law enforcement agencies have received information about violent organizations planning to come to Richmond for the protest.
Northam’s order has withstood two court challenges in recent days in Richmond Circuit Court and the state Supreme Court.
Peters reminded the riders to stay in groups of ten while in Richmond. The crowd laughed when he said Northam had asked students at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond to stay in their dorms for safety.
“Our prayers are with everyone in Richmond that this is going to be peaceful,” Slemp said before Sunday’s rally. “I believe the only real emergency has been created by the governor’s dangerous order.”
Asked about the FBI’s announced arrest of three suspects believed to have headed to Richmond to incite a violent racial conflict, Slemp said, “I would condemn any hatred and bigotry.”