Did Virginia Declare a State of Emergency Due to Armed Militias?
On January 15 2020, a number of articles and social media posts mentioned the declaration of a state of emergency in Virginia, purportedly because of armed militias:
Virginia Declares State of Emergency After Armed Militias Threaten to Storm the Capitol from politics
The r/politics post above shared a headline with a Vice.com article. Its first few opening paragraphs indeed validated that a state of emergency was declared in Virginia in January 2020, but also described a slightly less chaotic scenario than a reader might infer based on the headline alone:
In response to what he described as “credible intelligence” of threats of violence at an upcoming gun rights rally in Richmond, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam has declared a state of emergency and will temporarily ban individuals from carrying firearms on Capitol grounds.
The governor said at a press conference Wednesday [January 15 2020] that authorities believe “armed militia groups plan to storm the Capitol” during the January 20  rally.
He also said that law enforcement had intercepted threats and “extremist rhetoric” similar to what was observed prior to the violent Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in August 2017. “We will not allow that mayhem and violence to happen here,” he said.
The opening paragraphs of the Vice.com story referenced Gov. Ralph Northam’s comments at a January 15 2020 press conference, during which he described “credible intelligence” and “threats of violence” around a planned January 20 2020 gun rights rally in Richmond, Virginia.
Headlines might lead readers to imagine curfews and roadblocks and MREs, but the plan of action described by the Vice story was a temporary ban on carrying firearms while on Capitol grounds. Based on that reporting, the extent of the state of emergency seemed solely to involve a temporary restriction on weapons in a very limited range.
Northam cited the August 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, during which white supremacists rallied around a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee that was scheduled to be removed from a public park. The violent and racist rally left several people injured. It turned deadly when a Neo-Nazi deliberately drove a vehicle into a crowd, killing protester Heather Heyer. Two law enforcement officers were also killed when the helicopter they were flying to monitor the rally crashed.
GQ.com’s reporting carried forward the tenor of the Vice article, largely drawing from that piece and using the following headline:
Uh, Virginia Just Declared a State of Emergency as Armed Militias Threaten to Storm the Capital
Northam’s office later issued a press release on governor.virginia.gov. In it, the office said that law enforcement had intercepted what it maintained were “credible threats of violence” specific to the January 20 2020 gun rights rally, and in turn Northam had temporarily prohibited all weapons from Capitol grounds:
RICHMOND—Governor Ralph Northam today declared a state of emergency in advance of expected demonstrations on Capitol Square on Monday, January 20, 2020. Law enforcement intelligence analysts have identified credible threats of violence surrounding the event, along with white nationalist rhetoric and plans by out-of-state militia groups to attend.
The Governor’s declaration prohibits all weapons, including firearms, from Capitol grounds, and will provide joint law enforcement and public safety agencies the resources they need to keep demonstrators, policymakers, and all Virginians safe.
This emergency declaration is temporary, and extends from Friday, January 17 at 5:00 PM until Tuesday, January 21 at 5:00 PM.
The full text of Executive Order Forty-Nine is available here.
A four-page long executive order was attached to the press release [PDF]:
The Commonwealth of Virginia is a welcoming state. Virginians understand that diversity of opinion keeps our democracy strong. The more voices involved in our political dialogue, the stronger we are. Civil discourse, even and especially, amongst those who disagree, is critical to our democracy’s evolution and success. When the civility of that political discourse breaks down, the Commonwealth suffers. Three years ago, Virginia and the nation, watched horrified as civil protest was marred by violence and hate. The events that occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia demonstrated what can happen when peaceful demonstrations are hijacked by those who come into the Commonwealth and do not value the importance of peaceful assembly. We lost three Virginians. We must take all precautions to prevent that from ever happening again.
Credible intelligence gathered by Virginia’s law enforcement agencies indicates that tens of thousands of advocates plan to converge on Capitol Square for events culminating on January 20, 2020. Available information suggests that a substantial number of these demonstrators are expected to come from outside the Commonwealth, may be armed, and have as their purpose not peaceful assembly but violence, rioting, and insurrection. Assuring that Virginia’s Capitol Square and surrounding public areas are sheltered safe places for those who come to participate in the democratic process, as well as those who work on or near Capitol Square, is my greatest priority.
The order then referenced Virginia law around declaring a state of emergency beginning on January 17 2020 and concluding on January 21 2020 and allocated additional law enforcement resources to ensure that this rally remained peaceful:
The anticipated effects of the potential convergence of tens of thousands of demonstrators on Capitol Square, some of whom may not come to assemble peacefully, constitutes an emergency as described in § 44-146.16 of the Code of Virginia (Code). Therefore, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution of Virginia, by §§ 2.2-103 and 44-146.13 et seq. of the Code, as Governor and Director of Emergency Management and Commander-in-Chief of the Commonwealth’s armed forces, I proclaim that a state of emergency will exist starting on January 17, 2020 through January 21, 2020. Accordingly, I direct state and local governments to render appropriate assistance 2 to prepare for this event, to alleviate any conditions resulting from the situation, and to implement recovery and mitigation operations and activities so as to return impacted areas to pre-event conditions as much as possible. Emergency services shall be conducted in accordance with § 44-146.13 et seq. of the Code.
Northam’s executive order called for several actions, most of which would not affect Virginia residents, and defined “weapons” as they related to the order’s provisions and scope:
- “Activation of the Virginia Emergency Operations Center and the Virginia Emergency Support Team … to coordinate the provision of assistance to state and local governments and to facilitate emergency services assignments to other agencies.”
- “Authorization for the heads of executive branch agencies, on behalf of their regulatory boards as appropriate, and with the concurrence of their Cabinet Secretary, to waive any state requirement or regulation, and enter into contracts without regard to normal procedures or formalities, and without regard to application or permit fees or royalties.”
- “To provide for the shelter and safety of state employees who work on or near the Virginia State Capitol and those who come to peacefully assemble, and consistent with the General Assembly’s prohibition on weapons in the Virginia State Capitol and [various portions of the surrounding areas].”
Exempt from its provisions were all on-duty law enforcement personnel and persons “otherwise acting in coordination with the Division of Capitol Police, as determined by its chief.” It concluded:
This Executive Order shall be effective from 5:00 p.m., Friday, January 17, until 5:00 p.m., Tuesday, January 21, 2020. Capitol Square will be open from 7:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on the above days. Nothing in this Order rescinds or amends Executive Order 50 (McAuliffe), which remains in full force and effect.
Several posts and articles referenced a “state of emergency” in Virginia on January 15 2020, purportedly because of “armed militias” planning to “storm the Capitol.” Those claims were not false and or misleading, but more context disappeared as the story traveled around social media.
On January 15 2020, Gov. Northam cited intelligence from law enforcement as well as an August 2017 Unite the Right rally’s violent turn as he declared a “state of emergency” in Virginia. That state of emergency had two primary purposes — temporarily banning weapons (including firearms) on Capitol grounds, and allocating law enforcement resources to manage the event. Aside from those provisions, the state of emergency did not really affect most people in Virginia, and barely affected rally attendees — as long as they attended unarmed.
Update, 1/16/2020, 11:07am: The Daily Beast is reporting that the FBI has arrested three members of a neo-Nazi paramilitary group called “The Base”:
The three suspects—Brian Mark Lemley, William Garfield Bilbrough, and Canadian fugitive Patrik Mathews—face a variety of gun charges. Lemley and Bilbrough are also accused of illegally harboring Mathews, a former Canadian military reservist who fled his home country after being accused of being a recruiter for The Base. The trio is expected to face a federal judge in Maryland on Thursday afternoon.
The suspects had discussed traveling to Richmond, Virginia, for a Jan. 20 rally in front of the state Capitol to protest new gun control legislation, The New York Times reported. The rally has become a flashpoint for the fringe right, prompting Gov. Ralph Northam to declare a four-day state of emergency and ban guns from the Capitol complex.