Philip Van Cleave, the leader of extremist gun group Virginia Citizens Defense League (VCDL), sent an action alert to his supporters promoting a conspiracy theory that elected Democrats in Virginia are plotting a violent false flag incident at a January 20 pro-gun rally he is organizing. Van Cleave’s conspiratorial claims to his supporters are in contrast to the comments he has given to mainstream news outlets about the event -- which has attracted significant media coverage over fears of violence -- in which he has sought to come off as reasonable.
Following the 2019 Virginia elections in which Democrats gained control of both chambers of the legislature, Virginia lawmakers have been advancing several gun violence prevention bills with the support of Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam. As the bills move through the state legislature, an annual Lobby Day held on Capitol grounds is expected to bring in a large crowd. The day is observed on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which falls on January 20 this year, and typically draws both those seeking to strengthen gun laws and those who want to loosen them. VCDL is claiming it expects between 50,000 and 120,000 of its supporters will attend the group’s event in Richmond. In past years, VCDL’s Lobby Day participants have often openly carried handguns and assault weapons at the event. But on January 15, Northam declared a state of emergency banning all weapons from Capitol grounds this year, citing law enforcement uncovering credible threats of violence. VCDL is now asking a court to block the emergency order so that guns will be allowed at the event.
The far-right media ecosystem has been hyping the prospect of violence at the event and many well-known extremist figures and militias have expressed their intention to attend, including some organizers of the deadly 2017 “Unite the Right” rally held in Charlottesville, Virginia. Numerous threats of violence have been posted on the 4chan “politically incorrect” message board “/pol/,” which is a known hotspot for white nationalists, and the FBI has reportedly arrested three members of a white supremacist organization on gun charges over fears they were plotting violence at the protests.
In a January 16 action alert that was published to pro-gun media outlet AmmoLand.com, Van Cleave adopted a conspiracy theory that has been circulating for weeks at Alex Jones’ Infowars outlet to claim Democrats were plotting false flag violence at the rally in order to discredit his group. In the alert, Van Cleave called Northam’s emergency order “illegal” and emphasized to supporters that “you can carry on 9th Street, or other nearby streets, as long as you don't go into the fenced-in Capitol grounds area.” The alert also contradicts Virginia law enforcement -- as well as documented reporting on threats -- with the claim that “to our knowledge, there are no credible threats of violence.” But if violence were to occur, the VCDL alert suggests that it would be a plot by “Democrat leadership” who would have “invited violent groups to attend for the purpose of disrupting our peaceful assembly”:
The inflammatory rhetoric from Democrats (including the Governor, Attorney General, Congressman McEachin, Delegate Levine, and many others) regarding the Second Amendment Sanctuary movement and VCDL's Lobby Day leads us to wonder if they really want Lobby Day to go peacefully?
The Democrats are afraid of the voters and want to portray this peaceful assembly of law-abiding gun owners in the worst possible way. They would love for it to degenerate to “violence, rioting, and insurrection” in order to smear gun owners. Has the Democrat leadership actually invited violent groups to attend for the purpose of disrupting our peaceful assembly?
VCDL’s action alert was dutifully written up by National Rifle Association shill Paul Bedard for the conservative Washington Examiner outlet, with Bedard promoting Van Cleave’s false flag conspiracy theory and casting doubt on whether there have been threats of violence.
VCDL also supports extreme gun measures and commentary. The VCDL newsletter previously published an article that offered advice on how to defend oneself if confronted by “urban thugs” armed with pangas, an African weapon similar to a machete. Van Cleave was infamously duped in 2019 into appearing on comedian Sacha Baron Cohen’s Who is America? program, where he endorsed children as young as 3 carrying guns and bragged that his group killed a bill in the Virginia legislature that would have restricted access to guns for children between the ages of 4 and 12.
In contrast to what he says to his supporters, Van Cleave has taken a different tone in interviews with mainstream news outlets that are covering the upcoming rally. Contradicting his own claim that there are no actual credible threats to the event, Van Cleave told Richmond-area NBC 12: “We’ve been in constant contact with the Richmond Capitol and state police, any information that we’ve gotten that looks like there might be trouble we’ve passed along to them.” Prior to the emergency order banning guns, Van Cleave told Washington, D.C., outlet WTOP that it was wrong to call his event an “armed protest,” that instead “it is merely a lobby day. It’s just speakers.” He also said that he had discouraged participants from carrying “long guns” (rifles and shotguns) at the event. Yet VCDL is suing for people to be allowed to bring guns at the event and providing information to supporters about how they can carry firearms under the emergency order right up to the perimeter of the rally.
Van Cleave also garnered a soft-focus profile from the newspaper Chesterfield Observer in an article titled “From fringe to force: How a gun rights advocate from Chesterfield made his mark.” The piece claimed that recent developments in the fight over Virginia’s gun laws have caused Van Cleave to be “taken seriously.”
Van Cleave is clearly trying to put the best face on his upcoming rally in his comments to reporters, but news outlets which quote him should also note the extremism of his VCDL organization and the different language he uses when talking to his supporters.