2020 Hindsight: Civil War Interrupted in Former Capital of the Confederacy - WhoWhatWhy

2020 Hindsight: Civil War Interrupted in Former Capital of the Confederacy

Lobby Day, Gun Control
Pro gun rally on Lobby Day in Richmond, VA, on January 20, 2020. Photo credit: Mobilus In Mobili / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
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To avert bloodshed last year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the state capital of Virginia, the FBI swooped into a Delaware apartment on January 16, 2020, to arrest three neo-Nazi white supremacists bent on provoking a race war. 

The arrests — based in part on information the FBI obtained by bugging the apartment — stopped the men four days before they had an opportunity to kill people, including police, at a massive pro-gun rally in Richmond. Their ultimate aim, according to a federal indictment, was to overthrow the government.

The tactics and language the men used while under surveillance by the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives for months before their arrests previewed the behavior of some of the rioters who showed up in Washington nearly a year later. 

All three defendants — members of a hate group called “The Base” —  remain in federal custody, with the youngest serving a five-year sentence since pleading guilty in December to a conspiracy charge. The other two — both military veterans — are awaiting trial in Baltimore without bail after prosecutors convinced the court that they are too dangerous to be released.

Prosecutors cited language used by The Base in recruiting materials as justification for continuing to imprison the Richmond defendants until they are tried. One post said: “If you want a society with traditional values, electoral politics could still achieve that theoretically. But if you want a *White* society, electoral politics can’t achieve that unless the current System of government is replaced. The current System can’t be replaced peacefully.”

Equipped with more than 1,500 rounds of ammunition, combat gear, and automatic weapons, the men planned to mingle with other hate groups in downtown Richmond during Lobby Day, an annual pro-gun rally near the Virginia Capitol that ultimately drew a heavily armed crowd of 20,000, more than double the size of the mob that rioted in Washington on January 6.

The FBI got on the trail of the three after an investigation of Canadian white supremacists, published by the Winnipeg Free Press in mid-August 2019, unmasked a former Canadian Army reservist named Patrik Jordan Mathews as a recruiter for The Base. Mathews, a combat engineer and explosives expert who was soon expelled from the Canadian Army Reserves, abandoned his vehicle and fled across the US-Canada border, later lamenting that he had not booby-trapped his cabin to kill Canadian Mounties seizing his weapons cache. 

Picking up Mathews in Michigan 10 days after he crossed the Manitoba-Minnesota border were two fellow travelers from The Base: Brian Mark Lemley Jr., a 34-year-old former US Army Cavalry scout with experience in Iraq and affiliations with several extremist groups, and William Garfield Bilbrough IV, then a 19-year-old terrorist wannabe who served as a driver and dreamed of fighting in Ukraine.

During the next four months, they hid at various locations in Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware as they planned for revolution in Richmond. They also went to Georgia to buy 1,500 rounds of assault rifle ammunition and attend a secret armed training camp run by other members of The Base, some of whom were later arrested.  

By last January, preparing for Lobby Day in Richmond, they discussed how easy it would be to hide out in rural areas en route to Richmond since the Commonwealth of Virginia is an open carry state where displaying firearms is legal. As Lemley, the former Army Cavalry soldier put it: “We’re just not in the fuckin quarantine zone [near the Capitol Building in Richmond] where they’re lookin to arrest people like us you know, but we would be in a Second Amendment sanctuary, so we shouldn’t have any trouble from local police; especially given the nature of the environment, where there is just angry gun owners just streaming in from all over the country.”

Virginia Braces for Armed Protests on MLK Day

At the rally, the three planned to kill police officers and attendees equipped with higher quality guns and combat armor to steal what they called “Gucci gear.” Lemley speculated about spotting an isolated police officer, “If there’s like a PoPo cruiser parked on the street and he doesn’t have backup, I can execute him at a whim and just take his stuff.”

According to federal prosecutors, Lemley told Mathews, “Imagine this scenario, right? There’s a running skirmish of MAGAtards, liberty militias, and libertarians, like basically like trying, they’re like shooting their way out of the city essentially, alright.” 

Mathews too liked the potential setup during the rally. “That opportunity is boundless, and the thing is you’ve got tons of guys who are just in theory should be radicalized enough to know that all you gotta do is start making things go wrong and if Virginia can spiral out to fucking full blown civil war.”

After Bilbrough was sentenced in Baltimore on December 8, Robert K. Hur, the US Attorney for Maryland, said: “William Bilbrough and his cohorts intended to inflict violence on the basis of their racist and hateful beliefs. As long as violent extremists take steps to harm innocent people, we will continue to use all of the tools we have to prevent and deter them.”

In Richmond last year, that approach by the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, the ATF, and state police departments worked beautifully and apparently deterred an immense, well-armed crowd from deteriorating into violence. Now the question is, what did the Trump administration’s Justice Department know about the buildup to the insurrection at the US Capitol and what — if anything — did they do to stop it?


Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from WBAL-TV 11 Baltimore.

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