Two questions kept coming up Thursday ahead of a small rally planned Saturday by a little-known Confederate heritage group that’s generating significant anxiety after last month’s violence in Charlottesville.

Why are police allowing the unpermitted event to occur in the first place?

And if it must take place, why ban weapons like sticks, bats and knives but not guns?

At a community forum organized for residents by police, Chief Alfred Durham responded — repeatedly — that his hands are tied on both counts.

The U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to assemble, he said, and state law allows the open carrying of firearms — no exceptions.

“A lot of folks ask: Why is the Richmond Police Department allowing folks to protest?” Durham told a crowd of about 300 at First Baptist Church on Monument Avenue. “Ladies and gentleman, the right to assemble is a constitutional right. You don’t need a permit.”

Regarding a plan to allow guns but restrict other weapons and protective gear like helmets from an “assembly zone” on Monument Avenue around the Robert E. Lee statue where the protest is planned, Durham encouraged residents to advocate for a change to state law during the upcoming General Assembly session.

“I feel your pain,” Durham told a woman who had asked what advice he had for counterprotesters who wanted to protect themselves from being shot. “The same fear you have is the same fear my officers have. The only thing I can say is, don’t show up and you don’t have to worry about being shot.”

City vows tough response

Durham and Mayor Levar Stoney vowed to respond forcefully to any illegal behavior, making clear they wouldn’t stand for the kind of street violence that played out in Charlottesville on Aug. 12, when a large gathering of white nationalists clashed with counterprotesters.

“I don’t care whether you live here or you’re coming here, but bottom line, we expect you to obey the law, because I guarantee you we will enforce it,” Stoney said at a news conference earlier in the day, backed by dozens of public safety officials from around the region. “And if you do not respect our city, law enforcement will lock you up.”

Durham stressed that while the city can’t legally bar firearms, weapons laws will be strictly enforced.

“While the law states and allows the open carrying in public of firearms, the law does not allow for the threatening or menacing of individuals who are handling such weapons, and if any weapons laws are violated, we will be making arrests,” he said.

Durham said officers will also be enforcing a state law banning masks. “If someone has a mask on, we’re not asking them to take it off, they’re being arrested.”

Durham said it would be difficult for police to keep rally attendees and counterprotesters separate because the event is unpermitted, which he said meant that planning between the police department and the group is limited, and because it would be impossible for officers to divine which group each person who shows up identifies with and accordingly assign them an area in which to protest.

But Durham said the city would be taking other precautions. Among them: repurposing trucks from the Department of Public Works into makeshift roadblocks to prevent the kind of car attack that killed Heather Heyer in Charlottesville.

Rally expected to be small

In response to questions from residents Thursday, officials confirmed that they have no reason to believe that more than 50 rally attendees would show up Saturday.

The event is being planned by a small, Tennessee-based group called the New Confederate States of America, which primarily appears to be focused on selling Confederate memorabilia such as shirts, stickers and flags. Their store also carries more esoteric items, including a large selection of camouflage lingerie.

The event is primarily being promoted on Facebook, as the “Protect the General Robert E. Lee Monument Rally.”

Leaders of the group shared photos of themselves Thursday on Facebook posing with Confederate flags in front of a Virginia welcome sign. The shots are captioned “We are here” followed by the kissy-face emoji. In one image, they make a hand sign connected with militia groups, and in another they hold their buttocks in a pose seemingly intended to invite kissing.

In a separate Facebook post Thursday, they advertised a sale on Confederate flags they’ll be offering at the rally.

The group has repeatedly stressed that it is about “heritage not hate”; plans to demonstrate peacefully; and will not tolerate any racism or violence at the rally.

Counterprotest size unclear

Police said information about the number of counterprotesters is less clear but that they have seen social media posts indicating members of some out-of-state groups are making plans to attend.

Black Lives Matter was the only group mentioned by name, though city officials have said their biggest fear is violence by far-left demonstrators who identify as antifa, or anti-fascist.

Stoney asked residents to stay away from Monument Avenue on Saturday, a message that was also shared by leaders at Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Richmond.

“For your safety, I strongly encourage all members of the VCU community to avoid this area Saturday,” said VCU President Michael Rao in a statement. “There is precedence for violence at this kind of demonstration, and your safety is my paramount concern.”

University of Richmond Provost Jeffrey Legro and Chief Operating Officer Dave Hale sent out a similar notice to the UR community Thursday advising “each member of our campus community should be aware of the risk of violence, despite the presence of law enforcement officers.”

Residents question plans

Some residents made clear Thursday that they nonetheless plan to demonstrate their opposition, bristling at Durham’s suggestion that the only way to stay safe is to stay home.

“A lot of the reason why we want to show up is because we know media is going to show and we don’t want their narrative to be the only one that gets airplay,” Jameson Price told Durham. “Can you encourage the media to not show up? Can you encourage everyone to not show up?”

Other residents repeatedly expressed confusion about why the protest couldn’t be prevented altogether.

Durham acknowledged that assemblies in streets that impede traffic could be declared unlawful and stopped, but he said the groups will be coming to Richmond anyway and that the best course of action is to give them a place to demonstrate peacefully and avoid leaving them to “roam the streets.”

“We created the assembly areas. At least we can have some kind of control of people who go in those areas to assemble and what they have,” he said.

However, several residents zeroed in on the ban on helmets as incongruous with the decision to allow guns.

“You say that safety is your primary concern, but you’re not allowing people helmets,” said Kristen O’Nell. “That really, honestly, doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Durham responded that at past protests, attendees equipped with helmets and shields were the ones most likely to engage in violence.

Frustration aside, many attendees expressed their support for Durham and the approach he outlined.

“I think they’re doing everything they can possibly do,” said Ashton Lawler, a Monument Avenue resident, as he left the meeting.

noliver@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6178

Staff writer Justin Mattingly contributed to this report.

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