Virginia’s Capitol as a dystopian landscape braced for battle. How did it come to this?

January 20, 2020 12:03 am

Fencing rings the Virginia Capitol after Gov. Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

By the time you read this, thousands of people — maybe some intent on angry and perhaps violent confrontation— will be making their way to what was once the welcoming, parklike lawn of Virginia’s majestic hilltop Capitol.

But on this Monday morning, they’ll find a barren and forbidding landscape ringed by six-foot-tall chain-link restraining fences and a heavy presence of all-business police officers. Park benches and other comforts that beckoned visitors in more peaceful times to rest and reflect had been removed by last Thursday.

The temple Thomas Jefferson designed for Virginia’s free exercise of self-government took on the air of an internment camp last week amid growing fears by state and local officials of the sort of deadly violence that convulsed Charlottesville 2½ years ago.

For years, the pro-gun Virginia Citizens Defense League, with some members openly and legally carrying firearms, has peacefully rallied on the Capitol lawn as part of its annual “Lobby Day” activities. This year, with Democrats newly in control of the General Assembly, gun control bills that for decades had died in a Republican-run legislature are expected to pass, creating a new sense of urgency among the VCDL, the NRA and other Second Amendment advocacy groups. It also got the attention of violent anti-government and white-supremacist groups who plan to attend and maybe (but maybe not?) far-left types who could show up.

It’s a combustible combination anywhere, but few places can match Capitol Square’s powerful reminders of a conflicted past rooted in slavery’s shameful legacy. A plaque marking the spot where Jefferson Davis was sworn in as the Confederacy’s only president is less than 100 yards from the spot where L. Douglas Wilder, a grandson of slaves, took his oath in 1989 as America’s first elected black governor.

A monument erected in 2008 celebrates students who walked out of their all-black Farmville high school in 1951 to protest its separate and grossly unequal conditions and the legendary Virginia lawyers who took their case to the Supreme Court in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision three years later. A short stroll to the west are monuments that honor William “Extra Billy” Smith, a Confederate general and wartime governor, and Harry F. Byrd, the author of Virginia’s failed “massive resistance” plan to defy court-ordered desegregation after the Brown decision. Between the Smith and Byrd statues stands an oak planted in 2001 in memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by Gov. Jim Gilmore and King’s widow, Coretta Scott King.

Citing credible threats of violence, Gov. Ralph Northam last week banned firearms and other weapons from Capitol Square from Friday through Tuesday. His action, challenged unsuccessfully in court, appeared to be validated by the FBI arrests of alleged neo-Nazis in possession of an automatic weapon and more than 1,500 rounds of ammunition with plans to attend the rally. By lunch Thursday, security fencing had sealed off Capitol Square’s monuments, its historic Bell Tower and the immediate perimeter of the Capitol Building itself. By Monday, public access to the Capitol grounds would be restricted to one gate with metal detectors and security officers where each person faces a thorough search.

Such is the dystopian scene outside the home of the Western Hemisphere’s oldest continuously meeting legislative body on the national holiday celebrating the birthday of Dr. King Jr., the champion of America’s nonviolent struggle for civil rights.

How did we get here?

The rise of extreme ideology in recent years is undeniable. Non-state militia groups actively prepare for what they believe is a coming day of armed conflict in furtherance of advancing their own world view.

Violence prevails when civil discourse and debate fails. And we’ve become a nation of insular and adversarial tribes not interested in civil discourse and scarcely practiced in face-to-face interaction of any kind.

Chastened by the Civil War, which exacted a higher toll on Virginia than any other state North or South, Virginia learned to handle profound societal and policy shifts in the following years. Women gained the right to vote exactly 100 years ago. Jim Crow came to an end. New taxes were levied, then raised or lowered. Tobacco, a founding economic mainstay once so essential to the commonwealth that golden garlands of it are painted on the Capitol Rotunda, has been banned from public places.

Some argue that technology has abetted our cocooning and aggravated our estrangement as a society. It allows us to handle many of life’s necessary tasks without ever leaving the isolation of home.

Groceries and gourmet meals, medicines and most any kind of merchandise can be summoned to your front door — there’s an app for that. Many banking tasks can be done with a few taps on a smart phone screen. Whole days can pass at work where colleagues just down the hall from one another interact by email, instant messages or voicemails. Some medical diagnoses and even measurements for custom apparel can now be made remotely using a smart phone camera.

Brick-and-mortar businesses where people once mingled and transacted business have paid a steep price. Town squares have atrophied. In suburban malls that once teemed with shoppers, retirees in khakis and comfy shoes log their miles striding purposefully past dark and derelict department stores whose patrons now buy online.  

Cinemas where long lines once waited at their box offices compete with streaming or on-demand services that now bring Oscar-nominated first-run films in razor-sharp high definition and surround sound into living rooms for less than the cost of a single movie ticket.  

When life’s necessities pack us into close confines today — supermarket checkout lines, airport boarding gates, the DMV — we’re a collection of lone individuals, usually transfixed by their mobile devices, with no sense of community and little, if any, conversation.

Increasingly, interaction comes through social media. It exposes more people than ever to more information and a wider diversity of thought and opinion than was once imaginable. It also spreads disinformation and provides a nurturing and unchallenged refuge for extreme ideologies and, under the seeming anonymity of the digital universe, emboldens people to lash out and threaten adversaries in ways they likely would not in person.

Today, sadly, the world’s media will focus on the heartbreaking sight of our Capitol Square as a forbidding place, ringed by cold metal fencing and with a large police presence to deter violence.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]