HARRISONBURG — Thursday evening, the space around Court Square once again found itself swept up in national politics.
Close to 150 people showed up at the close of workday as part of a nationwide "Protect Mueller" campaign, with a stated aim of protecting special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into the 2016 presidential election and possible interference on the part of Russian operatives in the campaign.
On Wednesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who oversaw the Department of Justice which is responsible for the special counsel's probe, resigned under pressure from President Donald Trump. Sessions and Trump's relationship had been strained since March 2017, when the attorney general recused himself from Mueller's investigation.
Matthew Whitaker, Sessions' chief of staff, has been named interim attorney general. Whitaker has been openly critical of the ongoing Mueller investigation, and Trump critics believe the shakeup means that the president, who has deemed the probe as an unfounded "witch hunt," will either move to have the investigation curtailed or Mueller fired.
The shakeup came a day after Tuesday night's election in which Democrats secured a majority in the House of Representatives, affording them an ability to launch investigations into the president.
"I'm just really angry about the sudden firing of Sessions and then putting Whitaker in who will be overseeing the investigation and he has openly derailed the investigation and wants to annihilate whats been done so far," said one protester, Jane Ruppe, 67, of Harrisonburg.
Brent Finnegan, a Harrisonburg Planning Commission member who last year unsuccessfully challenged Republican Del. Tony Wilt, R-Broadway, helped organize Thursday's rally in the city.
"This is just our local reaction, we're not really organizing anything," Finnegan said. "We're just mobilizing people to come out for this event and make sure that we're shining a light on this corruption in Washington."
Throughout the hourlong event, Finnegan and Lynlee Wastie, another organizer, encouraged the crowd to contact their representatives in Congress — including retiring Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Roanoke, Rep.-elect Ben Cline, R-Rockbridge, and newly re-elected Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va.
Afterward, various protesters addressed the rally, including Clark Mason, 52, of Mount Sidney.
"The checks and balances of Madisonian democracy are not doing their job," Mason said. "Our lawmakers are not doing their job, the 63 million people who follow [President Trump] blindly are not doing their job."