Black Panthers, Proud Boys, militia groups roam Virginia streets ahead of Joe Biden's inauguration

Washington DC remains on high alert on Monday night (local time) after Capitol Hill was again plunged into lockdown.

This time a fire sparked security fears during an inauguration rehearsal, rattling the city's nerves as President-elect Joe Biden touched down.

The pomp and pageantry expected of a presidential inauguration was finally glimpsed in the capital, briefly overshadowing what has been a grim scene of camouflaged troops and razor wire.

Washington DC is preparing itself for a new commander-in-chief, but also for trouble from supporters of the old one.

They're establishing the most extensive security operation in the city since the Civil War, and not long after rehearsals started they were stopped. 

The Capitol was plunged into lockdown after a plume of smoke shot up into the skies. However the panic was short-lived, with the fire quickly linked to a nearby homeless camp and found to be completely unrelated.

But band members had already been evacuated, and the capital's raw nerves had already been exposed. 

In neighbouring Virginia, thousands of gun fanatics made the annual 'Lobby Day' pilgrimage to state capital Richmond, their vehicles sporting US flags and Trump flags.

One ute even had a replica Gatling gun mounted on the back, and almost all of them were emblazoned with 'Guns Save Lives'.

Most stayed in their cars and did laps of the city while others gathered outside its Capitol building. The Black Panthers, the Proud Boys, militia groups and everyday citizens were seen marching through the streets dressed like they'd been deployed to a warzone.

Typically on Lobby Day there are tens of thousands of people around, but there are only a few hundred this year. Why? Because these demonstrations have been outlawed due to COVID-19 and the Washington DC riots on January 6. 

And there was new information on Monday (local time) about those riots, as investigators accused Pennsylvania woman Riley Williams of stealing house speaker Nancy Pelosi's laptop, with plans to eventually sell it on to Russia's foreign intelligence service. 

The two main characters are lying low. Biden was glimpsed only briefly, helping at a food shelter before heading to DC, while Donald Trump hasn't been seen in days. 

The First Lady of the United State Melania Trump though, broke her silence, giving a farewell address that opened with the understatement of the decade: "The past four years have been unforgettable."

"As Donald and I conclude our time in the White House, I think of all those I have taken in my heart and their incredible stories of love, patriotism and determination," she said.

The stage is now set for the inauguration, with 200,000 flags standing in for the absent public - a patchwork of red, white and blue adorning the National Mall.

It's a desperate display of patriotism in a country that's never been so confused about what that word means.