One of the most striking striking images from Saturday’s clash between white supremacists and counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Va., was the presence of dozens of heavily armed men and women dressed in combat fatigues resembling the National Guard and casting an imposing shadow over the events. But these were not law enforcement officers or soldiers. They were self-appointed militia who, public officials say, without proper training or legal authorities to act as a security force only make a situation more dangerous. And their participation in “alt-right” events is on the rise.
One leader of the militia groups said they went to Charlottesville only to “protect the peace.” But during the chaos of Saturday’s standoff quickly militia members found they mostly had to defend themselves. One member, whom one militia leader later said was known to have mental health concerns, even drew a weapon and came very close to firing on the crowd. That’s exactly what police officials say they’re worried about -- one shot that could spark even further tragedy -- and why they are calling on militia considering attending future events to stand down.
“Any group that considers themselves a public safety group other than law enforcement is of concern because that is not their job. It’s the law enforcement’s job,” Sandra Hutchens, president of Major County Sheriffs of America, told Defense One. The group is an association of elected sheriffs “representing counties or parishes with 500,000 population or more.”
One reason the presence of heavily armed men patrolling during “alt-right” events adds a new level of danger is because no one is entirely sure why they are even there or to whom they are accountable, including the militia members themselves. Law enforcement officers, on the other hand, are “accountable to the public always; that’s a very important point in this,” said Hutchens, who also is the sheriff-coroner for Orange County, Calif. “If we’re not doing it appropriately, then we’re accountable to the people and the government.”
Hutchens said law enforcement agencies also can work with both sides of protest events ahead of time, if the groups are interested, to establish safety guidelines, identify locations to protest, and establish rules of engagement in advance. That doesn’t always work — Charlottesville police had an established safety plan with the Unite the Right protesters on Saturday that was quickly disregarded and contributed to officials declaring a state of emergency. But many departments are trained in areas like crowd control and think about how to engage with protesters and counter-protesters to foster a safe environment that still allows for First Amendment expression.
“You don’t want to have so many officers there if you don’t need them that makes it look like you’re trying to stifle somebody’s ability to protest,” she said. “At the same time, you need to be prepared in case you have some individuals that are going to start breaking the law.”
And when armed militias step into the breach, acting as security forces at protests, they can come without that training, without having communicated with both sides, without the same legal responsibility for public safety.
On Sunday, Christian Yingling, a Navy veteran and the organizer of the Pennsylvania Lightfoot Militia, one of the key groups present during the day’s events, posted a 30-minute video on Facebook to explain his version of what happened and why they attended.
Yingling’s post is significant in how much it reveals about modern militia movements and how they operate, sometimes unknowingly, alongside other groups, including the alt-right, whom Yingling repeatedly disavows in his statement. At points, Yingling seems remarkably politically astute. He begins by explaining, “All of the militias that were under one centralized command do not condone, support, or in anyway align ourselves with white supremacy or racist dialogue or thinking… We were there to help keep the peace.”
Yingling never says who selected him and his group to be the default police force for Saturday’s event. He says only that the Pennsylvania group was in Charlottesville at the invitation of an affiliated group called the Virginia Minuteman Militia, or VMM.
A VMM representative told Defense One that a friend had told him about the Unite the Right rally. “We went by our own choosing cause [sic] we felt it was the right thing for us to do as patriots,” he said.
David Shockley, a member of the Virginia militia who was at the Charlottesville protest, has described the group as sort of an enhanced neighborhood watch association that sometimes provides volunteer security for things like Civil War events. They previously supported the Pennsylvania group during a Gettysburg demonstration, so the Pennsylvania group came down to Virginia to return the favor. Shockley identifies himself online as being an Army Reservist for seven years in the 1970s and currently employed as an armed professional security officer in Waynesboro, Va.
But Shockley’s Facebook wall shows several posts supporting the Unite the Right rally and protesting the potential removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee from a public park near the University of Virginia, which was the stated reason for the rally. When questioned directly about those posts, Shockley sounded a more egalitarian tone, talking about an appreciation for history. He distanced himself from any support of the government of the Confederacy or from any endorsement of slavery. “I love my country and I love people. I do not like to see any ones rights abused or taken away. I have friends of all nationalities and we can talk to each other without anger,” he said.
But Shockley also has shared several posts in recent months supporting “Southern heritage,” arguing against changing Civil War names or monuments, calling for the removal of statues to Union Army generals, and promoting other revisionist history of the Civil War. “More of the truth that you have been lied to about. The real history has been rewritten by the north,” he writes atop one post. He shares another that reads, “The monuments that need to be removed are the ones to Custer, Grant and Sherman throughout our country, not monuments to our Southern soldiers and Generals. These three men in particular actually committed war crimes against private citizens on the scale of Adolf Hitler.” Shockley’s posts also support pro-Christian “crusader” themes and warnings against Islam and Muslims in America. Three weeks ago he shared an editorial cartoon equating the Islamic State’s destruction of historical statues in Iraq and Syria with, the caption reads, “liberals destroying historical monuments they find offensive. There is no difference.”
Yingling, too, has reposted items on his Facebook wall from Confederacy-themed groups. But he does not publically identify as a white supremacist and, in his Facebook post, is consistently and convincingly critical of the movement, describing it as “hate on hate.” (Importantly, he does describe Black Lives Matter and other protesters in precisely the same terms.)
Those posts alone likely would disqualify those individuals from professional law enforcement or military service in most agencies.
Regardless of the personal beliefs of the militia members, more and more they are drawing into closer alignment with anti-government “alt-right” groups since the 2016 presidential election. The pool of anti-government extremist groups, including militias, typically contracts during Republican administrations. After Trump won, a number of militia groups reoriented around the left-wing “Antifa” as their newfound enemy, said Mark Pitcavage, a senior fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. The Antifa is the loosely affiliated anti-fascist movement that has visibly participated in a number of demonstrations since inauguration, including Saturday’s violent counter-protest in Charlottesville. By that time, militia groups had participated in a number of events that intertwined them with far-right groups, including some white supremacist ones.
“These events could include events organized by people on the far right, they could include people on the far-right protesting left-wing events, and they could include people on the far-right protesting left-wing protests of right-wing figures like Ann Coulter,” Pitcavage said. While some of those events turned violent, not all were, and none deadly, as this past weekend.
The militia, say Schockley and Yingling, simply did not know what they were getting into on Saturday. Some members found themselves sandwiched between club-wielding neo-nazis and masked counter-protesters throwing tear gas. The group was physically attacked by both for attempting to maintain what Yingling said was a “neutral stance.”
That’s an increasingly common stance militia groups have claimed as they’ve become more active in the public sphere, according to Ryan Lenz, a senior investigative writer at the Southern Poverty Law Center, a watchdog nonprofit that monitors extremist groups.
“The anti-government movement has coalesced around this idea that they can serve as additional security forces in the public sphere, separate from police,” he said. “[They] feel that their role in this contentious political environment is to stand sometimes as the protector between the federal government and citizen, and more often than not, the citizen on the radical right and those who seek to silence that person.”
But neutral does not mean qualified to serve as an armed protective force. At one point, Yingling said, one of the militia members drew his weapon at the crowd and threatened them before backing away to escape repeated assault. Yingling later qualified the armed posture as the "low ready" position.
“We call him T.K.,” Yingling explains in his post. “T.K. has a neurological disorder; he refuses to stop … He was part of the melee that ensued...From what he told me, they swarmed him, were beating him, pepper spraying them.”
Yingling argued T.K. was a model of restraint. “Did they deploy those weapons? No. Did they have a right to considering there was a mob attacking them? Yes.”
The fact that the militia arrived armed, and why, has also been criticized and scrutinized by both sides. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe told The New York Times on Sunday that the presence of armed groups carrying assault rifles hurt police response. “It’s easy to criticize,” the police, he said, “but I can tell you this, 80 percent of the people here had semiautomatic weapons.” The quote was later removed from the Times’ story after other officials said the governor was mistaken.
Corinne Geller, Virginia State Police spokesperson, told Defense One, "I think he was just alluding to the fact that some of these individuals may have had more firearms than our troopers did" [on them at the moment]. It "doesn't mean...our folks did not have the adequate equipment. We had the necessary tactical, protective and operational equipment necessary to protect our troopers and officers as well as the individuals there," she said. The militia was “in compliance with state law. Virginia is an open-carry state.”
Charlottesville Police Chief Al Thomas, on Monday, said, “We were certainly not intimidated by the firepower of the ‘alt-right.’” But officers did have to quickly transition from everyday uniforms to protective gear when violence broke out, and “obviously we had to be cognizant of their presence,” said Lt. Steve Upman, a spokesperson for the Charlottesville police.
It’s not a matter of Second Amendment rights, said Hutchens, the president of the Major County Sheriffs of America. Legally carrying firearms or not, the presence of armed militia groups can affect the way law enforcement professionals handle the situation.
“I know there’s been some discussion about open carry — I respect the laws of those states,” she said. “But it does complicate matters when you have these types of incidents occur, because it only takes one [person] to really cause a problem.”
Yingling, of the Pennsylvania militia, guessed the number of total armed members of the organized militia in Charlottesville as closer to 32 individuals. He says that the police were well aware of the group’s presence, knew where they would be, and there was coordination between the two.
Even if the public outcry for peace following Charlottesville might have made some militia members think twice about public associations with far-right protests, the possibility of violence means many might feel a duty to attend regardless.
“We’ve passed the time where these are peaceful assemblies — the expectation should be going forward that these will erupt into violence, I believe,” said the SPLC’s Lenz. “And I also would argue the patriot movement, or so-called anti-government movement, will think that these things will result in violence as well, and that they have to be there to protect those who are being oppressed.”
Indeed, as Yingling’s video commentary about Charlottesville goes on, he becomes increasingly frustrated with what he perceives as inaction from the local police. At one point, he says he asked them, “‘How come you guys aren’t doing anything about this?’ I was told…that law enforcement was told that they were not to intercede unless it got really bad. I guess rioting wasn’t bad enough...So I guess we’re the only assets here for crowd control.”
Ben Watson contributed to this report.