Militias and Militant Groups at #UniteTheRight: Buffer Zones and Street Clashes
On August 12, Charlottesville, Virginia was set upon by a mix of far-right groups including Nazis, Neo-Confederates, White Nationalists, and fascists of many other stripes. These groups were participating in an event for those on the far-right, prompted by Charlottesville’s plans to remove Confederate statues and named “#UniteTheRight”. Armed militia groups, though often considering themselves largely apolitical, showed up on the twelfth to defend protesters, as well.
Prior to the events of the day, there was debate between leadership of a few militia groups about their intended involvement. The overwhelming majority of III%, Constitutionalist, and Patriot militias opted out of “keeping the peace” due to the extremely high political visibility of the #UniteTheRight gathering.
However, despite the absense of many militias, armed militia members did show up on the twelfth from a few states and provided services key to the events of the day. This brief looks to identify the role of the militias in the day, compile a list of the militias present, and describe the nature of the militias before making speculation about what the events of the twelfth could mean for the future of militias.
Role of the militias
The primary role of the militias, as with most militia groups intervening “to keep the peace” is to form buffers between the parties in conflict. In Oregon, this meant forming a buffer of armed men between the Bundy affiliates and Federal police. In Ferguson, Oathkeepers guarded storefronts from protesters. In Atlanta, III% defended U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) from a peaceful protest. In DC, they observed #J20 leftist protests “just in case”. It’s a regular tactic of these militias to stick themselves into extremely politicized moments but to claim a nonpolitical stance. Usually, though, it’s easy to then decide what the militia’s political stance really is.
This is what makes the events in Charlottesville so strange. Leadership of two of the key militias in the city recognized that the media would of course portray them as supporting the fascist gathering, yet decided they must be involved. Other cases, defending business from rioters or aiding another armed group in its occupation, have been extremely consistent in the worldview of most Oathkeepers and III% involved, regardless of the views of those they are assisting.
The primary role served by the militias in Charlottesville was that of another buffer security force. In addition to the heavy amount of police and the metal police barricades surrounding the area around the Robert E. Lee statue that set this whole thing off, the militia arrived to provide another layer of armed men defending those in the park.
This involved not only moving the frontlines away from cops, but “upgrading” the heft of the guns on the frontlines — most police officers were only armed with pistols while the militia members arrived with rifles and many magazines.
Militias also took it upon themselves to direct groups of people. A large contingent of clergy came out to counterprotest at the park, and militia members corralled them into a space. This isn’t necessarily a negative activity at its essence but few would be interested in disobeying an intimidating man wearing camo and carrying an AR-15. This is taking a more offensive stance than the police in some ways and further establishes the militias as a primary force of contact for those arriving at the park.
Militias also communicated with Charlottesville Police Department prior to their arrival, with militia leadership themselves indicating that their organizations had the support of the police to come aid.
While the overwhelming majority of patches sighted on militia members were III%, pro-police blue-stripe flags, and the sort, patches of the New York Militia were clearly visible on several individuals and the leaders of both the New York Light Foot Militia and Pennsylvania Light Foot Militia Laurel Hills Ghost Division were easily identified on the scene.
Other groups involved included individual III% members who attended with the general support of the nationwide organization but no institutional approval from local chapters.
The League of the South, a Neo-Confederate and Southern Nationalist organization, had delegates among the marchers but the armed force attached to the group, the Southern Defense Force, did not join the Patriot militias in guarding the park. The Detroit RightWings, a far-right organization that uses the Detroit Redwings logo as their own, showed up to the park with emblemized shields but did not send members to the corps of militia guard.
What seemed to be largely missing from the militia and militant presence in Charlottesville were militias from Virginia, who officially never made any commitment to attend.
A number of leftist organizations and associations responded to counter-protest, including the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), Black Lives Matter (BLM), and Anti-Fascists. Only one organization that could be considered a militia showed up, Redneck Revolt. The Virginia Chapter had representatives on the ground.
Leadership of the New York Lightfoot Militia has decried violence committed by the driver of a car, saying that plowing through counterprotesters is proof of “what hate does” to individuals.
Militia members, especially those who have taken their membership in militias to also include activism in media, have been very vocal in the wake of #UniteThe Right. They have complained about the unfair treatment that they have received from mainstream media, denounced the Charlottesville police for cowardice and poor command, and reiterated their reasons for attending.
Many of the leaders and members who brought their arms and gear to Charlottesville to “defend free speech” have seen the overwhelmingly negative response to their involvement. Some attendees have taken to Facebook Live or Periscope to complain exactly about this. New York leadership saw the vicious car-ramming attack and were shocked by the action. This is not to say that this may deter some militia groups from trying to provide security at extremely contentious events, but the events of the 12th of August are likely to be remembered and discussed when considering militia engagement in the future.