The violent events of this weekend’s white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia were illustrated by a flow of images that shocked many, from crowds of riled-up white men brandishing torches to Nazi insignia to people flying through the air as a car barrelled into a crowd. One type of image that was widely shared on social media was camouflage-clad and heavily-armed men who looked like soldiers ready for the battlefield.
Alas, they were not part of the US military. They were not even members of law enforcement, whose heavily-armed presence loomed over the Ferguson protests three years ago this month. They were members of armed militia organizations, which say they came to Charlottesville to provide order at the protest. Here’s a brief explanation of what exactly they were doing there:
These armed quasi-military groups have strong anti-government views and position themselves as protectors of the US constitution. Their popularity generally ebbs during Republican presidencies, but experts say their activity has not subsided under Trump.
According to The Washington Post, which interviewed the militiamen’s leader, Christian Yingling, the men in the images are a group of 32 militia members he recruited from different East Coast units via social media and online forums. Yingling himself is the commander of the Pennsylvania Light Foot Militia who joined the Navy to escape a dysfunctional home life. He has organized similar militia efforts at other right-wing gatherings and said that a Virginia militia commander asked him to organize the response in Charlottesville.
One militia observer identified several other groups at the protest:
Yingling called both sides protesting in Charlottesville “jackasses” and said his group was there only to guard the First Amendment, which protects the right to free speech. He said that the response to his call to attend the rally was small, because other members feared being associated with white supremacists.
Another militia whose members were reportedly present in Charlottesville as well, the “Three Percenters,” issued a “stand down” order in response to the protests, and denounced any members that chose to attend a neo-Nazi or white supremacy demonstrations, The Trace reported.
These groups have long been associated with right-wing, anti-government causes, including the occupation of a wildlife refuge in Oregon in 2016. On the same day as the Charlottesville protest, the FBI arrested a 23-year-old man, Jerry Drake Varnell, reportedly a follower of the “Three Percenters,” who had plans to detonate a car bomb at an Oklahoma bank.
What really made the militia members resemble the military were their weapons— which included assault rifles, and which, according to Yingling, were loaded. In Virginia, gun-carrying laws are very lenient. You can carry a gun in the open without a permit, and it does not have to be registered in the state. Virginia also has few restrictions on assault weapons.
Virginia’s National Guard, called in for the first time in nearly three decades to help control a civil disturbance, was so concerned about people mistaking militiamen for its members that it tweeted out a way to make the distinction:
Local law enforcement came under fire for its lackluster response to the violence. According to reporters from ProPublica, militia members from New York state played a more active role in breaking up altercations than the police. Even Virginia’s governor Terry McAuliffe, who defended the official response, told The New York Times (paywall) that the men “had better equipment than our state police.”