Even before violence erupted in Charlottesville, Va., last weekend, city residents and the police anxiously watched the arrival of self-styled militias — swaggering gangs of armed civilians in combat fatigues — standing guard over the protest by white supremacists and other racist agitators against the removal of a Confederate statue.
Who were these men, counterprotesters asked as the riflemen took up watchful positions around the protest site. Police? National Guard? The Virginia National Guard had to send out an alert that its members wore a distinctive “MP” patch. This was so people could tell government-sanctioned protectors from unauthorized militias that have been posing as law-and-order squads at right-wing rallies.
In brandishing weapons in Charlottesville, the militiamen added an edge of intimidation to a protest that was ostensibly called as an exercise in free speech. By flaunting their right to bear arms, they made a stark statement in a looming public confrontation. “You would have thought they were an army,” noted Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia, one of 45 states that allow the open carrying of rifles in public to some degree, most without a permit required.
The limits of that freedom are being increasingly tested by jury-rigged militias at demonstrations, public meetings and other political flash points around the nation. These strutting vigilantes have become such a threatening presence that government should rein them in to allow for a truly free exchange of ideas. State and federal laws would seem to allow their curtailment, provided that political leaders and the courts face up to the risks of mob rule.
No shots were fired in the Charlottesville violence, but with more alt-right rallies planned the danger that these militia members’ loaded weapons might be used increases. The armed groups mostly back up right-wing protests, although there was one militia in Charlottesville claiming to protect peaceful counterdemonstrators at a church. (The protest also drew “antifa” — anti-fascist — counterprotesters on the political left, ready to brawl with fists and sticks against those on the other side.)
Police officials have warned that gun-packing vigilantes only compound the risks in confrontations. Charlottesville officials, citing public safety, had sought to move the protest to a different site but were rebuffed in federal court. The American Civil Liberties Union defended the protesters’ free speech rights, though lawyers concede that the issue is becoming more complex as the potential for violence grows. Some critics think that the intrusive militias in Charlottesville could have contributed to the initial hesitation by the police to break up the violence.