Counter-protesters, some of them members of local militias, weren’t the only people with firearms at recent Black Lives Matter protests in Broadway and Elkton. One group with the protesters was also carrying weapons. WMRA’s Calvin Pynn spoke with some of them, and also got reaction from a criminal justice expert.
The high school students who organized the Black Lives Matter protests in Elkton and Broadway earlier this summer knew they would be confronted by counter-protesters and members of local militias, and that they would be armed. Tsion Ward, a senior at Spotswood High School, was at both protests.
TSION WARD: We didn’t fully know where everyone would be placed, and it turned out there were militia men literally surrounding us – like, on all sides – and we weren’t aware that was happening.
Ward estimated more than 100 militia members at the Elkton protest on June 17, though she said not as many showed up in Broadway on July 6. While many stood quietly in the open or hid in woods nearby, she said some went out of their way to intimidate the protesters.
WARD: I don't know if it was a militia member or just a regular counter protester, but they had brought their gun and they were kind of mimicking shooting at the crowd.
Despite the threatening gestures, Ward and her peers noticed that the police still kept a friendly rapport with the militias and counter-protesters.
KRUG: The militia members are always near police officers that we see them talking. Um, it's always incredibly cordial.
That’s Jake Krug, an organizer with the Shenandoah Socialist Collective, or SSC.
KRUG: They all have radios, and so do we, but who knows what kind of radio communications they're getting. So, it’s hard not to make that connection. Maybe they know a little bit more than us because they've been told a little bit more.
The SSC coordinates community services in the Valley, and during protests, they act as medics, de-escalators, threat-spotters, and provide general support for the protesters. In Elkton, knowing they’d likely meet armed counter-protesters, the SSC’s members made sure to stay strapped as well.
KRUG: It’s taken us a lot of conversations and a lot of heartfelt talks about this. I used to be somebody who was very anti-gun, and I've come around on that because I've experienced the reality of the situation. We're constantly in situations where we're surrounded by armed men who are looking for any reason to open fire on us.
He said their reasons for carrying guns, however, differ from the militia members from whom they are defending themselves and the protesters.
KRUG: So sometimes we show up armed and it's not to get into some kind of battle, it's to buy innocent people time so that we can implement our evacuation plan and minimize the loss of life. And people question us for showing up armed, but we're not going to take any chances when we have had credible threats of violence against us. We want them to know you better think twice before you point a gun at anyone that we're protecting.
A Freedom Of Information Act request filed by JMU librarian Grace Wilson revealed emails between a couple militia members and now-retired Police Chief Randy Collins leading up to the Broadway protest. Among them was a map sent by a member of the East Rockingham Page Militia marking where both officers and militia members would be stationed.
Tod Burke is a retired professor of criminal justice for Radford University and also served as a police officer in Maryland. He weighed in on that exchange.
BURKE: What usually happens is something called mutual aid. You know, if I were a police chief or a supervisor for an event, whether it be protests or any type of major event that I need assistance, the first people I go to are other law enforcement agencies and make a request. So, for the most part, there's a cooperation. And I don't know of any legitimate reason why the police, the local police would reach out to a militia organization for law enforcement assistance.
If the militia needed to be called to action, that wouldn’t be up to local law enforcement.
BURKE: I think the law in Virginia is only the governor can declare, ‘Hey, if we need militia people, we’ll call.’ So if they're doing this, they're doing this kind of on their own and they may or may not be interfering with the police function.
Still, the map shared by the East Rockingham Page Militia is the only document that indicates potential collaboration with police ahead of the protest, which Burke said – on its own – does not show misconduct.
BURKE: Noting where the police are going to be, maybe that’s public information anyway, of where the police are going to be located, or what the agenda is going to be, so anyone could have had access. What would have been more confusing is if there was a revision of the map based on the contact between militia members and the police.
Whether or not there was any collaboration, Ward said the potential of a relationship between local law enforcement and militias is a trend she has noticed in multiple protests across the US against police brutality.
WARD: It's a very dangerous dynamic. And when they're here to protect and serve us, and they're here in our protection as youth as holding a protest, it doesn't send a good message when I see them laughing after the event with the people who had just pointed their guns at me, you know?