In A Summer of Local Protests, Concern About Militia Presence

Sep 21, 2020

Attendees held signs under the drizzling rain in Elkton's Stonewall Park at the June 17 Black Lives Matter protest.
Credit Randi B. Hagi

Black Lives Matter protests this summer in the towns of Broadway and Elkton were met with counter-protesters and members of various militia groups. Some local residents have expressed concerns about relationships between the militias and the police departments in those towns. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports in the first of a series.

[sound from Elkton Black Lives Matter protest]

Counter-protesters perched on a ridge overlooking Stonewall Park in Elkton.
Credit Randi B. Hagi

On June 17, a few hundred protesters gathered in Elkton’s Stonewall Park for a youth-led Black Lives Matter rally. A few weeks later, students and graduates of Broadway High School held a similar protest in that town’s Heritage Park. At both events, members of local militias and unaffiliated citizens stood and patrolled around the parks – some carrying rifles, others, concealed handguns. Some county residents, such as JMU librarian Grace Wilson, were alarmed by their presence.

GRACE WILSON: Before attending, I had seen militia members bragging repeatedly about coordinating with local police on social media. And when I attended the Broadway Black Lives Matter protest, I also saw the police being way friendlier to the militia folks, from my perspective, than to the actual event organizers or any of us who were in attendance.

Wilson filed a Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, request with the town of Broadway, asking for records of communications to and from the police department including the words “protest,” “Black Lives Matter,” “riots,” and “militia.”  The documents she received included police memos from the event, and emails with the protest organizer, Rockingham County Militia, and East Rockingham South Page Militia. Wilson said a few of those documents raised more questions than they answered – including a map that a member of the East Rockingham South Page militia sent to the police department, which marked out where both law enforcement officers and militia members would be stationed. Wilson sent the documents to Georgetown University Law Center's Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection.

WILSON: … really just hoping for some help. Just feeling like there was not a lot of support with local law enforcement to push back against the militias, and it just felt unsafe. And so I reached out to the folks at Georgetown because they had done work in Charlottesville after the Unite the Right rally. They've been very active this summer with tracking militia activity and sending letters to localities with advice.

Local singer/rapper and public school employee Raiquan Thomas performs at the Black Lives Matter protest in Broadway.
Credit Randi B. Hagi

In response, Georgetown Law Center sent letters to both Broadway and Elkton Police Departments on August 21.

The letters state "It is concerning that these militias have asserted collaboration with the police departments of both Broadway and Elkton." They go on to say that Virginia law prohibits private paramilitary activity and does not allow individuals who are not actual officers to exercise law enforcement functions. The law center offered the police departments free consultation and training materials on these issues, such as the definition of a legal militia –

Mary McCord is the legal director at the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection.
Credit Mary McCord

MARY MCCORD: The U.S. Constitution as well as, then, the constitutions of all of the states refers to able-bodied residents who are available to be called forth by the governor, or in the case of the U.S., by the United States government, in service and defense of the state, not militias that can just privately organize … and answer only to themselves. That was expressly prohibited in 48 state constitutions.

Mary McCord is the legal director at the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection. She said there's a "national myth" about the Second Amendment protecting private paramilitary, or militia, types of activity, and that police departments are within their rights to tell militia groups they can't assemble at a park in that capacity. As for the results of Wilson's FOIA request –

Armed observers and counter-protesters were stationed around Heritage Park and out along Broadway streets during the protest. It's unclear who among them were members of local militias, other groups, or unaffiliated individuals.
Credit Randi B. Hagi

MCCORD: It definitely shows communication between militias and the police of both Elkton and Broadway, and definitely shows a strong desire on the part of the militias to coordinate with them. It's less clear about whether the police actually responded in any favorable way … They didn't say, you should not be coming, it's unlawful under Virginia law, it's not protected, and we don't need your help, and it's dangerous to public safety.