Local reaction has been “nothing but positive,” said Matt Cline, the Campbell County supervisor who introduced the measure. “I would hope that the constitutional militia movement would take off across the state and other states.”
It has. Armed militia groups have formed throughout Virginia this year, an outgrowth of the “Second Amendment sanctuary” movement that swept county courthouses a year ago as a backlash against proposed gun control laws.
Supporters say the militia members are simply citizens out to help their communities and that the resolutions are symbolic, meant to send a message to Democrats who control state government that rural Virginia will not abide any efforts to restrict access to guns. Largely White, the groups generally ban Confederate iconography and aim to present an image connected with the patriot groups of the American Revolution — though members have defended Confederate monuments during efforts this year to take them down.
State officials are monitoring the phenomenon, particularly after the FBI disclosed in mid-October that out-of-state members of a militant group who were arrested in an alleged plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) had also discussed “taking” Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D). Such groups have stirred violence around the country during this summer’s protests against racial inequity and in some places have been blamed for intimidating voters during early balloting in the presidential race.
“After what we saw happen in Michigan, clearly we’re diligently following them,” said Virginia’s public safety secretary, Brian Moran. “If they associate and gather for nefarious purpose such as kidnapping the governor, then obviously criminal charges will be brought. But it requires some criminality to intervene.”
Over the summer, individuals identified with the anti-government “boogaloo boys,” often connected with armed groups, participated in violent demonstrations in Richmond. Authorities in the state capital said agitators from other extremist groups that identify as militias helped stoke clashes among Black Lives Matter protesters and police.
In a recent study, the nonprofit Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project rated Virginia among a handful of states with “moderate risk” of militia activity focused on the election. Moran said there have been no reports so far of militias intimidating voters at Virginia polling places ahead of Tuesday’s vote.
Advocates for the militias that have formed this year in Virginia say they are not affiliated with extremist groups and instead are aligned with the state’s constitution, which provides for “able-bodied” citizens between the ages of 16 and 55 to be part of an “unorganized militia.”
Campbell County’s resolution recognizing the militia, passed in March, “doesn’t authorize them, it doesn’t say they are an arm of the locality,” Cline said. “It is a recognition of the constitutional militia, and that’s a very big distinction [from] a paramilitary group that operates on its own benevolence.”
Militia groups drew attention on May 31 when armed White men deployed to protect a Lynchburg restaurant confronted Black Lives Matter protesters, with some residents complaining that the militia members had interfered with police. But Cline said the militia is better known for its charitable works, such as picking up trash and stocking shelves at food pantries.
“We had a storm not long ago, and on their own accord, the militia went around with chain saws — not AR-15 [rifles], but chain saws — and cleared roads,” Cline said.
But opponents point out that the state constitution specifies that unorganized militias can be activated only by the governor. The Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University Law Center has written to several counties to warn them that sanctioning the actions of militias could be illegal. And residents in some communities say they are alarmed by the rising profile of armed gatherings, provoking memories of the pseudo-military groups that spread violence in Charlottesville during 2017’s deadly Unite the Right rally.
“We all just would be horrified if it’s normalized to have people walking down the street open-carrying, especially semiautomatic weapons. That would not be a good look for a tourist destination,” said Lisa McQuail of the Shenandoah Valley town of Luray in Page County.
There, Sheriff Chad Cubbage has defended a local militia that has shown up at several public events, telling the Page Valley News: “I do support a well-regulated militia.”
In Halifax County, the debate over a local armed group has stirred racial tensions. Located deep in southern Virginia along the North Carolina line, Halifax has a significantly greater Black population — about 36 percent — than other counties that have embraced militia groups. Black people make up less than 15 percent of the population in Campbell, for instance, and about 7 percent in Bedford.
When it comes to support for guns, Halifax is united. All eight county supervisors — three of whom are Black — passed a Second Amendment sanctuary resolution last year, asserting that they would resist efforts to implement gun control. This summer, after the General Assembly passed laws giving localities the power to restrict guns, Halifax passed another resolution proclaiming that it would never do such a thing.
But when a White supervisor proposed officially recognizing the Halifax Militia during a September meeting, Black supervisors resisted, saying it was dangerous to encourage armed patrols and unnecessary when taxpayers fund law enforcement. The idea was tabled for future consideration and has remained a hot topic of discussion.
“We want to be an asset to our community. We want our community to be proud to be a part of it and not be ashamed,” said Mitzi Thompson, 46, a construction supervisor and Army veteran who leads the Halifax Militia.
Along with many other new armed groups around the state, the Halifax organization formed after a pro-gun rally in Richmond in January that brought thousands of firearm enthusiasts from all over the country. That event also included threats against lawmakers who were proposing gun restrictions, as far-right and white supremacist groups fanned outrage online.
Phil Van Cleave of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, which organized the rally, said he was not involved in encouraging the growth of militias in Virginia but said he welcomed the support of law-abiding groups.
Only four people showed up for the initial muster in Halifax, Thompson said. She declined to say how many people are involved now but said it is a significantly greater number, including other veterans and people with search-and-rescue experience.
The group musters for regular training sessions, which Thompson likened to family cookouts. “We all come out there and have a good time,” she said. “It always leaves a smile on your face.”
They staged a “Back the Blue” rally for local law enforcement and staffed a booth at a Republican Party fundraiser, though Thompson said the group is not overtly political. In August, the group volunteered to help search for a missing 11-year-old boy and worked alongside local emergency responders.
Thompson disavowed white supremacists and boogaloo boys as “nonsense” and said her group has no plans to patrol voting places during the election — though she said she couldn’t speak for what individual members might do.
Despite her depiction of the organization as a community service group, Thompson also talks of it as a last-line defender of homeland and basic rights. “Americans have become spoiled to the fact that all wars are overseas,” she said, adding that citizens need to be prepared in case that changes.
Thompson has invited Black residents to attend training sessions and join the group — with the condition “that they are law-abiding citizens and can actually carry a weapon,” she said — but none has taken her up on the offer. That could partly be because Thompson has made no secret of her support for the local Confederate monument, which is the subject of an advisory referendum on this week’s ballot in Halifax.
The issue has divided local residents, with signs around town urging voters to either “Reject White Supremacy” or “Stop the Destruction of American History.”
Though many Black residents say they want the statue removed from its spot in front of the courthouse, Thompson views it as a symbol of history and not a tribute to racism. The Civil War “was never about slavery for Virginia,” she said. “Every single Virginian who fought in the Civil War fought for freedom.”
Detra Carr, a former head of the local NAACP, said the armed group has aggravated the issue of race in Halifax — the image of White citizens patrolling with guns evoking a dark past.
“They’re keeping people in line just like the slavemasters knew how to keep the slaves in line,” said Carr, 66, who owns an auto parts shop in the county.
He attributed the growing visibility of militia-style groups to encouragement from President Trump, who, when asked to condemn white supremacists and militias in his first debate with former vice president Joe Biden, instead told the far-right Proud Boys group to “stand back and stand by.”
“They watch him; they listen to him,” Carr said.
Barbara Coleman-Brown, the current head of the Halifax NAACP, said she saw the harmful effect of the armed group by their mere presence at a Black Lives Matter rally over the summer.
As a 16-year-old Black girl spoke to the demonstrators, a group of Halifax Militia members looked on. “They stood with their long guns so that child could see them,” Coleman-Brown said. “I would rub her back and say, ‘That’s okay, just keep going.’ She was shaking throughout her body. Now, you tell me what they are doing out there.”
W. Bryant Claiborne, a lawyer and member of the county supervisors, said the issue of whether to recognize the armed group as a militia boils down to one simple thing: “It’s illegal,” he said.
Claiborne, who is Black, said the idea of a militia supporting law enforcement also raises liability questions for the county in the event that someone gets hurt.
The White supervisor who introduced the resolution to recognize the group as a militia declined to comment but said he thought the matter would come up for a vote at the board’s next meeting — on Monday night — and would probably fail, though he did not specify why.
Thompson said she wasn’t worried about the prospect. “No matter which way they vote,” she said, “we’re already here.”