On Saturday afternoon, Tanesha Hudson set up a lunch buffet in a conference room on the top floor of the Central Library on Market Street. A few dozen people spooned mac ’n’ cheese and other dishes onto disposable plates and sat at folding tables to eat.
Hudson planned the meeting, a sort of citizens committee, she says, for the Charlottesville community to discuss how to “start holding the city more accountable for the way things turned out” the weekend of August 12. But only a handful of community members were in attendance—they were outnumbered by members of independent militia and other Three Percent and American patriot movement groups, who drove in from out of town to attend the meeting.
Hudson began by talking about her gratitude for the militia’s presence on August 12, noting that at one point, when white supremacists were beating counterprotesters with flag poles, it was the militia, not the police, who stepped in to help. She said she was skeptical of the militia at first, cussed them out, even, but since that weekend, she’s been in touch with George Curbelo, commanding officer of the New York Light Foot Militia, and better understands his group’s intentions. When Curbelo heard about this meeting, Hudson says, he asked if he and other militia members could attend.
One community member stood to echo Hudson’s gratitude for protection on that day. A second community member voiced his skepticism over the militia groups’ defense of free speech and said he figured that they were here to defend Richard Spencer’s right to speak, too. A third community member asked the militia groups to understand why Charlottesville is frightened by them and their presence in town.
Curbelo’s New York Light Foot Militia is one of the private military groups named in a lawsuit filed on October 12 by the University of Georgetown law school’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection on behalf of the city, several downtown businesses and neighborhood associations. The lawsuit asserts, among other things, that the presence of private armies significantly heightens the possibility of violence; that the rally organizers solicited private militias to attend the rally, held group-wide planning calls and circulated an instructional document called General Orders.
Because of the lawsuit, Curbelo and others are not allowed to discuss the details of the pre-planning or their own experiences of the day. But on Saturday, they sought to explain what the militias and American patriot groups stand for.
In a prepared statement, Anthony Hitchcock of the Virginia Minutemen Militia said free speech stops at violence. “We worked to keep the peace between the right and the left. We did everything within the parameters of the law to keep it peaceful…our only regret is not better keeping the peace,” he said, adding that members of his group are not white supremacists and do not condone racism or white supremacy.
In a phone interview Monday, Curbelo explained that his group and others are part of the American patriot movement, which seeks to uphold citizens’ Constitutional rights, including the right to assemble, the right to free speech and the right to bear arms. Militia groups, Curbelo says, are a subcategory of that movement.
Curbelo says his group’s intention is to facilitate conversations within communities, and sometimes that means creating a physical buffer between two opposing groups until initial friction dissipates and people start talking. That’s what these militia groups were in Charlottesville to do on August 12, but “it became so overwhelming that the only thing we could do was pick people up off the floor,” Curbelo says.