New Derry militia leader: Charlottesville presence an effort to be 'pro-government,' free speech
A New Derry militia leader says his group's efforts to “keep the peace” at a Charlottesville white-supremacist rally were part of a push to protect free-speech rights and move the image of militias beyond that of the anti-government conspiracy theorists of the 1990s.
Christian Yingling, leader of the Pennsylvania Light Foot Militia, led a contingent of 32 armed militia members from Pennsylvania, New York and elsewhere to stand in a line Saturday outside Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Va., where white supremacist groups planned a “Unite the Right” rally.
The militia's intent was not to support or specifically protect the white supremacists but to stop clashes between them and counter-protesters in the name of ensuring all sides had the opportunity to peacefully demonstrate, Yingling said.
“If we're to call ourselves militia and preach about the Constitution, we'll have to stand up for the rights of people we don't necessarily believe in,” Yingling told the Tribune-Review on Tuesday. “We are pro-government, very pro-government; we're anti-corrupt-government.”
Though Yingling forcefully denounced the white supremacists at the rally and said many militia groups stayed away because they didn't want to be associated with that ideology, he said his idea of the militia acting as protectors of free speech started in discussions with another militia leader about anti-fascist, or “antifa,” protesters shutting down right-wing speakers and rallies.
The two leaders came to the conclusion that the militias should step in to protect free speech, even if it's hateful or unpopular, Yingling said.
He and other members of the Pennsylvania militia had participated in similar “peacekeeping” roles at an anti-Sharia rally in Harrisburg and in response to threats that antifa activists would attack Confederate memorials in Gettysburg on July 1.
Anti-fascist ideology holds that pro-fascist speech should be denied any platform and blocked by any means before it takes root or gains legitimacy, putting its proponents at odds with the militia's goal of letting all sides be heard.
“There is no neutral peacekeeping. You either fight fascism or you enable it,” said Alexander Berkman of the Pittsburgh Student Solidarity Coalition.
Counter-protester Heather Heyer, 32, was killed Saturday when police say suspected white supremacist James Fields Jr. drove his car into a crowd. Two state police officers died when their helicopter crashed while flying in support of police response to the clashes.
State police said the militia members weren't the only ones carrying firearms at the protest, a consequence of Virginia's open-carry laws. Yingling said he tried to distinguish his people from the armed protesters through their actions: using physical force only when separating people in a fight, checking on all participants once they were separated and directing them to medics if necessary. He said none of the militia fired or pointed their weapons, and he denied reports that they threw punches to break up fights.
Yingling disagreed with the Southern Poverty Law Center's categorization of the Pennsylvania Light Foot Militia as one of 998 “extreme anti-government groups” active in the United States as of 2015, saying that militia personnel and mindset had changed over the years.
“We absolutely, unequivocally believe in our form of government, when it is practiced by people who are true and honest,” he said. “We aren't the paranoid conspiracy theorists of the '90s. We don't go out and train to fight the government.”
He also took issue with the police response in Charlottesville, noting that officers from the city and Virginia State Police didn't get involved in the clashes until after state police warned the militia to leave and then shut down the planned rally. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe said militia members “had better equipment than our state police” and may have influenced officers' decision not to move in earlier.
In a news conference Monday, Charlottesville police Chief Al Thomas said city officers had deployed in their normal uniforms, with plans to stay between sides that had agreed to enter the park along pre-arranged routes. He denied that officers held back from engagement because of the armed militia and protesters, but when people showed up from all directions with guns, shields, clubs and other weapons, officers had to change into riot gear and get state police to take the lead in clearing the park.
“We were certainly not intimidated by the firepower,” Thomas said. “However, it was prudent to make sure our officers were equipped to go out and deal with the violence at hand.”
Yingling said he was still recovering days after the event and had no immediate plans to return to Charlottesville or other protests — particularly “free speech” actions planned Saturday for Google offices around the country, including in Pittsburgh, after an engineer was fired for writing a controversial anti-diversity memo.
Matthew Santoni is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-6660, email@example.com or via Twitter @msantoni.