New Derry man who led militia in Charlottesville clash condemns white supremacists
The New Derry-based leader of a Pennsylvania anti-government militia group said armed militia members tried to be "neutral peacekeepers" at Saturday's violent clash in Charlottesville, Va., personally condemning the white supremacists who came looking to fight and the police who failed to prevent it.
In a Facebook Live video posted Sunday morning, Christian Yingling of the Pennsylvania Light Foot Militia said about 32 militia members who arrived at Emancipation Park early Saturday were unaffiliated with the white supremacists holding a "Unite the Right" rally there. The militia had intended to prevent clashes between the supremacists and counter-protesters who came to oppose them, he said.
They were ultimately outnumbered and withdrew hours before an Ohio man drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one.
"If you call yourselves militia, you have to support the Constitution. ... They have to be willing to put yourself in harm's way to see that people who they otherwise couldn't stand have the right to say what they have to say," Yingling said in the 43-minute-long "after action report" he posted to his Facebook page. "On a very minor level, we share beliefs with both sides."
He did not respond to requests for comment Monday.
In his video, Yingling said militia members from Pennsylvania, New York and elsewhere lined up along both sides of the street fronting the park, anticipating that they would break up any conflicts before they escalated into violence.
Yingling called rally organizer Jason Kessler, a Charlottesville white nationalist, a "piece of (excrement)" and a "dirtbag" for bringing in hate groups loaded for a fight, with the ostensible goal of protesting the proposed removal of the park's statue of Robert E. Lee. Groups on both sides behaved like "jackasses," he said.
"This rally had nothing to do with uniting the right wing," Yingling said in the video. "They weren't there to support Southern heritage or protest a statue; they were there to fight."
In a separate video, George Curbelo, Yingling's "second in command" Saturday, reiterated that the militia wasn't there to support the rally.
"The New York Light Foot, the Pennsylvania Light Foot and all the other militias that were there... do not condone, support or in any other way align ourselves with white supremacy," Curbelo said.
For five hours, Yingling said, his group tried to hold apart thousands of protesters and counter-protesters, all of whom assaulted the militia and each other with fists, feet, clubs, shields, irritant spray, bottles and paint. He said they stopped belligerents on both sides where they could and pulled the injured from the fray and delivered them to acting "medics," but he denied reports that militia members hit back or struck anyone in an effort to break up fights.
The militia left when state and city police, who had otherwise been staying outside the conflict, said they were shutting down the park.
Yingling said they were miles away by the time accused white supremacist James Alex Fields Jr., 20, drove a Dodge Charger into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer. A few hours after that, two Virginia state troopers died when the helicopter they were flying in support of the Charlottesville operation crashed.
Yingling said police failed to act as violence escalated at the park, but in a news conference Monday , Charlottesville Police Chief Al Thomas said officers had to readjust their plans and change into tactical gear as protesters flooded into the park from all directions, rather than just the one street organizers had agreed to.
Virginia State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said the militia weren't the only ones armed at the rally, given that Virginia is an open-carry state.
"There were numerous individuals on all sides armed with handguns and long guns," she said.
"We were not intimidated by their power, but it was prudent to make sure the officers were equipped," Thomas said at his news conference.
Yingling condemned rally organizers and said he knew little of the participating white supremacist organizations, "because I don't subscribe to any of their beliefs." But many in the media and in the protests assumed they were affiliated with or specifically protecting the white supremacists. Several militia members wore patches combining the "Three percenter" militia symbol with American and Confederate flags.
The Southern Poverty Law Center classifies the Pennsylvania Light Foot among 276 militias and 998 "active extreme antigovernment groups" as of 2015, though it noted that inclusion in their list "does not imply that the groups themselves advocate or engage in violence or other criminal activities, or are racist."
Members of the Pennsylvania militia also were present at a Harrisburg "anti-Sharia rally" in June attended by white supremacist organizations, but Yingling said they were there as non-partisan security officers.
Matthew Santoni is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724 836 6660, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @msantoni.