This article was published in partnership with the Trace.
As white nationalists squared off against counter-protesters and antifascists in Charlottesville on Saturday, a large group of heavily armed gunmen sought, for a time, to keep the peace.
Christian Yingling, a militia leader from Pennsylvania, whose 32-man team arrived in the college town bearing loaded assault-style weapons and sidearms, told the Washington Post that his group came to defend free speech and maintain order. "Our mission was to help people exercise their First Amendment rights without being physically assaulted," he said.
Yingling made it clear that the guns his group carried weren't just for show: "Anyone who was carrying a long gun was not to have a round in the chamber. Now, our sidearms are generally chambered and ready to go."
One team of reporters covering the rally observed that militia members did more to quell confrontations in Charlottesville than the city and state police, who are drawing strong criticism for allowing the violence to spiral fatally out of control. But as early as 10 AM, according to the same dispatch, a group of counter-protesters, "many of them older and gray-haired" was bloodied by a mob of white supremacists undiscouraged by neither the police nor the militias' presence.
In the interview with the Washington Post, Yingling acknowledged that the situation got out of hand. The deployment, he said "was a resounding success until we were just so drastically outnumbered that we couldn't stop the craziness. It was nothing short of horrifying."
Paramilitary groups see their role at marches and demonstrations as defending all attendees.
They say the weapons they carry are meant primarily to keep people in the crowd from getting physical. But they are overwhelmingly white and often espouse anti-government views. It can be difficult to tell them apart from National Guard or police forces. At the ground level, it can be difficult to ascertain their motives.
And sometimes, they choose sides. As the Trace reported earlier this month, gun-carrying anti-establishment protesters provided security, demonstrated in support of, or worked for conservative local elected officials or Republican Party functionaries on at least five occasions so far this year.
As the turmoil escalated in Charlottesville, the Virginia National Guard worried that the public would confuse Guardsmen and militiamen. At 12:04 PM on Saturday, not long after Governor Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency, the National Guard tweeted a message alerting people to look for the "MP" patch distinguishing its troops, who had been deployed to try to restore order, from the camouflaged militia members patrolling the scene.
McAuliffe has suggested that the militias constrained law enforcement's initial response. "You saw the militia walking down the street, you would have thought they were an army," the governor said during an interview on Sunday. "They had better equipment than our state police had."
The governor has defended the actions of police, who have been criticized for standing by as KKK and Nazi sympathizers battled counter-protesters in the streets. Transparency laws may help reporters get to the bottom of why Virginia and city officials responded to the conflagration outside Charlottesville's Emancipation Park the way that they did. Open-carrying militias, by contrast, designate themselves as quasi-law enforcement but are not subject to the same public scrutiny.
Militias operate outside public accountability. It's a key difference between power that flows from the state and the power claimed by militias from open carrying their military-style guns.
One prominent militia may be realizing it can't have things both ways.
JJ McNab, who covers the militia movement for Forbes, noticed that the Three Percenters, one of the larger militia networks, issued a "stand down order" on Sunday night, announcing that it would sit out further demonstrations for fear of risking a PR backlash. "While we support and defend everyone's right to free speech, we will not align ourselves with any type of racist group," the group said in a statement. "We cannot have this organization tainted by news outlets as they will most certainly report that we have aligned ourselves with white supremacists and Nazis."
Fears are rising that at future protests, opposing activists will engage in something of an arms race. A potential sign of things to come: In Houston, the leader of a protest against a Texas bill that would strip sanctuary city protections for immigrants came strapped, as did the right-wing protesters who turned out in support of the legislation.
Texas, like Virginia, is an open-carry state. In fact, only three states ban the open carry of long guns, creating the potential for militias and armed protesters to become fixtures as battle lines are drawn in a fractious nation.