Not long after white nationalist James Fields allegedly killed Heather Heyer in Charlottesville last weekend, protesters linked arms along a sidewalk. Three feet away, a line of men stood in camo pants and tactical vests, all carrying long rifles. The men were not police, whose job was to prevent violent confrontations but who largely stood to the side during the melee. They were militia-men, who had gathered to act, as one expert on anti-government extremism said, as a “third force”—as a peace-keeping buffer, in theory, between far-right agitators and their opponents, Politico reports. Despite the militias’ public statements of neutrality, evidence has mounted that they have gravitated decisively toward one side in the street battles that have played out recently. During these first months of the Trump presidency, these loose-knit organizations are losing their anti-government ideological purity as they grow increasingly close with a segment of the right-wing from which many in the recent past had kept their distance. Their presence as a private security force for an increasingly public coalition of white nationalist factions—Ku Klux Klan followers, neo-Nazis, and alt-right supporters—has transformed a movement that has demonstrated a willingness to threaten violence.
While there is evidence that some of the militia members stepped into the breach to try to keep the peace on Saturday, many critics contend their presence exacerbated tensions and prevented the restoration of order. When asked why police didn’t do more to stop the bloodshed, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe pointed to the riflemen strolling the streets. “It’s easy to criticize, but I can tell you this: 80 percent of the people here had semiautomatic weapons,” he said. “You saw the militia walking down the street. You would have thought they were an army … [The militia members] had better equipment than our State Police had.” ow these two powerful strands of the extreme right-wing linked themselves in the first months of the Trump administration explains the durability of his support—and also the potential for further violent conflict.