When Nazi marchers came straight down Market Street face-to-face with counter-protesters, members of the Three Percenters militia knew it would be no picnic in the park.
“We knew where the entrance would be [in the back of the park],” said C.J. Ross, of Amherst, a Three Percenter. “It was clear they came to fight.”
Of many iconic photographs to come out of the Aug. 12 rally of Nazi and white supremacist organizations at Emancipation Park were photos of a line of militia members in military outfits armed with semi-automatic weapons.
Many expressed frustration that Sunday’s event was not useful for moving forward.
In fact, there were two groups of ideologically opposite and armed militia in Charlottesville for the rally. And, while the rally erupted into physical violence, no shots were fired.
Instead, members of the Three Percenters and the Redneck Revolt, a left-leaning militia, said they attempted to thwart fights and provide emergency medical care.
“Probably 80 percent of our members served in Afghanistan or Iraq, so [the violence] wasn’t that big of a deal to them. They know how to handle situations,” Ross said. “Most organizations like us [and the Revolt] train on a regular basis, so it’s no surprise that no shots were fired. We disagree politically [with the Redneck Revolt], but they’re good people.”
Three Percenters are an American patriot movement composed of former military personnel and others pledging to protect citizens and the Constitution. The group takes its name from the 3 percent of Colonists who opposed King George and fought in the American Revolution.
Members of the Redneck Revolt, an organization opposing white supremacy and exploitation of the working class, provided security at Justice Park, from which counter-protesters marched to Emancipation Park.
The organization takes its name from the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain in which armed coal miners confronted lawmen and mine company strike-breakers in West Virginia.
Attempts to reach Redneck Revolt representatives were unsuccessful, but Facebook pages and the organization’s website show pictures of members dressed in black and armed in downtown Charlottesville locations, especially Justice Park.
The Three Percenters were the most visible as they marched to Emancipation Park in hopes of providing a buffer between rally participants and counter-protesters.
“Our organization isn’t political, except that we support the Constitution. Individually, I would guess that we’d find more conservatives and old-school Democrats,” said Ross, who was at the rally but did not directly participate in the events at the park.
In front of Emancipation Park, sporadic skirmishes by individuals and small groups with shields, fists, clubs and pepper spray broke out. Ross said Three Percenters attempted to break up fights that were close by and withdrew when police declared an unlawful assembly. It is against Virginia law to possess a firearm or other dangerous weapon in an unlawful assembly.
“We realized this wasn’t what we we’re all about when we heard [the Nazis and nationalists] start chanting slurs,” Ross said, “but we were already there.”
Charlottesville has hired Tim Heaphy, former U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Virginia, to lead a review of recent events in the city.
According to the Redneck Revolt website, its members provided protection at Justice Park.
“At many points during the day, groups of white supremacists approached Justice Park, but at each instance, Redneck Revolt members formed a unified skirmish line against them, and the white supremacists backed down,” the website states.
The Three Percenters’ involvement began with a visit to Emancipation Park to look at the city’s statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee shortly after a torch-lit rally organized by white nationalist Richard Spencer was held at the park May 13.
“We didn’t have flags, we weren’t wearing guns and we were dressed like normal people,” Ross recalled. “We were standing in the park looking at the statue and there were a couple of people staring at us. They didn’t approach us, they just stared. Then they went behind the statue and started talking on their phones.”
Ross said they decided to leave as more people showed up and started following them around, trying to get pictures of the license plates on their cars. It was on that trip that they met Jason Kessler, who organized the Unite the Right rally.
“I had no idea who he was. Later, he contacted me and said he wanted to have some conservatives come to the park, make some speeches, have some food and some entertainment. He wondered if we’d provide a security presence.”
As the event neared, Ross said members had clues the event was not as billed.
“I saw he put up a poster with all these names on it and it looked like it was straight-up Nazi propaganda,” Ross said. “We talked about it and I told him it was stupid to bring in Richard Spencer.”
As more and more stridently racist groups were invited, many Three Percenter members bowed out of the rally.
“I think [Nazis and nationalists] hated us as much as they hated anyone else. They designated us ‘oath cucks’ and said we were ‘fence-sitting LARPers,’ whatever that means. They kind of have their own language and it’s hard to understand them,” Ross said.
After a Three Percenter made a comment prior to the rally saying Spencer should be punched in the face, Ross said the group was contacted by local counter-protest organizers. They met in Roanoke and discussed the upcoming rally.
After leaving Emancipation Park, militia members made their way to their vehicles. Some wound up near Friendship Court, where they were met by counter-protesters. With help from city council candidate Nikuyah Walker, militia members found their cars and left without incident.
Ross said he and another member talked with Redneck Revolt members in Justice Park and then followed marchers down Water Street. They were nearby when a car careened into protesters, killing Heather Heyer, 32, and injuring 19. Members of both militias helped to provide emergency aid to some of the injured until emergency crews arrived.
Ross said that although the rally didn’t go as they expected, he believes the militia’s presence helped to prevent escalating violence.
“I feel in some ways that, if we weren’t there, things may have been worse. Many people appreciated it and many people didn’t,” Ross said. “We don’t like Nazis. We don’t like Antifa. But they both have the right to speak, and that’s what we defend. We wanted to support the Constitution and help keep things peaceful.”