Alleged militia actions in York County may lead to ‘democratic erosion,’ expert says

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — The actions of a recently-formed militia group in York County, allegedly on behalf of the new school board leadership, has many in the community highly concerned.

The main point of contention focuses around the allegation that York County School Board Chair Lynda Fairman sent the militia group to film a Family Life Education event at a district school. Fairman has denied being a part of the group and said she just put a call to the general public to go to the event. The militia, meanwhile, said they didn’t go on behalf of Fairman, and denied filming the event.

Related: ‘Trainwreck’: New school board leadership in York County accused of militia ties, could face legal issues

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“You have a group that locals apparently recognize as a militia showing up, even if they don’t have their guns … that looks to me, potentially, very threatening, and I can see why the teachers are upset about that,” said Carolyn Gallaher, the department chair of American University’s Department of Peace, Human Rights & Cultural Relations.

“You do not want them policing the public square, because what that means is, is democratic erosion,” Gallaher said. “We are different from Russia or lots of other places, El Salvador under Bukele, Venezuela, where people have to be careful what they say in the public square because there’s an armed group that’s looking out for them and could do something to them, whether that armed group is the military, or a paramilitary or a guerilla group. We are different from that — our public square can be raucous because we’re allowed to have it out in the public square and we’re not worried about the threat of intimidation.”

Gallaher co-authored a piece published this January called “County Capture.” In it, she details the role militia groups in Southwest and Central Virginia, and their connections to and influence over local government officials and law enforcement.

“My family lives in one of the counties whose Boards of Supervisors formally recognized a militia,” she wrote on social media. “It may be tempting to dismiss them as LARPers (live action role-playing game participants), but let me tell you, navigating around non-state armed groups can be hellish.”

This all eventually leads to democratic erosion “at the nation’s smallest, but arguably most important level of democracy,” Gallaher said.

“Democratic erosion is a process by which a variety of actors, from elected officials to outside activists, use legal means to chip away at core parts of democratic governance, including free and fair elections, individual rights, formal checks and balances, and impartial justice,” Gallaher wrote.

Gallaher said since the Jan. 6 insurrection, some militia groups have “gone underground,” but others like the militia in Campbell County, Virginia, have shifted their focus to local-level issues, such as what’s happening with school boards, with some changes in their branding. The York County group’s leader said in a 2023 letter to the Virginia Citizens Defense League that Campbell County’s militia was helping them to train similar groups throughout the Commonwealth.

“They’re also trying to present themselves as a civic group — civic group with arms, but forget the arms, we’re a civic group. That’s essentially what the message is,” Gallaher said.

“I saw this in Campbell County, and also in Bedford County, that they were trying to say ‘we’re just here to help the sheriff when there’s a flood, or there’s a disaster, or things like that. That’s really problematic … there’s some really important issues with having paramilitaries running around unpoliced by anybody, basically, serving [at an] almost-informal state capacity at the local level, or trying to do that.”

Those groups really started to take shape after Democrats took control of Virginia’s government for the first time in decades in 2020, Gallaher said. They were galvanized further by concerns over gun control, and later COVID-19 restrictions and the racial justice uprisings of 2020.

York-Poquoson Sheriff Ron Montgomery told WAVY he wouldn’t “endorse any organization in the county that called itself a militia,” and he doesn’t support the militia group’s actions, particularly after watching a video in which the group’s leader, Bob Herget, calls the group the “York County Poquoson Constitutional Militia.”

“The last couple of meetings … he was all about civic projects, having his group participate in food drives, back to school drives for kids and picking up trash on the side of the road and talking about CERT training for his group,” Montgomery said. “No militia discussions whatsoever. So when I saw that video and called him out on it, that was contrary to what he was telling me, and I let him know that he had lost all credibility with me at that point.”

Gallaher said if local law enforcement did however recognize a local militia, or even tried to offer a contract with the group to do services like disaster management, it would be legally fraught, citing Virginia’s constitution and anti-paramilitary statute. In Bedford County, the sheriff has been in cooperation with the militia, Gallaher said.

“I think government officials should think about that before they cooperate with these groups,” Gallaher said. “They haven’t, to my knowledge, been used very much, but I would imagine as we get closer to the 2024 election, [and] there’s more of these armed groups floating around, someone could use those statutes to take something to court.”

She pointed to the matters in York County, and said recent actions could lead to teachers and staff either leaving or not wanting to come to the county, which is ranked among the best in the state for education.

“[Who} would want to come into a situation like that? Even if you ideologically agree with these people,” she said, “you’ll always be answering to an armed force that is not elected, and is not acting legally on behalf of elected officials.”

“The other thing, of course, is if you invite them in to ‘serve in this voluntary role,’ you’re inviting in people that you’re not vetting. There could be people with criminal records, sexual assault records, people with any number of things they’re hiding, and you’re not vetting them and they’re acting on your behalf … it puts the city at legal risk, but it also puts everyday, ordinary citizens at risk.”

“Another big issue, and this is where sheriffs, when you see sheriffs working with these groups, is the relationship is informal,” Gallaher said. “So what happens when the sheriff and the militia group, if they had a falling out? You’ve got two armed groups. How do armed groups solve their problems? With weapons.”

Gallaher said one big change in recent years is that militias have become much more partisan in supporting Republicans, especially after Donald Trump was elected president in 2016.

“It has gone [away] from being bipartisan anti-government, meaning it didn’t really matter if it was a Democrat or Republican in office, you were suspicious if you were in the militia movement of government,” she said. “The federal government … when Trump became president, [militias] were cheering on his use of federal power, and I don’t just mean federal power in the sense of legislation or laws, vis-à-vis security services of some sort.”

“So their enemies list went from the federal government, regardless of party, to the federal government is only a problem when it’s in Democratic hands.”

Gallaher pointed to Stewart Rhodes, the Oath Keepers leader who was later convicted of seditious conspiracy in relation to the Jan. 6 insurrection, offering to help law enforcement police Antifa, as well as the self-declared militia known as the Proud Boys helping Trump while he attempted to stay in power after losing the 2020 election.

“What to me was really telling about that was the militias were no longer acting like a guerilla force where they’re fighting the federal government … they were starting to act like a paramilitary, which is a very important distinction,” Gallaher said. “Your targets are different, when you think about Timothy McVeigh, when he blew up the Oklahoma City federal building, he was targeting the federal government. What the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys were doing on Jan. 6 was fighting the political opponents of the sitting president who lost an election. … they were operating on behalf, in an informal role, of a sitting president.”

In “County Capture,” she noted that the militia movements today echo much of Trump’s rhetoric, including references about the “deep state,” similar to “new world order” conspiracies believed by the contemporary militia movement that started in the late 20th century.

She said she fears this loyalty to Trump/Republicans could motivate Virginia militias to “intimidate Democratic voters, harass election workers and muster (that is, summon their troops) to guarantee Trump’s return to power if the 2024 election’s final vote tally doesn’t go his way.”

“Paramilitaries the world over routinely abuse their connections to formal power to settle personal scores, rent-seek and abuse vulnerable people,” Gallaher writes in “County Capture.” “If Trump wins the GOP nomination (and ultimately the presidency), Bedford and Campbell counties’ militias could settle personal and political scores with abandon. Virginians may continue to vote in elections, but in counties with militias, democracy hangs in the balance.”

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