Militia offers aid to sheriff, focus on constitutional rights

Louisa militia members Kathryn Anderson and her son Reid Smith (standing) help register a citizen to vote at the Back the Badge rally at the Firemen’s Fairgrounds on Sept. 29. Also volunteering was Louisa resident Kathleen Pfeiffer (at Anderson’s left).

Members of the Louisa militia say they are not like those groups you’ve heard about in the news.

When some people hear the word militia, their minds jump to the people in Michigan who were charged by the FBI last week with plotting to kidnap that state’s governor, and who allegedly discussed doing the same to Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam. Those militias are known to be anti-government, sometimes even anti-police.

The Louisa militia is part of a different movement that grew in 2020 out of protests against changes to gun laws in the Virginia General Assembly. Officially calling themselves the Virginia Militia, Louisa Chapter, members emphasize that they are sanctioned by the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution and the Virginia Constitution, and want to collaborate with law enforcement. 

“It’s not all about guns,” said Jack Burkett, the militia’s president. “We want to be the neighbor you invite to your birthday party. We’re here for the community. What we’re doing is legal, so there’s nothing to hide.”

Since their start in April, the Louisa militia has grown to include some 45 members, Burkett said. Many are former firefighters, police officers or military veterans. Some live in adjacent counties where a militia has not been established. 

The militia has strict standards for who can be a member. The group conducts background checks on all applicants, even if they have concealed carry permits. Burkett said a few people have been turned away, including one man who was rejected because he had a dishonorable discharge from the military.

What attracts some people is the militia’s statement of values, which Burkett said puts the Bible first and the Constitution second in order of priorities.

“I would say 75 percent of the people in our organization are churchgoing,” said Kathryn Anderson, a Louisa resident who started attending meetings after her son Reid got involved. 

“That was the driving force when the group started, that God’s been taken out of a lot of stuff,” she said. “If you look at our Constitution, it is strongly influenced by religion. We definitely have a separation of church and state, but there’s a lot of faith in there.”

While the militia does not proclaim it is against government, members tend to agree they have issues with a number of government policies, particularly liberal ones.

Burkett cites a proposal to ban the sale or transfer of firearms magazines designed to hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition during last winter’s General Assembly session. Bill Small, the militia vice president and owner of a catering business, points to what he calls “overtaxation” and excessive regulations.

In the militia’s statement of core values on its Facebook page, the group says that it is responding to “the political, economic, cultural, and moral decline of the United States.” The group is aware of “movements and trends that seek to undermine the family, freedom of religion, and the republic.”

Same-sex marriage is an example of the country’s moral decline, Burkett said. So is the pervasiveness of sex on TV.

“When I was a child, more people went to church, Sunday was a day of rest, more people were married,” he said. “We’ve turned away from what our country is about.”

Besides the Back the Badge rally, which was billed as nonpartisan but was organized by the Louisa Republican Committee, the militia also had a presence this year at campaign events for Amanda Chase, a Republican running for governor, and Daniel Gade, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate. Burkett said members attended the Chase and Gade events in part to discourage protestors from making it difficult for the candidates to be heard.

But the militia is not taking political sides, Burkett insisted. 

“If [Congresswoman Abigail] Spanberger was worried about security, we would help the same as we help [challenger Nick Freitas],” he said. “It just so happens that right now it’s the Republican side that isn’t able to get their message across without interruption.”

Besides the U.S. Constitution, Burkett said the militia is sanctioned by the Virginia Constitution, which mentions “unorganized” militias separate from the National Guard and Virginia Defense Force. State law states that the governor can call out the militia as needed.

“The militia is the last line of defense against any enemies, foreign or domestic,” Burkett explained. 

What makes his group “a real constitutional militia” is that it is working with law enforcement in a specific town or county, Burkett said. He added that he is building ties with the sheriffs in Fluvanna and Goochland counties, too.

Militias do not have the authority of law enforcement, according to a legal opinion issued by Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring in September. Herring was responding to an inquiry about the role of armed groups near polling stations during early voting. He also alluded to an incident in July 2019 in which a militia-type group dressed in military gear and carrying rifles attempted to manage a crowd at the entrance to a state office building in Richmond.

“Virginia law makes it a Class 1 misdemeanor ‘to falsely assume or exercise the functions … incident to the office of sheriff,’” Herring wrote. “This criminal prohibition can apply to ‘a group of private militia members coming as a unit, heavily armed with assault-style weapons, dressed in fatigues and other military accessories, and acting in a coordinated fashion’ where the ‘militia members patrol a line of citizens’ and ‘project authority to manage the crowd.’”

The militia’s development this year coincided with the societal upheaval caused by the coronavirus and the killing of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis, by a police officer. Floyd died after the officer held his knee on the man’s neck for more than eight minutes. The incident led to massive peaceful protests of police brutality against Black people, but also rioting in some areas. The officer was charged with second-degree murder.

In several cities and towns that saw protests against racism, groups calling themselves militias have shown up as well. Some of these groups have said they were there to defend businesses from damage or to help keep the peace; in other cases the militias have engaged in physical brawls.  

Burkett said while what the officer in Minneapolis did was wrong, he does not believe it was racial in nature.

“That was a poorly trained police officer,” he said. “It just so happens one person was Black and one was white.”

For Anderson, racism against Black people in society is real, but it has been blown out of proportion.

“I think there are a variety of opinions [within the Louisa militia] about that,” she said. “I think the media play up a lot of that intentionally, like [Floyd’s death] was a calling card for racial indifference, to get people stirred up.”

In late July, a group of Louisa organizations banded together to organize the March for Unity to protest racism in policing and other aspects of society. The militia was there in downtown Louisa when the march reached Courthouse Square. Though members have military-style garb available, they wore plainclothes during the march so they wouldn’t stand out.

Burkett said he has known Sheriff Donald Lowe for decades. Both have worked in security for North Anna Power Station; Burkett still works for Dominion Energy, but is now in the information technology division. Not long after the militia formed, the group invited Lowe to speak about the importance of the Constitution at an event at Walton Park in Mineral. 

When the March for Unity was planned, Burkett and other militia members let Lowe know they would be there. 

“The storekeepers were afraid someone was going to bust out some of their windows,” Burkett claimed. 

There were no reports of violent behavior during the march. At one point, organizer Jaime Hiter urged marchers not to be provoked by counter-protestors who stood in front of the Confederate soldier monument, facing the crowd as they entered the courthouse grounds.

The sheriff and his staff asked the militia members “to be an extra set of eyes on things,” Anderson recalled. Burkett said Lowe “knows we can be trusted.”

Lowe did not respond to a request for comment before this article was published on Oct. 14.

Burkett notes that the militia had no intent of wading into a fight, were one to arise. He trains his colleagues in the group to only use force if there is an imminent threat.

“If they touched us or challenged us, we would call the sheriff,” he said. “Our primary role is to observe and report.”

The Louisa militia welcomes people of color, Burkett said. Anderson said she and some other members have talked to Black people in the community who are interested in joining. For now, these Black residents have decided to wait “and see how things pan out.”

At the Back the Badge rally in September, militia members wore olive-green uniforms and carried their rifles openly in front of the sheriff’s office. But the public won’t see that often, Burkett said — the group only did that to show support for law enforcement.  

“We’re not about toting guns and screaming at people,” Anderson said. 

She is motivated as much by the opportunity for the militia to do community service as she is by the message about constitutional rights. Several members plan a work day at the end of October to bring firewood to residents who need it. The militia also scheduled a training this month on crowd control and search and rescue missions. Members hope to eventually coordinate a training with the sheriff’s office.  

Last updated on Oct. 17 at 5:57 p.m.

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