Pontificating in a near-empty auditorium

Audience at public comment hearing before the Board of Supervisors Tuesday night.
In a hyped supervisor meeting that some felt would pack the Floyd County High School auditorium, some commented on a proposed referendum on the confederate statue on the Courthouse lawn. Others, like a member of Floyd County's self-declared "militia," ranted about Black Lives Matter and antifa.

The “crowd” that appeared before a public hearing at the Floyd County High School auditorium Tuesday night before the Board of Trustees seemed more like one of Donald Trump’s latest gatherings of no shows at one of his rallies: More hype than reality.

Social distancing wasn’t a problem, except for those who decided to not wear masks and puff out their chests. Taped-off areas provided such distancing, but most of open seats remained vacant.

Jeff Dowd, who said he spoke for Floyd County’s self-declared “militia,” called Black Lives Matter “communists” and warned about an invasion from antifa (a common threat from thse “militias” that have popped up like locusts in parts of the Commonwealth and around the country).

He presented the Supervisors with a written request that the board endorse the militia and use it for defense of the county against the claimed hoards from antifa and BLM. Floyd Countians supporting BLM protested peacefully outside the school’s lobby as the handful of speakers and attendees straggled into the school for what some felt would be a crowd rivaling the “Second Amendment” supporters that packed the auditorium several months ago.

Some speakers stayed home and phoned in their comments while a few submitted written statements read by supervisors on the debate and possible referendum on whether to keep the generic statue of a Confederate soldier on the courthouse lawn in a county that was split between supporters of slavery or the union against a Civil War that the confederates lost.

Most appeared to support removing the statue from the Courthouse lawn and putting it somewhere that wasn’t taxpayer-supported property. Others wanted it to remain at its current location.

Dowd didn’t dwell on the statute issue but wanted county recognition of a militia that Virginia laws says would be controlled, not by the county, but by the governor of the Commonwealth, Ralph Northam, who has made it clear neither he nor Virginia has any need for wannabe soldiers prancing around with their AR assault-style rifles while decked out in camouflage.

Floyd Press editor Ashley Spinks reports on the hearing in Thursday’s edition of the paper and in The Roanoke Times.

When the militia was first proposed, Commonwealth’s Attorney Eric Branscom said the county can’t have a militia under Virginia law. Any militia, if legal, reports only to the governor, who is their “commander in chief.” Dowd now says he worked out his request for county support with Branscom.

Branscom says otherwise. He told us received a fax of the proposed resolution from Bob Smith, chairman of the electoral board and a former Republican Party chairman in Floyd County, who asked for recommendations on its structure and content.

“The resolution was based on a similar one in Tazewell,” Branscom says. “I offered edits on structure and language but was not asked for a legal opinion on whether it was valid,” he said, adding that Virginia law gives the governor, not county government, control of any citizen militia.

The Tazewell attempt failed. “We are not forming a militia,” Tazewell County Administrator Eric Young told the Bluefield Daily Telegraph in West Virginia. “Our intent is to provide all of our residents the opportunity to own weapons.”

Virginia’s Attorney General Mark Herring says the authority to activate a militia rests with the governor. In a formal opinion issued last year, Herring said anyone who is not a police officer or a member of a military unit like the National Guard are the only ones allowed to “keep the peace.” Anyone else who dresses in fatigues, carrying military-style assault weapons while claiming the right to do so is “breaking Virginia law.”

“The private militias we saw purporting to be police outside the General Assembly building during the gun violence special session were there to intimidate Virginians from exercising their right to meet with their representatives,” Herring said in a statement issued with his opinion.

“Seeing a group of people all dressed alike in military garb and carrying large assault-style weapons, like the white supremacist militia and paramilitary activity we saw in Charlottesville, can be intimidating and terrifying,” Herring in his statement.

As for the threat about an invasion of antifa, that is a common stunt pulled by these militias to come up with excuses to gather and wave their weapons. Such a threat came to Floyd once but antifa never had any plans to appear. Those who showed up with their guns stood around with nothing to do at an event that never occurred.

In Gettysburg this past July 4th, militias from around the country rushed to the Civil War battleground to “support an antifa flag burning” that wasn’t.

As The Washington Post reported:

“Let’s get together and burn flags in protest of thugs and animals in blue,” the anonymous person behind a Facebook page called Left Behind USA wrote in mid-June. There would be antifa face paint, the person wrote, and organizers would “be giving away free small flags to children to safely throw into the fire.”

As word spread, self-proclaimed militias, bikers, skinheads and far-right groups from outside the state issued a call to action, pledging in online videos and posts to come to Gettysburg to protect the Civil War monuments and the nation’s flag from desecration. Some said they would bring firearms and use force if necessary.

On Saturday afternoon, in the hours before the flag burning was to start, they flooded in by the hundreds — heavily armed and unaware, it seemed, that the mysterious Internet poster was not who the person claimed to be.

The episode at Gettysburg is a stark illustration of how shadowy figures on social media have stoked fears about the protests against racial injustice and excessive police force that have swept across the nation since the death of George Floyd in police custody on May 25.

–The Washington Post

The “shadowy figure” turned out to be lifetime Pittsburgh resident Adam Rahuba, a former concert promoter, part-time food delivery driver and DJ. He has created several social media hoaxes aimed at far-right extremists like gullible, self-styled, militia groups.

Notes the Anti-Discrimination League (ADL) Center on Extremism:

The May 2020 murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer sparked nationwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism. As the demonstrations spread to communities across the country, so too did disinformation about the protests and protesters. In a time of national unrest and racial tension, these false claims intentionally sowed fear and division, while also undermining protesters’ efforts to build coalitions and bring about lasting structural change.

Researchers in ADL’s Center on Extremism documented a range of examples of disinformation related to the protests. These campaigns often included the deliberate mischaracterization of groups or movements, such as portraying activists who support Black Lives Matter as violent extremists or claiming that antifa is a terrorist organization coordinated or manipulated by nebulous external forces. ADL’s researchers found evidence of white supremacists creating or promoting some of these fabricated claims and rumors to further their own agendas. Certain pieces of disinformation which originally appeared years ago have reemerged in the context of the current protests. In some cases, unsubstantiated rumors migrated from digital platforms to physical-world responses.

–ADL Center on Extremism
Jeff Dowd of Floyd County’s militia (screen grab from video).

Dowd, the Floyd County “militia” representative who appeared Tuesday night at the high school auditorium was cut off by Supervisor Joe Turman when he started to spout claims that Black Lives Matter was communistic.

While the Supervisors did accept the “Second Amendment Sanctuary” resolution, that has no legal standing, after the more-heavily attended public comment period in January, it has not publicly endorsed the county’s “militia.” Neither has Sheriff Brian Craig or his department.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) calls the growth of these “citizen militias” an increasing “domestic terrorist threat” against America.

On Oct. 3 of last year, the SPLC issued this warning:

The American Patriots Three Percent appear to be recruiting around the civil war threat. The group shared a YouTube video from a conspiratorial media outlet claiming that militias are “activating all across the country” to prepare to combat “an illegal coup taking over the United States of America.” The video appeared one day after Trump called the impeachment inquiry in the House of Representatives a “coup.”

Talk of civil war among militia groups has been ongoing for years. Whether it’s anger over immigration and the lack of a wall across the southern border, or concern over a socialist takeover and gun regulation, militias have long taken to social media to pledge they’re ready for a fight.

–Southern Poverty Law Center

A few weeks ago, some naysayers in Floyd County claimed a demonstration by supporters of BLM, gathered in front of the Courthouse in support of Juneteenth, the anniversary of freeing the slaves, was “nothing more than an effort by outsiders trying to stir up trouble.”

Yet the only trouble came when a man from Hanover County paraded a Confederate flag through the crowd, hurled racial insults and pulled off his shirt to try and pick a fight.

Roger Andrew Altizer Jr., an imported construction worker from the county near Richmond, faces charges of assault and disturbing the peace in Floyd County, but he also faces a jury trial back in his home county for felony discharge of a firearm from a car in what the prosecutors there say was a case of road rage.

Yep. It was one of those damn outsiders causing trouble in our peaceful part of Southwestern Virginia.

(Updated with new information)

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