Two years ago Monday, hundreds of neo-Nazis and white supremacists descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, in the so-called “Unite the Right” rally. What they came to do was not peacefully protest the removal of a Confederate statue as advertised, but orchestrate a weekend of racially motivated violence and hate.
By holding the perpetrators accountable in court, we have the potential to bankrupt and dismantle the groups at the center of this violent movement.
The bloodshed and animus did not end there. Instead, the cycle of white nationalist violence has continued to this day, devastating Pittsburgh; Christchurch, New Zealand; Poway, California; and, most recently, El Paso, Texas. The law enforcement is finally intensifying its work to track and disrupt these groups, and legislators are considering stronger laws to combat domestic terrorism. But already, citizens themselves possess tools to fight back. And that’s what my organization, Integrity First for America, is doing.
A number of federal and state civil rights statutes allow victims to file suit against those who commit hate crimes. Integrity First for America is working with a coalition of Charlottesville community members injured in the Unite the Right rally to sue the two dozen individuals and organizations responsible. By holding the perpetrators accountable in court, we have the potential to bankrupt and dismantle the groups at the center of this violent movement. Even before going to trial, we’ve already won monetary sanctions motions against some of the defendants, leaving the door open to even harsher penalties.
The Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 is central to our case. It’s one of the few legal remedies intended to deal with private — rather than government — conduct that violates civil rights.
In the aftermath of the Civil War and the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, the country was grappling with a wave of violent attacks by the KKK and other racist vigilantes against recently freed slaves seeking to exercise their new rights. The Reconstruction-era Congress and President Ulysses S. Grant acted to protect these former slaves from extralegal violence by passing the KKK Act.
Among other provisions, it specifically took on conspiracies between people that intend to deprive a person or class of persons of equal protection under the laws — providing a civil remedy to individuals who are the victims of private acts motivated by discrimination and racial bias. Following its passage, the first iteration of the KKK organization was effectively dismantled and did not resurface until decades later.
It is stunning that, almost 150 years later, we are still fighting the same kinds of conspiracies. Sadly, the KKK statute’s relevance to what happened in Charlottesville is all too clear. As the lawsuit describes in great detail, “Defendants plotted, coordinated, and executed a common plan to engage in violent intimidation in the streets of Charlottesville … in furtherance of a conspiracy to violate the rights of Plaintiffs and other black and Jewish people and their supporters.”
Specifically, in the months leading up to the rally, the Charlottesville organizers utilized Discord, a social media platform used by video gamers, other online platforms and in-person meetings to recruit others to the cause and methodically plan how the violence would unfold. “Next stop Charlottesville, final stop Auschwitz,” they wrote.
Their plans were meticulous. In private chat groups that summer, they broke down everything from the banal — what to wear, what to bring for lunch, and whether mayonnaise would spoil in the summer heat — to the evil: which weapons to bring; how they were going to “crack some skulls”; and whether they could claim self-defense if they drove over protesters with their cars.
And that’s exactly what they did.
Over Aug. 11 and 12, 2017, they marched military-style on the University of Virginia and downtown Charlottesville. They carried semi-automatic weapons, swastikas and other hate symbols — as well as torches to evoke the tactics of the KKK and the Nazis. They chanted “Jews will not replace us,” “blood and soil” and “white lives matter.” They violently attacked students, clergy and other community members.
And, ultimately, just as the online chats promised, James Fields drove his car into a crowd, killing Heather Heyer and injuring many others. Afterward, the organizers called the weekend “a huge moral victory.”
Within days of this violence, our legal team — led by Roberta Kaplan and Karen Dunn — was on the ground in Charlottesville meeting with our plaintiffs. The suit was filed in October 2017, seeking significant damages, injunctive relief and other remedies for the violence and horror the plaintiffs suffered.
The defendants have tried every trick in the book to block this suit — and failed. Most notably, they tried to claim that their violent conspiracy was protected by the First Amendment, an argument the court rejected, writing, “Plaintiffs plausibly allege that the Defendants formed just such a conspiracy to commit violence, and so the First Amendment does not protect Defendants.” The trial is expected next year.
While our case is, we believe, the only current legal effort to take on the coalition of individuals and groups at the center of this violent white nationalist movement, the strategy is not new.
The Supreme Court struck down parts of the Ku Klux Klan Act as the era of Jim Crow took hold, but the ability of private individuals to sue those who violated their rights remained on the books. These provisions were invoked to hold accountable the white men who in 1966 stopped a car and assaulted an African American passenger they believed to be a civil rights worker.
Over the last few decades, other civil suits similar to ours have successfully taken on those responsible for racist attacks. In one particularly instructive case from the 1980s, a lawsuit brought by the family of lynching victim Michael Donald against the KKK organization delivered a $7 million award from a federal jury. The perpetrators’ property and assets — including the KKK’s massive headquarters in Tuscaloosa, Alabama — were seized, ultimately putting an end to the United Klans of America.
If everything they own now and in the future can be jeopardized, it makes it much more difficult to recruit followers for these horrific causes.
That legacy continues here. In addition to collecting on bank accounts, wages, property and any other assets of those involved to help compensate the victims in Charlottesville, should we win, we will also demonstrate the serious legal and financial consequences for participating in such a conspiracy. If everything they own now and in the future can be jeopardized, it makes it much more difficult to recruit followers for these horrific causes. Some defendants cited the lawsuit in deciding against returning to Charlottesville last August.
The last two years have proven that Charlottesville was not an isolated incident but a flashpoint in the rise of extremist violence that’s connected to the attacks that followed. Before killing 11 Jews in a synagogue last October, the Pittsburgh shooter communicated with some of the Charlottesville leaders. The shooter who massacred Muslims in Christchurch painted onto his gun a symbol popularized by another one of our defendants.
On and on the series of attacks have gone, each fueling the next as other white nationalists look on and fantasize about how they, too, can take part. With this trial — and the judgments we expect to win against these extremists — we can help reverse that deadly and hate-filled cycle.