Non-Profit Hopes to Bankrupt Unite the Right Organizers
Since white supremacists held a violent rally in Charlottesville three years ago, several participants have gone to prison for criminal attacks.
But another legal action is moving more slowly through the justice system – a civil suit designed to bankrupt the people who organized Unite the Right and to put their organizations out of business.
When hundreds of far-right, racists descended on Charlottesville with guns, confederate and Nazi flags, fights broke out. Some were, no doubt, spontaneous, but one non-profit organization established to protect civil rights contends that violence was planned.
"For months in advance on social media platforms, these neo-Nazis and white supremacists planned every last detail of the violence that ultimately unfolded on August 11 and 12, 2017," says Amy Spitalnick, executive director of Integrity First for America. "They discussed the mundane: what to wear, what to bring for lunch, how to sew a swastika onto a flag, and questions of which weapons to carry, how to claim self-defense and whether they could hit protesters with cars."
So – on behalf of people injured during and after the rally -- Integrity First for America is suing two dozen individuals and groups that organized Unite the Right – using records from social media. Defendants have argued those records are protected by the First Amendment, but federal district court judge Norman Moon disagrees.
"The court explicitly states that the First Amendment does not protect violence," Spitalnick says.
And when defendants refused to turn over cell phones and other evidence requested by the prosecution, Moon found them in contempt of court. Already, one man has gone to jail, and the judge assessed $41,000 in fines, but Spitalnick says that’s just the beginning.
"When our plaintiffs take these guys and these groups to court this fall, they’re going to be seeking large civil judgments against them, and will then – once those judgements are awarded – follow them around for the rest of their lives to ensure that they’re paid. You know, put liens on their homes, garnish their wages and otherwise ensure the judgements that were awarded by a jury or a court were collected upon."
Already, one organizer – Richard Spencer – has complained.
"In court a few weeks ago, Richard Spencer said the case is 'financially crippling,' Spitalnick recalls. "He also talked about how being de-platformed from social media sites has made it difficult for him to raise money. Other defendants like League of the South have said they can’t open a new building because of this suit."
Other groups have changed their names, and some individuals have said they no longer believe in the racist and anti-semitic statements they made in 2017, but Spitalnick says that will not protect them.
"Regardless of what they believe in 2020, their actions in 2017 are what they should be held accountable for." she says, adding that Charlottesville may have inspired other attacks – at a synagogue in Pittsburgh and a mosque in New Zealand.
"We’ve seen a disturbing rise in a lot of the tactics we’ve seen first-hand in Charlottesville – most notably car attacks including, in Richmond, an avowed KKK leader appears to have driven his car into a crowd of protesters."
That, the plaintiffs say, is their main goal. By attacking the organizers of Unite the Right, they hope to end the cycle of violence that began in Charlottesville. They will be in court October 26th