Charlottesville officials, residents, businesses sue over Aug. 12 rally
A man (right) wearing a helmet with the logo of the Traditionalist Worker Party, a white nationalist group, wore riot gear at the Charlottesville rally.
Two newly filed lawsuits against the white nationalists and others who descended on Charlottesville during a summer rally aim to prevent the type of violent chaos that unfolded from happening again.
One of the lawsuits was filed Thursday in Charlottesville Circuit Court on behalf of the city, local businesses and neighborhood associations.
It accuses organizers of the Aug. 12 “Unite the Right” rally, leading figures in the white nationalist movement and their organizations, as well as private militia groups and their leaders, of violating Virginia law by organizing and acting as paramilitary units.
It doesn’t seek monetary damages but asks for a court order prohibiting “illegal paramilitary activity.”
“Touted as an opportunity to protest the removal of a controversial Confederate statue, the event quickly escalated well beyond such constitutionally protected expression,” the lawsuit
says. “Instead, private military forces transformed an idyllic college town into a virtual combat zone.”
Separately, 11 residents injured in the violence filed a lawsuit overnight in federal court in Charlottesville against a number of rally leaders and attendees. News of that lawsuit was first reported by The Washington Post.
The rally drew hundreds of white nationalists to Charlottesville, as well as hundreds of counterprotesters. The two sides began brawling in the streets downtown before the rally got underway, throwing punches, unleashing chemical sprays and setting off smoke bombs. At least one person fired a gun. Later, Heather Heyer, 32, was killed and 19 people were injured when a car drove into a crowd that was protesting the white nationalists.
The lawsuit filed in state court reconstructs the events of the day in detail, citing social media posts of the defendants, media accounts and documents.
It says the white nationalist organizations weren’t functioning as individuals exercising their Second Amendment right to selfdefense but as members of a “fighting force.”
It asks that they be held in violation of several state laws, including falsely assuming the functions of peace officers. Otherwise, the lawsuit says, “Charlottesville will be forced to relive the frightful spectacle of Aug. 12: an invasion of roving paramilitary bands and unaccountable vigilante peacekeepers.”
The plaintiffs are being represented by the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University and regional law firm MichieHamlett. The Charlottesville City Council voted to join the lawsuit in a special session Thursday morning.
“Our community was invaded by private armies on Aug. 12 and lives were lost,” local attorney Lee Livingston said in a statement. “As we search for answers and a way forward together, we expect this suit will unify us on at least one thing — a stand against private armies invading the public square — and give our public servants who enforce the law a tool to protect all citizens who gather in public places.”
The federal lawsuit takes a different approach, accusing the white nationalists of violating state and federal civil rights laws. It seeks a jury trial and asks for monetary damages and a ban on similar gatherings.
“The aim of this lawsuit is to ensure that nothing like this will happen again at the hands of Defendants — not on the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, and not anywhere else in the United States of America,” it says.
The plaintiffs include University of Virginia students, ministers and doctors. One suffered a stroke; two were struck in the car attack.
Their attorneys are Robbie Kaplan, who represented Edith Windsor in the landmark Supreme Court case on gay marriage, and Karen Dunn, a former federal prosecutor in Virginia.
White nationalist Richard Spencer, a defendant in the federal lawsuit, told The Associated Press he had just learned of it and didn’t have any immediate comment.
Michael Hill, president of the Southern nationalist League of the South — which is named in both lawsuits — declined comment. No other defendants in the cases responded to requests for comment.
Floyd Abrams, a prominent First Amendment attorney, said the defendants “will certainly claim that everything they did, everything they said, and every action that they took was protected by the First Amendment.”
Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, a leading civil liberties lawyer, cited the First Amendment in calling the lawsuits “very dangerous.”
“Everybody hates — as I do — what the white supremacists did in Charlottesville, and because we hate what they did, we may be willing to stretch and bend the First Amendment,” he said. “I’m not willing to do this. The First Amendment was designed precisely to protect this kind of unpopular and hateful expression.” In other developments:
DeAndre Harris, the 20-year-old black man who was beaten at the Aug. 12 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, turned himself in to Charlottesville police Thursday after being charged with unlawful wounding in the confrontation.
He was released on unsecured bond. According to the warrant, the charge was sought by Harold Crews, state chairman of the North Carolina League of the South.
Three men have been charged with attacking Harris, whose attorney has said did nothing wrong.
Plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the city of Charlottesville to keep the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee standing have filed an amended complaint.
One week ago, Judge Richard E. Moore gave the plaintiffs 21 days to file a more comprehensive complaint to more fully explain how and why the Lee statue should be considered a memorial to the Civil War and Confederate veterans.
The plaintiffs on Wednesday filed the amendment, which spells out who Lee was in a historical context and why his statue should be considered a memorial. The new complaint also adds the statue of Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson to the lawsuit, after the City Council last month voted to remove it from Justice Park.