Two law­suits

SUITS SEEK END TO SIM­I­LAR GATH­ER­INGS Strat­egy re­lies upon cases used to halt KKK ac­tiv­i­ties


were filed against the or­ga­niz­ers of the white na­tion­al­ist rally in Char­lottesville that led to a wo­man’s death.

Char­lottesville res­i­dents, busi­ness lead­ers and elected of­fi­cials went to court Thurs­day to try to pre­vent a re­peat of the vi­o­lence at a white-na­tion­al­ist rally this sum­mer that rocked the univer­sity town.

The le­gal re­sponse from the lo­cal com­mu­nity, in­clud­ing from in­di­vid­u­als in­jured dur­ing the con­fronta­tions, comes as of­fi­cials from Bos­ton to Berke­ley are look­ing for ways to avoid sim­i­lar clashes at po­lit­i­cal protests.

Two fil­ings — one in fed­eral court, and the other in state court — tar­get “Unite the Right” rally lead­ers and or­ga­niz­ers, in­clud­ing white na­tion­al­ists Richard Spencer, Ja­son Kessler and Matthew He­im­bach.

The fed­eral law­suit, brought by res­i­dents in­jured in Au­gust, seeks mone­tary dam­ages and a ban on sim­i­lar gath­er­ings. The com­plaint cites fed­eral laws en­acted dur­ing Re­con­struc­tion to counter intimidation of blacks in the South and more re­cent cases tar­get­ing an­tiabor­tion ac­tivists.

The other suit, joined by the Char­lottesville City Coun­cil, fixes on the heav­ily armed, camo-clad pri­vate mili­tias at the rally us­ing a rarely in­voked pro­vi­sion of Vir­ginia’s con­sti­tu­tion that at­tor­neys say bans mil­i­tary or­ga­niza-

tions other than those con­trolled by the state govern­ment. That com­plaint seeks to avoid an­other “in­va­sion of rov­ing para­mil­i­tary bands and un­ac­count­able vig­i­lante peace­keep­ers.”

“Char­lottesville has been be­sieged re­peat­edly by th­ese groups, and key or­ga­niz­ers and lead­ers of the Unite the Right rally have pledged to re­turn to Char­lottesville as of­ten as pos­si­ble,” ac­cord­ing to the law­suit filed by Ge­orge­town Law School’s In­sti­tute for Con­sti­tu­tional Ad­vo­cacy and Pro­tec­tion with sup­port from city of­fi­cials.

Char­lottesville ex­ploded into the na­tion’s con­scious­ness Aug. 11 and 12, when hun­dreds of white su­prem­a­cists, white na­tion­al­ists and neo-Nazis from across the coun­try gath­ered to protest the planned re­moval of a Con­fed­er­ate statue from a city park.

At a night­time torch­light rally, marchers chanted “Jews will not re­place us!” and “Blood and soil!” be­fore en­gag­ing in a vi­o­lent con­fronta­tion with a small group of coun­ter­protesters. The next day — a Satur­day — the planned rally, which had a per­mit, was can­celed by law en­force­ment as na­tion­al­ists and coun­ter­protesters brawled on Char­lottesville’s down­town streets while po­lice stood back.

In midafter­noon, James Alex Fields Jr., a 20-year-old re­ported Nazi sym­pa­thizer, al­legedly drove his car into a crowd of pedes­tri­ans. Heather Heyer, 32, of Char­lottesville was killed, and 19 oth­ers were in­jured.

The plain­tiffs in the fed­eral law­suit in­clude Univer­sity of Vir­ginia stu­dents, Char­lottesville res­i­dents and re­li­gious lead­ers who say they were sub­jected to tear gas, phys­i­cal and ver­bal as­saults and, in one case, were tar­geted on­line by white su­prem­a­cists who posted their pho­tos on a racist web­site.

The Ku Klux Klan, Van­guard Amer­ica, the Na­tion­al­ist Front and the League of the South, all of which sup­port white na­tion­al­ist or su­prem­a­cist aims and took part in the rally, are among the three dozen in­di­vid­u­als and or­ga­ni­za­tions named in the 98page fed­eral com­plaint.

“The vi­o­lence in Char­lottesville was no ac­ci­dent,” the law­suit reads. “In count­less posts on their own web­sites and so­cial me­dia, de­fen­dants and their co­con­spir­a­tors promised that there would be vi­o­lence in Char­lottesville and vi­o­lence there was.”

Plain­tiffs Marissa Blair, 28, and her fi­ance, Mar­cus Martin, 27, were stand­ing among coun­ter­protesters on Fourth Street in Char­lottesville when the Dodge Chal­lenger plowed into the crowd. Martin pushed Blair out of the way, but he was struck and his leg and an­kle were bro­ken.

“I went to look for him, and all I found was his bloody baseball cap. I thought he was dead,” Blair said in an in­ter­view Wed­nes­day.

“Free­dom of speech, we get it,” Blair said. “But not when you’re do­ing it to ter­ror­ize peo­ple. There has to be a stop to it. We want to let Char­lottesville live in peace.”

The fed­eral case was filed by New York at­tor­ney Roberta A. Ka­plan, who rep­re­sented Edith Wind­sor in the land­mark Supreme Court case that or­dered the fed­eral recog­ni­tion of same­sex mar­riage, and Wash­ing­ton at­tor­ney Karen Dunn, a for­mer fed­eral pros­e­cu­tor. The law­suit is funded by In­tegrity First for Amer­ica, a new non­profit group aimed pri­mar­ily at bring­ing le­gal chal­lenges to Pres­i­dent Trump’s busi­nesses.

The le­gal ap­proach in the fed­eral com­plaint was in­spired in part by an Ore­gon case from the late 1990s in which a group of doc­tors suc­cess­fully sued an­tiabor­tion ac­tivists over a web­site that tar­geted doc­tors who per­form abor­tions.

Spencer de­clined to com­ment on the law­suit. Other de­fen­dants, in­clud­ing Kessler and He­im­bach, did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment.

Last Satur­day, Spencer re­turned to the Char­lottesville park, where a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee has been cov­ered by the city in a tarp, and held a smaller torch­light rally with a few dozen fol­low­ers who chanted: “We will be back!”

That evening, Char­lottesville Mayor Mike Signer tweeted: “An­other de­spi­ca­ble visit by neo-Nazi cow­ards. You’re not wel­come here! Go home! Mean­time we’re look­ing at all our le­gal op­tions. Stay tuned.”

Spencer told The Wash­ing­ton Post the next day that the mayor has “no author­ity to pre­vent law­ful protests like what we did last night. . . . He cur­rently thinks the city of Char­lottesville is a sov­er­eign na­tion or some­thing.”

At an early morn­ing meet­ing Thurs­day, Char­lottesville City Coun­cil voted 4 to 0 — with one mem­ber ab­sent — to sign on to the sec­ond law­suit, filed min­utes af­ter the vote on the state suit.

The com­plaint lists 22 white na­tion­al­ist or­ga­ni­za­tions, lead­ers and pri­vate mili­tia groups as de­fen­dants, say­ing th­ese “mil­i­tary forces trans­formed an idyl­lic col­lege town into a vir­tual com­bat zone.”

Many wore match­ing uni­forms and used com­mand struc­tures to co­or­di­nate ac­tions, ac­cord­ing to the law­suit that also de­tails plan­ning and para­mil­i­tary tac­tics it says were dis­cussed via so­cial me­dia. The groups of men dressed in cam­ou­flage and car­ry­ing semi­au­to­matic ri­fles at the Au­gust rally con­fused even Vir­ginia’s pub­lic safety sec­re­tary, Brian Moran, who first as­sumed some were sol­diers in the state’s Na­tional Guard.

The law­suit tries to pre­empt likely ar­gu­ments from de­fen­dants, say­ing it does not seek to re­strict in­di­vid­ual rights to gun own­er­ship or free-speech rights to as­sem­ble and ex­press po­lit­i­cal views.

“Our com­plaint shows that there are le­gal tools avail­able to en­sure that the streets do not be­come bat­tle­fields for those who or­ga­nize and en­gage in para­mil­i­tary ac­tiv­ity,” said the Ge­orge­town in­sti­tute’s se­nior lit­i­ga­tor, Mary B. McCord, a long­time fed­eral pros­e­cu­tor who was most re­cently head of the Jus­tice Depart­ment’s Na­tional Se­cu­rity Di­vi­sion.

Un­der Vir­ginia law dat­ing to 1776, the state con­sti­tu­tion spec­i­fies that “in all cases the mil­i­tary should be un­der strict sub­or­di­na­tion to, and gov­erned by, the civil power.” That means, ac­cord­ing to the court fil­ing, that the “govern­ment alone re­tains a monopoly on the or­ga­nized use of force.”

“What­ever their stated in­ten­tions, th­ese groups ter­ri­fied lo­cal res­i­dents” and cre­ated con­fu­sion about who was in charge, the com­plaint as­serts.

Among the de­fen­dants in the case in­vok­ing Vir­ginia’s con­sti­tu­tion is Chris­tian Yin­gling, a leader of the Penn­syl­va­nia Light Foot Mili­tia, who has said that he and his troops “con­voyed in” to Char­lottesville to de­fend free speech and main­tain civil or­der.

Yin­gling de­clined to com­ment Thurs­day, say­ing he was re­view­ing the law­suit.

Laws sim­i­lar to Vir­ginia’s have been used through­out his­tory in cases filed in Texas and North Carolina to shut down para­mil­i­tary ac­tiv­i­ties by the Ku Klux Klan. The statutes on the books in most states make clear that only the govern­ment can con­trol mil­i­tary or­ga­ni­za­tions in a state.

Af­ter the Au­gust rally, Univer­sity of Vir­ginia his­to­rian Philip Ze­likow thought of a Texas case he’d worked on in the 1980s that re­lied on state law ban­ning “mil­i­tary com­pa­nies” not au­tho­rized by the gover­nor. In that case, a judge stopped the Ku Klux Klan from train­ing para­mil­i­tary groups to harass Viet­namese Amer­i­can fish­er­men on the Texas Gulf Coast.


A group that dubbed it­self “The Mili­tia” stands at the Unite the Right rally in Char­lottesville on Aug. 12. A law­suit claims pri­vate mili­tias are banned in Vir­ginia ac­cord­ing to the state con­sti­tu­tion.

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