Why Is Charlottesville Suing Two Anti-Racist Groups Over Last Year’s Violent “Unite the Right” Rally?

The city of Charlottesville, Virginia, made headlines in October 2017 after announcing a lawsuit against the right-wing organizers of the now-infamous “Unite the Right Rally” last August. The city declared that it was holding “private military forces” legally responsible for the violence that occurred during that weekend of white supremacist rallies and counter-protests.

Ostensibly the lawsuit seems like the kind of news that would be welcomed by social justice advocates, as it’s in line with a separate civil lawsuit filed against the rally’s organizers by local residents seeking damages. However, this specific legal action actually targets two left-wing, anti-racist groups in addition to the white supremacists. Why is Charlottesville suing activists who showed up to resist racist violence?

The two left-wing groups named in the lawsuit are Redneck Revolt and the Socialist Rifle Association. Redneck Revolt was founded 2009 as an offshoot of the John Brown Gun Club, a community defense group. It defines itself as “a national network of community defense projects from a broad spread of political, religious, and cultural backgrounds … a pro-worker, anti-racist organization that focuses on working class liberation from the oppressive systems which dominate our lives.” The Socialist Rifle Association is an anti-fascist group that defends the rights of working-class people to carry guns. “We are working class and poor people dedicated to educating our class in the safe use of firearms for personal and community self-defense as well as recreation and subsistence hunting,” declares the group’s website.

What Were These Groups Doing in Charlottesville?

Last month, Redneck Revolt’s Dwayne Dixon spoke with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation about how he and other members of the organization showed up armed in Charlottesville to protect community members from acts of racist violence.

“We knew we were being intensely scrutinized,” Dixon said. “My personal rejoinder would be like, well, who’s worrying about optics when people might actually be killed? What really is our priority here?”

After the rally, the author and activist Cornel West explained on Democracy Now! that groups of anti-fascist counter-protesters protected him, and others, from being attacked by white supremacists:

The neo-fascists had their own ammunition. And this is very important to keep in mind, because the police, for the most part, pulled back. The next day, for example, those 20 of us who were standing, many of them clergy, we would have been crushed like cockroaches if it were not for the anarchists and the anti-fascists who approached, over 300, 350 anti-fascists. We just had 20. And we’re singing “This Little light of Mine,” you know what I mean? So … the anti-fascists, and then, crucial, the anarchists, because they saved our lives, actually. We would have been completely crushed, and I’ll never forget that.

Where Does the Lawsuit Come From?

The Charlottesville lawsuit was not initiated by members of the community, but by the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection (ICAP) at Georgetown University Law Center. The legal action doesn’t seek any damages for property destruction or personal injuries. Rather, it’s seeking an injunction to bar “private-militias” from entering the state of Virginia.

Attorney Mary McCord is leading the lawsuit. McCord is a longtime federal prosecutor who served as acting assistant atorney general for national security at the Department of Justice from 2016 to 2017. She is probably best known for leading the probe into the potential collusion between Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and the Russian government while she was at the Justice Department, before stepping down last April.

In an interview with Georgetown Law Magazine, McCord said the idea behind the lawsuit came from an article written by University of Virginia history professor Philip Zelikow. As a lawyer fighting against the Ku Klux Klan during the 80s and 90s, Zelikow had made use of a Virginia state law that bans unauthorized military groups. “We talked to Zelikow and we were off to the races,” McCord said.

McCord sent an email out to Charlottesville community members, on behalf of ICAP, to potentially solicit additional plaintiffs for the case. The email, which was obtained by Truthout, makes no mention of the two left-wing groups being included in the lawsuit:

Like so many others across the country, we at ICAP were horrified to see the white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups invade Charlottesville during the Unite the Right rally. We are planning to bring a court case to prevent the groups that looked and acted like private militias — some armed with assault rifles and others with batons, bats, clubs, and other weapons — from coming back to Charlottesville.

Pam Starsia and Jeff Fogel, attorneys with the National Lawyers Guild’s Central Virginia Chapter, are representing Redneck Revolt. Starsia told Truthout that the lawsuit was “slap in the face” on two levels.

“Not only are they wasting resources on this thing that won’t help keep us safe, but they are also targeting Redneck Revolt, some of the only people who actually tried to defend our community from white supremacist violence on August 12,” Starsia said.

Truthout reached out to the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection for a more specific explanation of why these groups were included in the lawsuit. The group declined to comment on the litigation and referred Truthout to their written complaint.

The complaint calls the two left-wing organizations “private militia groups … [that] helped create and secure a staging area for counter-protestors.” It points to a post on Redneck Revolt’s website where the group declared its refusal to let “fascists organize publicly … without challenge.” It also cites an article on the Redneck Revolt website detailing how armed members of the group created a security perimeter around a park to make it an “autonomous zone,” keeping cops and the state out.

The lawsuit frames the argument against the two groups within the context of the Second Amendment. While the Constitution protects an individual’s right to self-defense, the complaint points out that it doesn’t allow individuals to “form unregulated private armies or private peacekeeping forces.” The groups “were equipped to inflict massive harm upon a moment’s notice from their commanders,” the complaint claims. “Whatever their stated intentions, these groups terrified local residents and caused attendees to mistake them for authorized military personnel.”

The complaint also points out that the Socialist Rifle Association members assisted in creating this perimeter and quotes a Facebook post on the Socialist Rifle Association’s page thanking Redneck Revolt for holding the line against “Nazi scum.”

A Pattern of Targeting of Anti-Racist Activists in Charlottesville

The lawsuit doesn’t mark the first time that anti-fascists have been targeted in relation to the Unite the Right Rally. An intelligence bulletin sent out just two days before the rally by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis focused on the possibility that counter-protesters could foment violence in Charlottesville. The bulletin, which was obtained by Politco, identified “anarchist extremists” — not white supremacists — as “the principal drivers of violence at recent white supremacist rallies.”

After the Unite the Right Rally, the city of Charlottesville hired a consulting firm to study the reasons behind the violence. The results of that investigation, which was led by former US Attorney Tim Heaphy, were released in December 2017. University of Virginia education professor Walter Heinecke applied for a permit to reserve Charlottesville’s Justice Park as a spot to protest the rally. According to the report, police told Heinecke that there would be “no available police assets” to protect the counter-protesters who planned to gather there.

The report also revealed that a Charlottesville detective spoke with an FBI agent about the neo-Nazi Traditionalist Workers Party’s involvement with the rally. The FBI agent told the detective that the neo-Nazis were “not likely to cause problems” but that “the counter-protesters might.”

Three Black counter-protesters were eventually arrested for alleged acts violence during the Unite the Right rally. Last October saw the arrests of Deandre Harris and Corey Long. Harris was beaten so severely by white supremacists during the rally that he suffered a concussion, a fractured wrist and received multiple staples in his head to treat a wound, but he was accused of assaulting white nationalist Harold Crews. Harris’ lawyer insisted that Harris was acting in self-defense and that he had swung a flashlight to prevent Crews from spearing another person with a Confederate flag. Harris faced a potential year in jail and a $2,500 fine, but he was acquitted in March.

That same month Corey Long was charged with disorderly conduct, as well as assault and battery for allegedly using a makeshift torch as a weapon against white nationalists. Long also claims he was attempting to protect a counter-protester from potential violence.

“I was not in the wrong,” Long said. “A guy threw a spray can at me, and I took it to my advantage.”

His trial was scheduled to begin on April 17, but his lawyers were granted a continuance.

On April 16, 51-year-old Donald Blakney was indicted. Blakney has been charged with malicious wounding for allegedly hitting a man he believed to be a white nationalist during the rally, shortly after he was assaulted and called a racial slur by a different individual. Blakney’s charge is a felony that carries a five-year minimum sentence.

This lawsuit comes at a time when dozens of anti-protest bills are being debated throughout the country. There was a sizable uptick in such proposals after the protests at Standing Rock, and the violence in Charlottesville has only enhanced these efforts. In January, under guidance from the State’s Office of Attorney General, Virginia Democratic Delegate Marcia Price introduced HB 1601, a piece of legislation that would ban protests by people categorized by state authorities as members of “domestic terrorist groups.”

In February, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring expressed dismay over the fact that the bill wasn’t heard by the state’s General Assembly.

“It’s disappointing,” said Herring. “It’s frustrating. What it says to me is that there is indifference to the growing threat of white supremacists’ violence and extremism that we see around the country and here in Virginia.”

The ACLU of Virginia opposed HB 1601, arguing that it would set up a dangerous precedent that could be exploited by the state to target minority communities.

Following the Unite the Right rally, President Trump received vast criticism for declaring that “both sides” were responsible for the violence.

“You had a group on one side that was bad and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent,” Trump said. “Nobody wants to say it, but I will say it right now.”

In targeting anti-racist groups such as Redneck Revolt and the Socialist Rifle Association alongside the white supremacist groups that organized the Unite the Right rally, many believe that the Charlottesville lawsuit reinforces Trump’s “both sides” rhetoric.

The lawsuit, however, does not seem likely to put a significant damper on anti-fascist organizing nationwide, which even the infamous white nationalist Richard Spencer acknowledged has already succeeded in putting the white nationalist movement “up the creek without a paddle,” while speaking on YouTube in March.

“I really hate to say this, and I definitely hesitate to say this but antifa is winning to the extent that they’re willing to go further than anyone else,” Spencer said.