Why Lawsuits Are Not Enough to Stop the Far Right

Richard Spencer holds a press conference, October 19, 2017, at the University of Florida, in Gainesville, Florida. (Photo: Evelyn Hockstein / For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The sleepy holiday town of Whitefish, Montana, had been Richard Spencer’s part-time home for years, though he rarely wanted to talk about it. Spencer, the founder of the “alt-right” movement, had been living there off and on since taking over the National Policy Institute in 2010, staying close to his parents and the private ski resort he frequented. As his profile rose, so did attention from a local affiliate of the Montana Human Rights Network, Love Lives Here. His mother, Sherry Spencer, had been investing in real estate around the town, including condos and retail space. After pressure was put on Sherry by local activists to sell her properties and distance herself from her son, Richard and his mother exploded in anger, and the “alt-right” descended into a fear campaign on the residents in December 2016.

Led by neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin of The Daily Stormer, online trolls threatened residents’ families so severely that some went into hiding, and Anglin promised that armed protesters would target the town’s Jewish residents. While his physical presence was little more than a bluff, the terror he inflicted brought a massive response both from the community and his neo-Nazi supporters. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a nonprofit known for supporting survivors of hate crimes, filed a lawsuit against Anglin on April 18, citing Anglin’s responsibility for the campaign of harassment against real estate agent Tanya Gersh and her 12-year-old son. Gersh had, from her statements, offered to help Sherry sell her properties, which Sherry and her son Richard interpreted as a threat.

The strategy the SPLC is employing is well-traveled for them: Use incidents of white nationalist violence to sue white nationalist organizations, destabilizing them into nonexistence. While the acts of violence are often done by lone-wolf combatants that are not acting on formal orders from an organization, those organizations set the priorities and behavior of members through their internal praxis.

This strategy has been highly successful in bringing down some of the largest and most violent racialist organizations in US history. In the 1960s, what is largely regarded as the “Third Era” of the Ku Klux Klan occurred; the Klan resurfaced during the battle over segregation. One of the largest and most violent of the disparate Klan organizations was the United Klans of America (UKA) under the leadership of Robert Shelton. Even after being connected with major terror attacks throughout the South — like the famous bombing of the Birmingham, Alabama, church that resulted in the death of four young girls — the UKA still was not brought down and seemed untouchable. That was until the 1981 lynching of the teen boy Michael Donald. After the criminal proceedings, Morris Dees, the founder of the SPLC, brought a “wrongful death” suit against the UKA. The court awarded the family of Donald $7 million in damages, which forwarded all the resources of the UKA directly to the family, including receiving the building that the UKA had operated out of for years.

A similar case played out when members of the Portland, Oregon, white supremacist skinhead gang East Side White Pride murdered Ethiopian immigrant Mulugeta Seraw in 1988. The SPLC argued that the gang had gotten its praxis from the neo-Nazi organization White Aryan Resistance (WAR), which had been linking up skinhead gangs around the country in the 1980s. After the criminal trial, the SPLC, along with the Anti-Defamation League, filed a lawsuit against WAR founder Tom Metzger and his son John Metzger, arguing they had set the young skinheads up for racist attacks like the one that took Seraw’s life. The courts agreed and all of Metzger’s assets, including his home, were seized and transferred to the Seraw estate. WAR, and by extension the racist skinhead movement, was significantly weakened.

In northern Idaho, the Aryan Nations’ compound was once the center of the most violent wing of the white supremacist movement. A beacon for survivalists and the racist Christian Identity church, it had relationships with dozens of white supremacist terrorists from the 1970s to the 1990s. In July 1998, several security guards at the compound opened fire on a Black woman, Victoria Keenan, and her son when they had car trouble nearby. After the guards riddled their car with bullets and ran them off the road, the Keenans were held at gunpoint by Nazi militiamen. The SPLC again filed a civil lawsuit, this time against the Aryan Nations, and a jury awarded the Keenan family $6.3 million. This destroyed the compound entirely, ending its years as a center for the most revolutionary-minded neo-Nazi formations.

Each one of these cases shows an incredibly effective strategy for responding to acts of racist violence. However, this strategy is missing a connection to the larger community, relying instead on a team of attorneys from a well-funded nonprofit. Without this larger community component, there is no social movement base to rely on once the well-paid experts have left the incident. While effectively dissolving the offending organization, a lawsuit does not necessarily translate to a larger anti-racist community project that can continue to do the work of confronting these organizations once the court case is closed.

What this shows is not that legal solutions aren’t valuable — they have proven incredibly effective — but instead that they provide ample additional organizing opportunities. Instead of relying on these lawsuits on their own, they should be points at which community organizations are empowered through educational programs, workshops and larger external organizing strategies so that the neighbors who have witnessed the terror that racist organizations inflict can become active in combatting them as well. Instead of creating a format where only experts from an external entity are enlisted to solve the problem of white supremacy, we should create formats where the entire community is equipped with the same agency. If these lawsuits are paired with real grassroots community engagement, and organizing solutions are also prioritized, then the win that comes in the legal setting can help launch community groups that can continue organizing for years afterward.

Since the lawsuit against Anglin was filed, he has raised over $150,000 to fight the SPLC’s claim, and has essentially gone into hiding from the legal petitions. After the disaster of “Unite the Right” in Charlottesville on August 12, Anglin lost his web hosting platforms and has basically pushed The Daily Stormer to the “dark web.” While the lawsuit and the platform denials will do a lot to limit his reach, it will take more than that to really end his ability to recruit more young people to his particularly brutal brand of neo-Nazism.

Without engaging the larger community and equipping community members to actively continue the work, these momentary, if effective, blasts to neo-Nazis infrastructure will not have as long-term of an effect as they could otherwise. As incidents of “alt-right” violence increase, large nonprofits should be mindful of how they can shape their efforts to fuel long-term, broad-based community organizing.