Alleged planners of Charlottesville violence could face financial ruin.
During the past several years, Jewish Americans and others have been shocked by the increase in antisemitic public statements, physical assaults and the killings of Jewish individuals across the country by white supremacists, neo-Nazis and members of other hate groups.
In response, Jewish communities have strengthened security at their facilities, spoken out at community and interfaith events, and sought action from public officials to counteract threats and violence.
In August 2017, white supremacist, neo-Nazi and other extremist groups organized a “Unite the Right” protest in Charlottesville, Va., protesting the city’s plans to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Violent clashes occurred between the Unite the Right supporters, many from outside the area, and peaceful, local counter-protestors, including interfaith groups.
The extremist groups marched in downtown Charlottesville, many with torches, some wearing dark military-like helmets and chanting antisemitic slogans — “Jews will not replace us” and “Blood and soil” — reminiscent of Nazi parades. Some carried shields and pepper spray. They marched around Temple Beth Israel, Virginia’s oldest synagogue, chanting threatening slogans, as temple members participated in a regularly scheduled service.
One hate group supporter purposely drove a car into the peaceful counter-protestors, killing one woman and injuring dozens of others. The driver was tried and convicted of second-degree murder by the state of Virginia and is imprisoned there. Public officials in Virginia and nationally condemned the violence.
But a nonprofit organization, Integrity First for America, is seeking legal action to achieve more — justice for those who were injured and accountability for those who organized the weekend of violence. They filed a civil lawsuit, Sines v Kessler, in federal court in Virginia, charging that two dozen individuals and groups planned and implemented violence against peaceful protestors, violating their rights during the weekend of Aug. 12, 2017.
The lawsuit is based on the KKK Act of 1871, which was passed to prevent Ku Klux Klan attacks against freed slaves. Amy Spitalnick, executive director of Integrity First for America, says that the law has been used multiple times during the 20th century.
One of the nine plaintiffs, Elizabeth Sines, a University of Virginia law student, tried to peacefully protest during the Unite the Right tiki torch march and was a bystander when a car plowed into protestors. Defendant Jason Kessler is a member of Proud Boys who helped plan the Unite the Right events with Richard Spencer. Proud Boys is the extremist white nationalist group that President Trump was asked to condemn during the first presidential debate on Sept. 29. His response was to tell the group “Stand back and stand by,” which has since become one of their organizing slogans. (On Oct. 1, Trump said, “I condemn all white supremacists. I condemn the Proud Boys.”)
“The violence during the weekend of Aug. 12 was not an accident, not spontaneous — it was racially motivated violence, planned in advance on social media,” said Spitalnick during a webinar about antisemitism presented several months ago by the National Council of Jewish Women.
Evidence gathered by Integrity First will show that leaders of white supremacist, neo-Nazi and other extremist groups incited violence online and brought weapons to Charlottesville.
“The First Amendment provides a right to beliefs and their expression,” Spitalnick said, “but it does not permit inciting to violence. Our case takes on the leadership of these organizations to bankrupt and dismantle these organizations,” she says.
Robert Sedler, distinguished professor of law at Wayne State University Law School and a special Michigan assistant attorney general for constitutional and civil rights, explains that the lawsuit’s premise is that the plaintiffs were deprived of “their constitutional rights of engaging in peaceful acts of expression. The plaintiffs will have to prove that the defendants conspired to deprive them of their rights. As a civil case, damages could be awarded for interference with the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights.”
Spitalnick says defendants tried unsuccessfully to have the case dismissed and some have declared bankruptcy and destroyed evidence to avoid accountability. Several defendants have been sanctioned and fined for violating court orders. Two have faced court arrests, which is, she said, “fairly unheard of in a civil suit.”
One of the defendants, Jeff Schoep, former commander of the National Socialist Movement, who lives in the Detroit area, claims that his phone fell in the toilet so that he can’t provide evidence, says Spitalnick. (Schoep has claimed that he renounced his extremist views as described in the Jewish News, May 21, 2020.)
According to Spitalnick, Integrity First for America is funded by individuals and foundations with many small donations. In addition, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a nonprofit organization established in 1913 to fight hate against Jewish and other individuals, has contributed $100,000 to this legal effort.
A Financial Impact
“Integrity First for America’s case presents a unique opportunity to have a direct financial, legal and operational impact on these hate groups and leaders,” says Carolyn Normandin, regional director for the Michigan ADL.
“It’s already done so even before trial, as has been acknowledged directly by some of the individual defendants … Moreover, once a monetary judgment is rendered, it can reach future income and assets of these groups and individuals. It could hobble them indefinitely.”
While the jury trial has been postponed until April 2021 due to COVID-19, final depositions and other trial preparations continue.
“ADL invested in this case by making a grant and offering other support because it’s having — and will continue to have — a concrete, tangible impact in disrupting these extremist organizations,” says Normandin.
“However, the ADL believes that other tactics are also important in the fight against extremism — including closely monitoring hate groups, advocacy for laws to prevent cyber-harassment and encouraging technology leaders to disrupt hate online.”
For updates about the trial, visit integrityfirstforamerica.org.