An unlikely pair of lawyers sat together in Charlottesville Circuit Court June 12 to defend clients that don’t have much in common, except that they attended last summer’s Unite the Right rally and are being sued for it.
The Georgetown University Law Center’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection filed a lawsuit on behalf of the city, several local businesses and neighborhood associations in October that aims to prohibit 25 groups and individuals who they say participated in unlawful paramilitary activity on August 12 from returning to the city for the same reason.
“Touted as an opportunity to protest the removal of a controversial Confederate statue, the event quickly escalated well beyond such constitutionally protected expression,” says the complaint. “Instead, private military forces transformed an idyllic college town into a virtual combat zone.”
Jason Kessler, the organizer of the white supremacist rally, and anti-racist group Redneck Revolt are the only defendants actively litigating the suit.
Elmer Woodard, who represents Kessler in this case, as well as a bevy of other white supremacists with Unite the Right-related charges in other cases, sat next to Redneck Revolt’s attorney Pam Starsia, who, at one point, regularly attended events with local anti-fascist group Showing Up For Racial Justice.
Outside the courthouse, Starsia, who is working with local civil rights attorney Jeff Fogel on the case, said arguing on the same side as Woodard is “interesting” and “unexpected.”
“We haven’t communicated about the case at all,” she said, though they were making similar arguments in their motions and demurrers—and that’s that neither Kessler nor Redneck Revolt actually participated in paramilitary activity at the rally.
Woodard moved to dismiss Kessler from the lawsuit, which Judge Rick Moore denied, but said he’d take time to consider Woodard’s demurrer that the complaint didn’t include enough incriminating facts against his client.
According to Woodard, the lawsuit alleges that Kessler gave only “one tactical command” that weekend, and it was after the rally was declared an unlawful assembly in Emancipation Park, when Kessler instructed the white nationalists to move to McIntire Park. The suit also alleges that Kessler solicited and facilitated the attendance of the paramilitary groups.
“My gripe is that it’s not specific enough,” said Woodard. “I could invite all the bailiffs to my birthday party. That doesn’t make me a bailiff.”
Georgetown attorney Mary McCord said Woodard “selectively” pulled from the complaint, and that it specifically mentions that Kessler used a website called Discord to “funnel” specific plans to rally attendees and give tips, such as how to build shield walls, and that he organized conference calls that at least one representative of each white supremacist group headed to Charlottesville was required to attend.
The judge will also consider Starsia’s demurrer, which she says is based on evidence that Redneck Revolt is not a paramilitary group. While they do show up to events armed, members don’t wear uniforms or have an organized structure, she said. Unlike some of the groups that came carrying assault rifles while wearing tactical military gear, Redneck Revolt was never confused with the National Guard or other law enforcement, Starsia added.
She said Redneck Revolt is set apart from the additional 24 people and groups named in the suit because, “the other defendants are white supremacists” and her clients’ premise is that, “Maybe the Nazis and white supremacists shouldn’t be the only ones with guns.”
The case is scheduled for trial on July 30, and the judge said he’d need a week or two to decide if there are enough factual claims in it to proceed.
“It’s not going to be easy,” he said.
Of the 18 plaintiffs in the suit, McCord said one is the owner of a local toy store who locked customers, including a number of children, in the store on August 12 when an armed militia was standing outside the shop. A restaurant owner alleges that tourists have since inquired about the events of August 12 and asked to see where Heather Heyer died when she was bowled over by a white supremacist in a Dodge Challenger.
Most defendants in the case have settled and agreed not to participate in paramilitary activity in Charlottesville, including the Pennsylvania Light Foot Militia, New York Light Foot Militia, III% People’s Militia of Maryland, and their commanding officers: Christian Yingling, George Curbelo and Gary Sigler. Others who’ve settled are Matthew Heimbach, Elliot Kline (aka Eli Mosley), the Traditionalist Worker Party, Vanguard America, League of the South, its leaders, Michael Tubbs and Spencer Borum, and the swastika-loving National Socialist Movement and its leader, Jeff Schoep.
Updated June 13 at 3:30pm with the names of additional defendants who have settled.