Exactly two months after the summer’s Unite the Right white nationalist rally that left three dead and many injured, a legal group has filed an unprecedented complaint on behalf of Charlottesville, local businesses and neighborhood associations that could prohibit “unlawful paramilitary activity” in the city.
Lawyers with the University of Georgetown Law School’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection claim the independent militiamen and women, many carrying “60 to 80 pounds of combat gear,” such as semi-automatic assault rifles slung over their shoulders, made tensions boil at what some have called the largest gathering of white supremacists in recent history.
“Regardless of ideology, the presence of these private armies, whether armed with assault rifles or bats, batons or clubs, significantly heightens the possibility of violence, as we saw on August 12,” said Mary McCord, an attorney with Georgetown Law’s ICAP, who filed the complaint which is, as she says, “seeking to ensure that the streets do not become battlefields for those who organize and engage in paramilitary activity.”
According to the complaint, rally organizers, including homegrown Jason Kessler, solicited private militias to attend the rally, held group-wide planning calls and circulated an instructional document called “General Orders.”
“All the while, attendees encouraged one another to ‘prepare for war,’” according to ICAP.
Named defendants in the lawsuit include Kessler and Identity Evropa CEO Eli Mosley, white nationalist groups Traditionalist Worker Party, Vanguard America, League of the South, and the National Socialist Movement, and private militia groups Pennsylvania Light Foot Militia, New York LIght Foot Militia, Virginia Minutemen Militia, American Freedom Keepers, American Warrior Revolution, Redneck Revolt and the Socialist Rifle Association.
Kessler and the Pennsylvania Light Foot Militia did not immediately respond to interview requests.
“It’s a unique lawsuit,” says Rutherford Institute founder John Whitehead, who has represented far-right and far-left defendants for 40 years. “There are some real complications.”
According to Virginia law, “the military should be under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power,” but Whitehead points to the 2008 Supreme Court decision of District of Columbia v. Heller, in which justices voted 5-4 that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to carry weapons unconnected with service in a militia. He says the definition of “militia” under Virginia law is vague, and several groups named in the suit do not identify as militia groups.
The 75-page complaint is a culmination of investigations, including interviews with residents and bystanders, hours of footage, hundreds of photos and thousands of social media posts, McCord said outside Charlottesville Circuit Court after her group and members of City Council filed the suit.
“The investigation uncovered overwhelming evidence, much of which has only become available after August 12, of planning by alt-right groups to engage in the very type of militaristic violence that resulted,” McCord says. “They have vowed to come back, as have the self-professed militia purporting to be peacekeepers.”
Michie Hamlett attorneys Lee Livingston and Kyle NcNew will serve as the local counsel for the suit. Livingston reminded those outside the courthouse of the terror the city faced that day.
“August 12 is a tragic story now—a part of the lives of all Charlottesvillians,” he says. “A street we walk to restaurants, where we enjoy life with our neighbors, on that street, our neighbors were plowed over by a car. The images of bodies being smashed by that car will never leave us. A park where we celebrate festivals became a scene of medieval squad maneuvers, people struck down, people bleeding. We fear that a dark chapter was opened in our nation’s history on our doorstep, a chapter many had thought was closed in the 20th century.”
He said he hopes the suit will provide public servants “who protect the peace” a tool to prevent private armies from returning to the area, protect those who use Emancipation Park and the surrounding area from the “intimidating, unregulated soldiers,” and allow the community to come together, “in at least a small step, to reduce what feels like a dark turn of our story.”
Added Mayor Mike Signer, “I support [the lawsuit] as a stand against the disintegration of our democracy, and as a call for us to put a firm close to this horrible chapter in our democracy where people think it’s okay to parade in military outfits in public, to openly threaten violence against other people, to fire weapons into crowds, to beat people in public and to use a car as a weapon.”