Georgetown Law’s ICAP Sues to Prevent Paramilitary Groups' Return to Charlottesville
Mary McCord of Georgetown Law's Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection addresses the media after filing suit against "Unite the Right" organizers and participants on behalf of the City of Charlottesville and others.
October 12, 2017 —
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (Oct. 12, 2017) – The heavily armed private militias and alt-right groups that converged on Charlottesville during the August 12 “Unite the Right” rally engaged in highly coordinated and unlawful paramilitary activity that transformed the city into a virtual combat zone, a suit filed today claims.
Citing alt-right organizers’ vows to return to Charlottesville and invoking provisions of Virginia law, Georgetown Law’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection (ICAP) filed a complaint today asking a Virginia state court to prohibit key “Unite the Right” organizers and an array of participating private paramilitary groups and their commanders from coming back to Virginia to conduct illegal paramilitary activity.
“Virginia law clearly reflects the American tradition that private armies are anathema to a well-organized society,” said Mary McCord, senior litigator for ICAP.
“Our complaint shows that there are legal tools available to ensure that the streets do not become battlefields for those who organize and engage in paramilitary activity,” McCord said. “And to the self-professed militia purporting to function as peacekeepers, the law is clear in Virginia, as it is in many states: ‘in all cases the military should be under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power.’”
This morning, the Charlottesville City Council voted in open session to join the suit. Also joining are local businesses and community associations.
“The laws regulating civilian militias were put in place by our forebears for a crucial purpose,” said Charlottesville Mayor Michael Signer. “What Charlottesville saw the weekend of August 12 were armed organizations parading their violence in public and attacking citizens. Such a blatant assault on democratic government itself may be integral to today’s ‘alt-right’ movement, but it cannot be allowed to continue.”
In its 79-page complaint, ICAP, joined by local counsel, recounts how much of the violence and mayhem that unfolded during the August 12 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville had been carefully arranged in advance. The complaint documents more than a month of planning among alt-right organizers and participants through social media, often using private channels. According to the complaint, the rally’s organizers solicited private militias to attend the rally, held group-wide planning calls, and circulated an instructional document entitled “General Orders.” All the while, attendees encouraged one another to “prepare for war.”
“This was a conscious strategy of ‘provoke and invoke,’” said Joshua Geltzer, ICAP’s executive director. “Those who came to Charlottesville looking for a fight planned to use paramilitary tactics to provoke violence on the part of counter-protestors and bystanders, then to invoke self-defense as an excuse for the violence they intended all along.”
Using hours of video footage uploaded to social media, as well as detailed journalistic accounts, the complaint also vividly documents the events of August 12. It describes how organized bands of white nationalists used shields, flagpoles, and clubs to execute coordinated attacks on counter-protesters – scenes reminiscent of medieval warfare. According to the complaint, alt-right groups even plowed through a line of singing clergy and faith leaders who locked hands at an access point to Emancipation Park.
“It really felt like every step you take could be your last,” one evangelical leader recalled.
In fact, James A. Fields Jr., who joined the rally’s shield-wall formations in the uniform of the white-supremacist group Vanguard America, later drove a car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring at least 19 others.
Meanwhile, uniformed militiamen toting semi-automatic rifles stood in the streets of Charlottesville. Many of these militiamen carried 60 to 80 pounds of combat gear and surrounded the main protests at Emancipation Park. Others stationed themselves at Justice Park, purportedly to offer protection to counter-protestors who used Justice Park as a home base. Their presence terrified residents of the college town and those seeking to peacefully counter-protest, the complaint says. The document chronicles locals’ expressions of shock and fear at the open display of military firepower, including passersby who threw up their hands and pleaded not be shot, and one Charlottesville native who wondered aloud, “Who would have thought that this would happen in America?”
Named defendants in the complaint include “Unite the Right” organizers Jason Kessler and 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. Many of the individuals who commanded these groups on August 12 are also named as defendants.
The complaint details numerous promises by alt-right leaders to return to Charlottesville as often as possible, including Mosley telling his online readership that “Cville was dropping the bomb on Hiroshima. There will be more chaos ahead and everyone involved should be ready.” Just this past weekend, alt-right marchers returned to Emancipation Park for a torch-lit rally that closed with chants of “We will be back!” According to the complaint, private militia groups have also redoubled their commitment to attending future white-nationalist rallies.
“We’re asking the court to take these groups at their word, and act swiftly to prohibit their unlawful return to Charlottesville as roving armies,” McCord said. “The laws of Virginia and dozens of other states already contain the tools to stop unauthorized and intimidating displays of paramilitary force. With this suit, the Charlottesville community is confronting vigilante violence with an even more powerful weapon: the rule of law.”
ICAP is partnering on the suit with the regional law firm MichieHamlett, with well-known Charlottesville attorneys Lee Livingston and Kyle McNew serving as local counsel.
“Our community was invaded by private armies on August 12 and lives were lost,” Livingston said. “As we search for answers and a way forward together, we expect this suit will unify us on at least one thing – a stand against private armies invading the public square – and give our public servants who enforce the law a tool to protect all citizens who gather in public places.”
Learn more: Download the complaint.
Protesters at the August 12 "Unity the Right" rally in Charlottesville. Credit: Associated Press