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INSIGHT: Third Anniversary of Charlottesville Attack Sees Case and Tactics Continue

July 31, 2020, 8:01 AM

August 12 will mark the third anniversary of the domestic terror attack that took place in Charlottesville, Va., that led to the death of Heather Heyer and injured so many others.

Heyer’s death, and the carefully-planned violent and hate-filled events that preceded it, demonstrated the clear and present danger that white supremacy poses to our society. But unfortunately, the deep wounds inflicted in Charlottesville were left untreated. While hate crimes continued to rise, efforts to make domestic terror threats from white supremacists a higher priority were rebuffed.

Predictably, as our country grapples with the unprecedented calamity of a global pandemic and large-scale racial acrimony, white supremacists continue to shamelessly fan the flames of racial hatred and violence. Charlottesville could have been a moment to change course. Instead, it became a harbinger for much of what we are seeing play out on our streets today.

Car Attacks Become Tactics

When James Fields drove his Dodge Challenger through a crowd of peaceful counter-protestors on Aug. 12, 2017, it was not just callous and brutal, it was also a tactic that white supremacists were just beginning to embrace. The evidence in our case will show that Fields’s brazen attack was not only premeditated, it was celebrated after the fact by the other white supremacists who marched with Fields that day, including the organizers of Unite the Right whom we have sued in federal court in Charlottesville for conspiracy to commit racially-motivated violence.

Notably, one of the lead organizers of the event, Jason Kessler, tweeted in the days following the car attack, “Communists have killed 94 million. Looks like it was payback time.” Car attacks on protestors have now become commonplace, particularly as a means of disrupting protests against racial injustice.

In early July, for example, a driver allegedly ran over two people during a Black Lives Matter protest on Long Island. The same day, in Bloomington, Ind., a woman drove a car through a crowd of demonstrators gathered to demand the arrest of a group of white men who had pinned a black civil rights activist against a tree, calling him racial slurs and threatening to “get a noose.”

This summer has been punctuated with car attack after car attack— there have been at least 66 car attacks nationwide since George Floyd was killed.

Racist Social Media Tools

Unfortunately, parallels between what is happening today and what happened in Charlottesville are not limited to car attacks. Like the defendants in our lawsuit who organized the deadly events in Charlottesville on a social media gaming platform called Discord, white supremacists today continue to exploit the expanded reach of the internet to plan and incite violence, urging online followers to carry out acts of violence against black protestors.

White supremacists not only want to spark a race war, but they want plausible deniability that they were the ones who started it. Much like our defendants used a public controversy over Confederate monuments as a false pretext for planning a racially violent “rally,” we are seeing similar duplicitous tactics by the same groups who planned the violence in Charlottesville.

For example, one of the defendants in our lawsuit, Identity Evropa, a white supremacy group known for recruiting on college campuses, recently created a fake Twitter account posing as an “antifa” organization and espousing violent rhetoric. This was an effort to give white supremacists cover to “defend themselves” against the supposed “antifa” threat.

And indeed, just as the defendants in our case blamed everything that happened in Charlottesville on “antifa,” so too today, the right-wing media blames everything on “antifa,” thereby fostering a misleading narrative that seeks to shift the blame for today’s social unrest away from where it ultimately belongs.

Our case will demonstrate that what happened in Charlottesville was no accident. As we prepare to hold these defendants accountable, we cannot help but lament the fact that the same destructive designs used by white supremacists to stoke fear and violence in August 2017 continue unabated nearly three years later. As a result, it is now more critical than ever that we recognize the urgent threat they pose and start doing something about it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

Author Information

Roberta Kaplan is the founding partner of Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP. Among other achievements, she has been selected as one of “The 100 Most Influential Lawyers” in the U.S., as “Litigator of the Year,” as “Lawyer of the Year,” and as the “Most Innovative Lawyer of The Year.” In 2013, her landmark victory in United States v. Windsor brought down the Defense of Marriage Act, landing the first major legal victory in the battle for marriage equality. She is also the co-founder of the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund and an adjunct professor of law at Columbia Law School.

Michael Bloch is counsel at Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP. He is an experienced trial attorney who spent over seven years as a public defender at the Bronx Defenders. His practice focuses on white collar matters and public interest litigation, including leveraging his significant trial experience in some of the country’s highest-profile civil rights cases.

The authors represent the plaintiffs in the Charlottesville case, Sines v. Kessler, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia. They have partnered on the litigation with Integrity First for America.

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