Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
Two new lawsuits argue white supremacists should be banned from the city.
Exactly two months ago, the Ku Klux Klan, Alt-Right, Neo-Nazis, and private militia descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, for the “Unite the Right”rally. Many of the attendees, photos and videos show, carried heavy assault rifles, handguns, and shields—equipment that Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe later told The New York Times was better than that the state police had. Inevitably, violence broke out. One white nationalist fired a gun at counter protesters, while police looked on. Another Nazi-sympathizer rammed his car into a crowd, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring several others.
On Thursday, the city of Charlottesville sued.
A complaint filed by Georgetown Law’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection (ICAP) asks Virginia state court to prevent the rally’s organizers and the paramilitary groups that attended from carrying out a repeat performance, invoking an oft-overlooked clause in the Virginia state constitution that says all military activity must “be under strict subordination to, and governed by, civil power.”
In other words, they’re asking the court to ban any military activity that is not government-directed, and arguing that the private militia present during the Unite the Right rally qualify as such:
Touted as an opportunity to protest the removal of a controversial Confederate statue, the event quickly escalated well beyond such constitutionally protected expression. Instead, private military forces transformed an idyllic college town into a virtual combat zone.
The second amendment does not protect this sort of activity, the lawsuit argues, as it “extols the virtues of a ‘well regulated Militia,’ while creating no right to form unregulated private armies or private peacekeeping forces.”
On Thursday, the Charlottesville city council voted to join this lawsuit, and some local businesses put their names down as well.“The laws regulating civilian militias were put in place by our forebears for a crucial purpose,” said Charlottesville Mayor Michael Signer in a statement.
Dozens of other states have roughly similar laws on the books, the ICAP lawyers told CityLab. They’re now conducting additional research to see if Charlottesville’s lawsuit against private militia can be used as a model for other cities hoping to avoid becoming the next site of racial violence.
The violence that took place in Charlottesville was planned—and even relished—by many of the participants, leaked online discussions show. And Virginia’s open carry law allowed armed attendees to sail through. Later, many of the private militia present distanced themselves from the white supremacists, insisting that they were there to defend free speech.The city’s lawsuit argues that they did the opposite. Along with the Klansmen and Neo-Nazis, they helped create an atmosphere of fear, chilling the right to free speech and assembly—certainly, on one side.
Still, the president condemned violence “on both sides”—pointing fingers at leftist anti-fascists who were present. These groups, who by no means enjoy the wide institutional support white supremacists do, actually shielded unarmed protesters and clergymen, bystanders said. The White House’s soft slap on the wrist bolstered the white supremacists, who have since returned to Charlottesville. Only a few days ago, Alt-Right leader Richard Spencer convened another, smaller rally there, where participants lit torches and chanted, “You will not replace us!”
Charlottesville 3.0 was as success. pic.twitter.com/c18ktP0MWD— Richard ☝🏻Spencer (@RichardBSpencer) October 8, 2017
Mayor Signer took to Twitter, condemning the gathering and alluding to the legal action, which he has followed through with Thursday.
Another despicable visit by neo-Nazi cowards. You’re not welcome here! Go home! Meantime we’re looking at all our legal options. Stay tuned.— Mike Signer (@MikeSigner) October 8, 2017
Several city residents injured during the rally have now also sued the organizers of Unite the Right for damages in federal court, The Washington Post reports. This second lawsuit is asking for a ban on future white nationalist gatherings on different grounds, arguing that they intimidate minorities and therefore violate civil rights. They are represented by Robbie Kaplan, who argued the the landmark Supreme Court case establishing a right to same-sex marriage, and Karen Dunn, a former federal prosecutor in Virginia.
If successful, this kind of lawsuit could be a model for even cities whose states don’t have a private militia law. In the meantime, some cities are turning to other options.