An armed white supremacist stands in front of a crowd of counter protesters in Charlottesville on August 12. Joshua Roberts/Reuters

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!”

Mayor Signer took to Twitter, condemning the gathering and alluding to the legal action, which he has followed through with Thursday.

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.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. A photo of Andrew Field, the owner of Rockaway Taco, looking out from his store in the Rockaway Beach neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York.
    Life

    Tacos and Transit: Rate Your City

    From taco-rich San Diego to the tortilla wastelands of Boston, we asked you to grade U.S. cities on two critical metrics: Mexican food and public transportation.

  2. A photo of a man sitting on a bench in East Baltimore.
    Equity

    Why Is It Legal for Landlords to Refuse Section 8 Renters?

    San Jose and Baltimore are considering bills to prevent landlords from rejecting tenants based on whether they are receiving federal housing aid. Why is that necessary?

  3. The opulent anteroom to a ladies' restroom at the Ohio Theatre, a 1928 movie palace in Columbus, Ohio.
    Design

    The Glamorous, Sexist History of the Women’s Restroom Lounge

    Separate areas with sofas, vanities, and even writing tables used to put the “rest” in women’s restrooms. Why were these spaces built, and why did they vanish?

  4. The Metropolitan Opera House in New York
    Equity

    How Urban Core Amenities Drive Gentrification and Increase Inequality

    A new study finds that as the rich move back to superstar cities' urban cores to gain access to unique amenities they drive low-income people out.

  5. A pupil works on a cardboard architectural model at a Hong Kong primary school.
    Design

    The Case for Architecture Classes in Schools

    Through the organization Architecture for Children, Hong Kong architect Vicky Chan has taught urban design and planning to thousands of kids. Here’s why.