A protester professing to be a member of the Proud Boys, center, seen here amid other Donald Trump supporters outside the Capitol on Jan. 6. Photo: Alex Edelman / AFP (Getty Images)
DC Attorney General Karl Racine has filed a federal civil lawsuit targeting two far-right groups involved in the Jan. 6 Capitol riots, the street-fighting “western chauvinist” proud boys and wannabe vigilante group the Oath Keepers, who accused them of plotting to prevent the peaceful transfer of power from Donald Trump’s administration to Joe Biden’s.
The involvement of both groups in the failed uprising has been extensively documented – more than 20 proud boys, including key members such as Joe Biggs and Ethan Nordean and almost as many oath keepers facing arrest and/or federal charges related to the incident. Racine invokes the same law cited in a lawsuit against the organizers of the deadly fascist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, parts of which protect government officials from carrying out their duties (such as conspiracies to the federal government) and allow lawsuits against people involved in conspiracies to deprive others of their civil rights.
The Charlottesville case was partially victorious – as jurors contradicted plaintiffs on KKK Act claims, they nailed organizers for $26 million on other claims. But if the Washington Post noted:, while there are clear similarities, such as the dependence on backlogs of digital evidenceRacine’s suit differs significantly as it comes from a government actor.
The purpose of the lawsuit, Racine told the Post, is to unravel how the two groups are funded and to secure “full restitution and reimbursement” for the DC government, which has been lurking for medical expenses for dozens of officers who beaten by rioters. Racine told the paper: “I think the damage is significant. If it goes bankrupt or puts these individuals and entities in financial jeopardy, so be it.”
“As an independent attorney general, I have a responsibility to enforce our laws and hold these violent defendants to account,” Racine said at a news conference on Wednesday. Wall Street Journal. “…We have filed this lawsuit to seek justice for the brave men and women of the Metropolitan Police Department.”
According to the Journal, the city of DC estimates that ongoing medical costs for many of the 850 Metropolitan Police Department officers mobilized to respond to the Capitol attack run into the millions. Racine’s lawsuit seeks compensatory, statutory and punitive damages against said groups and members. The League against defamation and the United States United Democracy Center helped Racine’s office set up the lawsuit.
“Last month’s victory in the Charlottesville court sent a clear message of the profound financial, operational and legal ramifications of violent extremism,” Amy Spitalnick, executive director of Integrity First for America, which represented plaintiffs in the Charlottesville case, told me. to Gizmodo in a statement. “We know that civil lawsuits have the potential to bankrupt and dismantle hate groups and their leadership — and prevent them from striking again. There is so much work ahead. Kudos to Attorney General Racine and all his partners in this important effort.”
Racine declined to tell the Post whether he had discussed the charges with officials at the Justice Department, which currently has federal charges against all dozen defendants except Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio (he was in prison on Jan. 6.). However, it is clear that the case relies heavily on evidence already unearthed during the federal investigation into the insurgency, including affidavits from criminal cases and a wealth of digital evidence such as text messages and social media history.
“Over the course of several weeks, the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, their leadership and some of their members and affiliates—motivated by a desire to reverse the legal results of the election and initiate a second term of Donald Trump’s presidency lead – to work. together to plan, publicize, recruit and fund their planned attack,” the lawsuit reads. “The result of that planning, the January 6th Capitol attack, was not a protest or a rally. It was a coordinated act of domestic terrorism.”
The lawsuit later states: “The defendants used social media and electronic messaging platforms to coordinate the attack, including recruiting individuals to participate in the attack, promoting strategic tactics for use in the attack, collecting and distributing tactical equipment and weapons, and planning and organizing travel for themselves and their co-conspirators. These efforts began well before January 6.”
Members of the Oath Keepers, who market themselves as a militia organization, face some of the most serious criminal charges as a result of the attack, according to NPR. While some members of the group broke into the Capitol on Jan. 6, leader Stewart Rhodes is accused not of doing so, but of coordinating with members before and as they entered. Proud boys have mostly accused Proud Boys of inciting the mob and coordinating the attack, NPR reported separately, but some are accused of assaulting, resisting, or hindering officers. A member named in the DC case, William Chrestman, is charged with threatening to “assault, kidnap, and kill a federal law enforcement officer.”
A transcript of a telephone conversation obtained by prosecutors showed Chrestman allegedly boasted after the attack that he “stormed the Capitol Building, we rushed that shit, we took that house back… me and two others, we were the first to go through the gate. ” Chrestman would also boast of assaulting an officer, claiming that he had “started a revolution” by fomenting attempts to breach the fences around the Capitol.
“Unlike others whose violence was more spontaneous or informal, the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers were reportedly much more organized and premeditated regarding their illegal behavior,” Brian Levin, a criminal justice professor and director of the Center for the Criminal Investigation Study of hate and extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, Gizmodo told.
As the Post noted, only a few Proud Boys of Oath Keepers have pleaded guilty and are working with the government. The Proud Boys, for example, have largely used the defense that their preparations for the conflict were directed against left-wing counter-protesters (despite the fact that the only organized opposition to the MAGA mob on Jan. 6 was the police and security forces at the Capitol).
Jonathon Mosley, an attorney representing Philadelphia Proud Boys leader Zachary Rehl and Oath Keeper Kelly Meggs, told the Post that the lawsuit was targeting the wrong perpetrators: “You can’t bring fantasy to court. Obviously, there were violent people who day the police attacked, but they weren’t the Proud Boys or the Oath Keepers.”
Steven Gardiner, director of research at Political Research Associates, told Gizmodo that while members of both groups stormed the Capitol, they did so as part of a much wider anti-democratic movement on the far right. He specifically pointed out: research by the University of Chicago Project on Security and Threats showing that those arrested in connection with the attack were part of a disturbingly broad mass movement largely centered around conspiracy theories such as QAnon or the big replacement (which claims that whites are being systematically replaced by racial and ethnic minorities) that clearly differs from previous patterns of right-wing extremism. One example is that the January 6 insurgents were largely made up of middle-aged Americans in the professional class, rather than the younger, disaffected male type stereotypically associated with fringe groups.
“These types of lawsuits have been used in a few high-profile cases, for example the verdict against neo-Nazi Tom Metzger in the 1990s over the murder of Mulegeta Seraw by racist skinheads who were influenced by Metzger,” Gardiner told Gizmodo. “The result can effectively shut down organizations and marginalize leaders. This is a legitimate use of the justice system and I think AG Racine has a right to pursue it.”
“However, it’s important not to see these kinds of lawsuits — or even criminal charges — as some sort of magic bullet that will end white nationalism or anti-democratic political violence,” Gardiner added. “Most of those involved in the storming of the Capitol were not Proud Boys or Oath Keepers, or any other defined group. There was a part of the much larger MAGA movement that was mobilized primarily by then-President Trump and his supporters and enablers in Congress.”
“Unfortunately, because today’s extremist landscape is both diversified, fractured and often less hierarchical, the threat today includes not only groups like this one, but others dining from an à la carte extremism buffet,” Levin told Gizmodo. He added that movement “also often targets not only national governance, but increasingly state and local forums as well.”
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