A year after the attempted U.S. Capitol insurrection, public officials are seeking justice via legislation and lawsuits that mirror a prolific Charlottesville case targeting organizers of the Unite the Right rally.
When rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 6, 2021 after President Donald Trump called on Americans to fight against Congress’s count of electoral votes, many Charlottesville area community members who protested white supremacy during the summer of 2017 were unsurprised.
The insurrection attempt has been widely compared to the August 2017 University of Virginia torch march and Unite the Right rally thanks in large part to a crossover in the far-right figures who supported or participated in the violence in both.
However, another connection is highlighted via recent lawsuit filed by Washington D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine against the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and key figures of both groups.
The lawsuit, filed last month in D.C.’s federal court, bears many similarities to the Sines v. Kessler lawsuit which targeted key organizers and participants of the Unite the Right rally and torch march.
“Our Charlottesville case has affirmed the importance of civil litigation and helped chart a path forward, demonstrating how to bankrupt and dismantle these extremists — and prevent them from striking again,” said Amy Spitalnick, director of Integrity First for America, the group that funded the lawsuit. “And as extremism becomes increasingly mainstreamed, it makes this accountability all the more crucial.”
The legal efforts are not the only response to the rally. Some, including U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, are turning to legislative solutions. During a press call Tuesday, Kaine outlined both his efforts to pass legislation to protect voting rights and his experiences.
Reflecting on Jan. 6, 2021, Kaine said it gave him a new kind of insight into what it must feel to be a disenfranchised voter, citing a history of violence being used to suppress votes from Black Americans.
“I got just a very brief window into how debilitating and discouraging and devastating it is to have your vote threatened or taken away,” he said. “That anger persists today, and I really do think the only productive way to deal with it is to pass comprehensive legislation to make sure that we protect every single person’s ability to vote.”
In September, Kaine joined U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar to introduce the Freedom to Vote Act that seeks a variety of changes, including automatic voter registration and online voter registration; making Election Day a public holiday; allowing for same day registration; ensure all voters can request mail-in ballots; and restoring the right to vote in federal elections for people who have served their time for felony convictions after release.
Despite a lack of support from Senate Republicans, Kaine said he sees the issue as bi-partisan, pointing to efforts in the Virginia General Assembly to make voting easier and its potential impact on the recent increased turnout for the state’s gubernatorial election.
The Sines v. Kessler lawsuit in Charlottesville was filed soon after the Unite the Right rally on behalf of various area residents. It ended in November after a nearly five week long jury trial.
The jurors found more than a dozen defendants, including former Proud Boy and key rally organizer Jason Kessler, liable for $26 million in damages. Though it remains to be seen what, if any, money the plaintiffs will be able to collect, Integrity First for America has pointed to the case as a success and a model for Racine’s case.
Like the Charlottesville case, D.C. vs. the Proud Boys cites the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, which was originally intended to protect formerly enslaved people from racial violence after the Civil War.
However, the lawsuit does differ notably in who is being represented, said Rich Schragger, a UVa law professor.
“It is notable that this lawsuit is being brought by the District of Columbia, to obtain damages to its officers and taxpayers, and is based on the insurrectionists’ attempts to obstruct federal officials in their official acts and damage to federal property,” he said. “That makes it somewhat unusual.”
According to Schragger, the District is invoking federal law addressing vigilante violence directed against officers and officials of the United States.
“Violence against federal officials was a problem in the former states of the Confederacy, where the KKK and other groups sought to intimidate and terrorize officers of the federal government seeking to enforce the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments,” he said.
Another interesting detail pointed to by Schragger is a portion of the complaint that notes damages to former Vice President Mike Pence, whom the plaintiffs allege the defendants “conspired to injure” on account of his “lawful discharge or performance of his duties as Vice President of the United States and President of the Senate with respect to the election.”
According to the Washington Post, the D.C. lawsuit was put together with the assistance of two nonprofit groups that focused on the Jan. 6 assault, the States United Democracy Center and the Anti-Defamation League, both of which are serving as pro bono outside counsel.