UPDATE, July 12, 10:52 p.m.: Jason Kessler, the lead organizer of the 2017 hate rally in Charlottesville, on Thursday entered into a consent decree pledging not to facilitate any “organized, armed paramilitary activity at any future rallies in Charlottesville.” Redneck Revolt also entered into a consent decree.
Three militias named in a lawsuit following the August 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, have agreed to never return to Charlottesville as a group.
The lawsuit was brought by the city of Charlottesville, local businesses, and neighborhood associations in the city. The commanding officers of the militia groups individually agreed to settle and enter into a consent decree.
The Pennsylvania Light Foot, the New York Light Foot Militia, and the III% People’s Militia of Maryland, have agreed not to return to Charlottesville “as part of a unit of two or more persons acting in concert while armed with a firearm, weapon, shield, or any item whose purpose is to inflict bodily harm, at any demonstration, rally, protest, or march,” according to the consent decree.
The lawsuit did not seek monetary damages from the militias or their leaders.
On August 12, 2017, the three militias separately arrived in Charlottesville allegedly to act as volunteer security without endorsing the aims of either the white supremacist groups or the anti-fascist groups that protested against them. Neo-nazi groups clashed with counter protesters as scores were injured and one anti-fascist protester, Heather Heyer, was killed when a member of a neo-Nazi group allegedly drove his car into a gathering of counter-protesters.
“We didn’t agree with any of the groups out there that day, not one of them,” Christian Yingling, Pennsylvania Light Foot’s commanding officer, told Rewire.News in a February interview.
“We were out there for the First Amendment of the Constitution,” Yingling said. “Not only are they trampling on the Second Amendment but they are trampling on the First. … None of my people ever pointed a weapon at anyone. All they did was do the police’s job when they stopped doing it.”
A report released in December detailed police inaction during the violence of the white supremacist rally, with the Charlottesville police chief saying, “Let them fight for a while, it’ll make it easier.” The report also detailed an attempt to cover up planning and communications errors by police in Charlottesville.
The lawsuit, filed with help from the Georgetown University Law Center, names various white supremacists and their organizations. “Although these three militia organizations claim that they intended to function as peacekeepers, Virginia law—like that of many states—does not permit private military organizations to operate outside the comprehensive state-law requirements for using organized force or projecting a willingness to do so,” Mary McCord, senior litigator at Georgetown Law’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, said in a statement.
The militia groups struggled in vain to find legal representation, Yingling said. Requests for legal help from the National Rifle Association were rejected.
Eleven defendants out of 25 have now settled. Jason Kessler, Elliott Kline, Matthew Heimbach, the Traditionalist Worker Party, Vanguard America—individuals and groups associated with white nationalist ideologies—and an anti-fascist militia, Redneck Revolt, are still contesting the suit. Some other defendants have either not responded to the suit or could not be located to be served. Some of the groups, like Redneck Revolt, are explicitly opposed to white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups that gathered in Charlottesville in August 2017. They were nevertheless lumped into the lawsuit.
“We built a case that would prohibit the groups from returning to Virginia and engaging in the kind of paramilitary activity we saw,” McCord said in a February interview with Rewire.News. “It doesn’t seek money damages. This is purely forward-looking relief. It would not prohibit engaging in freedom of speech …. One of the reasons we decided to do this was that a number of the participants vowed to return to Charlottesville …. Since then Jason Kessler has said that he intends to return on August 12th, 2018, the one year anniversary of that rally.”
The legal strategy could prevent any group from returning to Charlottesville as an organized paramilitary force, regardless of political affiliation. It would potentially set precedent that could help other communities prevent incursions by armed groups. The consent decrees carry the force of court orders, according to Georgetown University Law Center.