A federal lawsuit filed last month seeking money damages from two far-right groups, the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, and their leading members linked to the Jan. 6 Capitol riots was designed with one ambitious goal in mind: to affect their finance. profits and end their operations.
“If we happen to bankrupt them, that’s a good day,” Karl Racine, the attorney general of Washington, D.C., who is teaming with other organizations in the lawsuit, said at a news conference last month.
Now, the civil case is taking shape as the federal government’s sprawling criminal investigation into the attack on Capitol Hill nabbed a prominent figure in the movement Thursday, Oath Keepers leader and founder Stewart Rhodes, who was arrested on one count. of seditious conspiracy.
Whether the group will survive in its current form remains to be seen, but the goal of Racine’s lawsuit will test the limits in the fight against far-right extremists. The legal strategy behind it was used last November in the civil trial in Charlottesville, Virginia, against the organizers of the far-right rally that erupted into deadly violence in 2017.
And it’s a tactic that has worked before.
In the 1980s, the Southern Poverty Law Center took the United Klans of America to court after two Klansmen lynched a 19-year-old black man, Michael Donald, in Mobile, Alabama. A jury awarded his family $7 million. The white supremacist group, however, was unable to come up with the payment and had to turn over the deed to its Tuscaloosa headquarters, its only asset, to Donald’s mother.
In 1990, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League successfully sued the leader of another white supremacist group, the White Aryan Resistance, for his role in inciting the 1988 fatal beating of an Ethiopian man in Portland. , Oregon. Mulugeta Seraw’s family received $12.5 million in damages, and the group’s boss, Tom Metzger, found himself in financial ruin from the litigation, losing his home and filing for bankruptcy.
Like the case against the White Aryan Resistance, the lawsuit against the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers hinges on proving at trial that they violated the Ku Klux Klan Act, a little-used federal law codified after the Civil War to protect human rights. civilians. The litigation has a good chance of success, experts on hate and extremism in the US say, because it gets the information that is being gathered as part of the congressional investigation into the role the two groups played in planning and executing the attack. Assault on the Capitol.
“That’s pretty damning — it’s coming from the federal government,” Randy Blazak, a sociologist at the University of Oregon who is involved in Portland-area efforts to combat hate speech and extremist activity, said of the lawsuit.
Racine’s lawsuit alleges that the two groups and their leaders “worked together to conspire, advertise, recruit, and finance their planned attack” on January 6, 2021, by conspiring to overturn the results of the 2020 election in order to secure the support of Donald Trump. second term as president.
Officers from the US Capitol Police and, separately, the NAACP have launched similar litigation, though those lawsuits also name Trump and his allies as defendants. Trump is seeking to have those lawsuits dismissed, citing his immunity as then president.
the Racine lawsuit, joined by the ADL; United Democracy Center of the United States, a nonpartisan think tank on voting rights and electoral security; and two large law firms—is not focused on the former president. If successful, the lawsuit would open up the financial gains and assets of the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers and some of their top members.
Since the Jan. 6 riots, at least one member of the Proud Boys has pleaded guilty to conspiring with other members to stop the certification of the 2020 election. Federal authorities allege that more than three dozen people accused of storming the Capitol they are affiliated with the Proud Boys, a militant far-right group of self-described “Western chauvinists.”
Some members seem to be in need of financial help. An online campaign on behalf of Nicholas Ochs, a self-proclaimed Proud Boy leader from Hawaii who was arrested on conspiracy and other charges last year, raised nearly $20,000. Ochs has pleaded not guilty. He could not be immediately reached for comment.
The Oath Keepers, an anti-government paramilitary group founded in 2009, has had at least 10 members or affiliates charged with conspiracy after January 6. Its finances have been under tight control by its leader, Rhodes, an outspoken Trump supporter. and a former Army paratrooper who studied law at Yale University. Prior to his arrest, Rhodes, 56, had been subpoenaed to testify as part of the congressional investigation.
In the days before the Capitol riots, Rhodes made a call on the group’s website for “every patriot who may be in DC” to travel to the capital for a “security mission” to “stand firm in support of President Trump’s fight.”
Rhodes pleaded not guilty Friday during his first federal court appearance in Texas. He faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted of the seditious conspiracy charge.
Kellye SoRelle, a Texas attorney representing Oath Keepers, told reporters outside the courthouse that she “is not guilty of any of the outlandish charges and that the organization supports Mr. Rhodes.”
A victory in the latest suit involving the Oath Keepers would be significant, but it’s not a “silver bullet” against the far-right movement, said Jackson, the author of “Oath Keepers: Patriotism and the Edge of Violence in a Right-Wing Antigovernment Group.”
Eileen Hershenov, the ADL’s senior vice president of policy, said the suit against the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers will have its own set of challenges.
The suit is the first time a state or municipal government agency is suing using the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, she said. Also complicating efforts: The litigation involves a web of more than 30 individually named defendants, some of whom face criminal charges related to Jan. 6 and are in jail.
Hershenov said the coalition of legal teams will seek to examine the flow of money and where it came from.
“They fund-raised, recruited, planned and so forth in the weeks and days leading up to Jan. 6, so we know they talked about some of the ways they tried to finance getting people to Washington and getting different paraphernalia,” she said.
Ultimately, any potential compensatory and punitive damages against the defendants will require the suit’s plaintiff, the D.C. government, to determine how it was harmed. Hershenov said that could include the physical desecration to the Capitol, the cost of medical bills associated with the bodily injuries and mental trauma on members of the Metropolitan Police Department, as well as the economic harm to D.C. when businesses were temporarily closed.
The financial toll on defendants could conceivably be in the millions, if not tens of millions, of dollars, Hershenov said.
In the Charlottesville trial, nine plaintiffs won more than $25 million in financial compensation from some two dozen white supremacists, neo-Nazis and key organizers of the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally.
While the jury in Charlottesville was deadlocked on whether the defendants participated in a federal conspiracy as outlined in the Ku Klux Klan Act, the lawsuit succeeded in shutting down or impeding facets of their activities.
One defendant, white nationalist Richard Spencer, said the lawsuit had been “financially crippling” and that he was “in a very difficult situation in terms of getting funding.” A leader of another defendant, the League of the South, said the lawsuit halted his effort to raise money for a new building in Alabama.
Some defendants have said that they’re leaving the white supremacist movement altogether, although there remains skepticism that will happen, said Amy Spitalnick, the executive director of Integrity First for America, the nonprofit civil rights organization that funded the Charlottesville suit.
The suit’s aim — to hold the defendants liable for the violence at the “Unite the Right” rally — was also effective when it came to going to trial because it forced white supremacists and white nationalists to appear in court and answer for what transpired.
“Others can see how they’ve been held accountable,” Spitalnick said, “and they’ll know that a lawsuit like ours will follow these defendants to the ends of the Earth to collect on them, to place liens on their homes, garnish their wages and seize their assets, whatever it takes.”
The Jan. 6 lawsuit, she said, can similarly highlight questions surrounding the groups’ finances and flush out sources of income that may not have previously been known to the public. The timing of a potential trial remains unclear.
The Charlottesville lawsuit was filed in 2017, but a trial took four years, impeded in part by the pandemic.
“This is about making clear the consequences,” Spitalnick said of litigation that is successful. “We may not change the hearts and minds of those radicalized, but this can be a crucial tool in deterring extremism down the road.”