AUTHOR: NITASHA TIKUNITASHA TIKU
VIOLENT ALT-RIGHT CHATS COULD BE KEY TO CHARLOTTESVILLE LAWSUITS
A white nationalist throws a smoke grenade canister on August 12, 2017 at the Charlottesville, VA rally.MARK PETERSON/REDUX
IN THE WEEKS leading up to the Charlottesville, Virginia white nationalist march that left one counterprotestor dead, organizers discussed inserting screws into flagpoles to be used as potential weapons and concealing firearms in the case of a “gunfight,” according to chatroom logs. In the days after the march, participants in the same chatroom created a meme from a photo of a car that struck and killed Heather Heyer, describing the incident as “Back to the Fhurer.”
The chatroom transcripts and a related audio recording offer a new window into the mind set of march organizers before and after the August 12 rally. They were obtained and disclosed by Unicorn Riot, which describes itself as a “media collective” focusing on “dynamic social struggles.” Lawyers say the discussions could be useful in the criminal case against James Alex Fields Jr., accused of driving the car that killed Heyer, or civil lawsuits filed by people injured in the confrontation.
Unicorn Riot has so far published roughly 1,000 screenshots of chats, and the recording, conducted through the app Discord, from a source. A march organizer says the documents he has seen appear to be authentic. Transcripts show participants openly planning violence while organizers instruct them to obey the law. Participants on one call debated when it would be permissible to use riot shields as weapons. “Some screaming little Latina bitch comes at you and knocks your teeth on your riot shield, that means you hit her, and you’re going to get in trouble for the weapons,” one participant says.
Timothy Litzenburg represents two women injured in the melee who last week sued 28 groups and individuals, including the alleged organizers of the Unite the Right march. He says the documents could be “the crux of the case,” because they show “a little flavor of how [organizers] totally intended on violence and mayhem.”
The documents published by Unicorn Riot focus on months of chat logs from Charlottesville 2.0, a private “server” inside Discord operated by far-right provocateurs Jason Kessler and Eli Mosley, among others. Mosley, a self-described “alt-right” activist, says in an interview that the few documents and recordings highlighted on Unicorn Riot’s website appear authentic, but he does not trust the outlet. Mosley says the documents and recording show him repeatedly urging nonviolence; he says he banned 80 people from the Charlottesville server, some for advocating violence.
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On the recording, Mosley says, “Going up to, like, MSNBC and them interviewing you and you saying like, ‘Yeah, I actually think we should kill every nonwhite on the planet’ … like, again, I don’t necessarily like have an issue with listening to that on a podcast or whatever, but if you are gonna do something like that, even if it’s your true belief, that’s not the objective of this rally.”
Mosley says he is careful to hew to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brandenburg vs. Ohio, a landmark 1968 case that said the government cannot punish even hateful speech unless it incites “imminent lawless action.” Allen Lichtenstein, a former lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, says the ensuing violence would have to happen “more or less immediately.” Mosley says his political opponents get hysterical over the “dark humor” of the alt-right. “The idea that little tractor meme is somehow a call to run people over is ridiculous,” he says. In a courtroom, however, judges or juries may take a different view of such statements.
Litzenburg, the lawyer for the women injured at the protest, says the organizers’ warnings against violence may not protect them legally. “Saying ‘y’all be good now wink wink’ I don’t think washes your hands of violence in this case,” he says. Potential claims by organizers that they acted in self-defense could be undercut by chatroom transcripts that show they were “waiting and hoping for [an action] that will justifiably trigger a violent response,” says Jeffrey Douglas, a board member of the ACLU Foundation of Southern California.
Douglas says the documents could be useful for officials in other cities who want to regulate or ban similar marches. “If you say, ‘Look, there could be problems, we don’t want problems,’ that’s never going to be enough for the court to restrict otherwise protected speech,” Douglas says. But if the government can show a well-founded basis that there was “not just a likelihood of conflict but sort of preparation for illegal activity, then the courts are more likely to impose restrictions.”
Discord allows users to create private, invitation-only group chat rooms, which Discord calls servers, that are not indexed or searchable. The company, which is also popular with gamers, has raised more than $100 million from top-tier venture capital firms like Benchmark, Greylock, and Accel. But its privacy and anonymity features became a draw for far-right groups, including those that organized the Charlottesville march. Since Heyer’s death, Discord expelled several extremist groups.
The footage and imagery from Charlottesville—gun-toting militants, anti-Semitic chants, melees in the street—has catalyzed opposition to neo-fascists and white nationalists, raising the prospect of future violence.
“You put together a situation where you have Nazis and guns and torchlight parades saying Sieg heil, and people who are convinced the only way to stop that is direct action, you’ve got a recipe for trouble,” says Lichtenstein, the former ACLU of Nevada lawyer. He notes that it is legal to openly carry a firearm in Virginia, raising tough questions for courts. “What should be the rule as it relates to First Amendment protected demonstrations where legally carried firearms are there?”