Jason Kessler at Harris trial

Jason Kessler reacts as he is confronted by police outside of the courtroom before the trial of DeAndre Harris at the Charlottesville District Court.

Two more groups that were involved in the violent Unite the Right rally last summer have agreed they will not return to the city with weapons, flags and shields for another “pro-white” demonstration that’s being planned again for Aug. 12.

Although several of the groups that were party to the deadly episode last year have said they won’t come back to Charlottesville for an anniversary rally — which could potentially take place in Washington, D.C., instead — a leftist “community defense” force and the main organizer of the event are still defendants in a civil lawsuit against them.  

In response to litigation against groups and individuals accused of engaging in illegal paramilitary activity during the white supremacist rally, an attorney for the Traditionalist Worker Party, Vanguard America and Elliott Kline, who helped organize it, has signed court documents saying they will not come back to the city the same way they did last year.   

Attorneys representing the white supremacist National Socialist Movement, pro-secessionist League of the South and three self-organized militia groups from Pennsylvania, Maryland and New York already have signed similar orders.

“Whenever you can get people to agree with you rather than go to court, that’s a good thing for everybody,” said Kyle McNew, a local attorney representing the plaintiffs, which includes the city and several local businesses and neighborhood associations.

“We’ve got agreements from a lot of the groups, saying they will not be coming back in a coordinated, military-like fashion. That was the goal of the lawsuit to begin with,” he said.  

The new consent orders were submitted a day after the plaintiff’s attorneys filed a motion for a temporary injunction against the remaining defendants. The motion mentions that local rally organizer Jason Kessler is planning to hold another rally that could again turn violent.

“Without injunctive relief from this court, there is a real and immediate threat that plaintiffs — and the rest of the city’s residents — will once again be irreparably injured by defendants’ disregard for the law,” the motion says.

While the news is welcomed by attorneys representing the plaintiffs in the case, there are still three active defendants in the case, one of whom local activists have asked the city to dismiss from the case.

The remaining defendants, according to attorneys involved in the case, are Kessler, Redneck Revolt and Matthew Heimbach, a Traditionalist Worker Party leader who is currently incarcerated, according to McNew.

The Courier-Journal in Kentucky last month reported that Heimbach recently was sentenced to 38 days in jail after being arrested on domestic violence charges, violating probation conditions of a previous misdemeanor harassment charge.

 

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Last week, a collection of local clergy involved in direct-action activism asked the city and the other plaintiffs in the case to remove Redneck Revolt from the complaint. The suit alleges that Redneck Revolt participated in illegal paramilitary activity by coming as an armed group, in contravention of state law.

“We organize and act without weapons and require that those who act with us remain unarmed,” the statement from Congregate Charlottesville says. “However, we wish to be explicit that tenets of violence and nonviolence are more complex than whether or not we choose to be armed.”

“There is a marked difference between the armed white supremacist groups who invaded Charlottesville with the intent to do harm and the armed anti-racist groups who came to Charlottesville to assist in supporting and protecting our most marginalized communities.”

Mary McCord, a lead attorney with the Georgetown University Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, which is representing the plaintiffs on a pro-bono basis, said the complaint is not about suppressing certain ideologies. She said it is focused on removing “weaponry and coordinated military behavior” from protests.

“The basis for this lawsuit is not about motives — it’s about engaging in paramilitary activity,” she said. “That’s why Redneck Revolt was named as a defendant, and why they remain in the suit.”

Pam Starsia, a formerly local activist and attorney who now lives in Texas and is representing Redneck Revolt alongside local civil rights attorney Jeff Fogel, said she thinks the lawsuit could set a new legal precedent that’s “dangerous” for activists. 

Starsia said it’s uncommon for plaintiffs to file a civil complaint alleging criminal charges and that defendants in civil complaints are not entitled to court-appointed counsel. She speculated that the groups that have signed consent decrees did so to avoid a costly legal battle.

“We think that legal theory is dangerous,” Starsia said, adding that she thinks a local magistrate would never agree to sign a criminal complaint similar to what’s being alleged in the lawsuit without having law enforcement investigate first.

“It could open the door to future harassment suits, particularly against activists who are participating in demonstrations,” she said. 

Starsia also noted a federal court’s recent dismissal of a complaint that alleged local and state authorities on Aug. 12 violated civil rights by not stopping the violence sooner than they did.

The court ruled that it is not “clearly established” whether there is a constitutional duty for police to protect citizens from criminal conduct by a third party.

“They don’t have affirmative duty to protect, but you’ll be sued if you protect yourself or each other,” Starsia said. “I don’t really know what message the city and commonwealth are trying to send to people, but it’s scary. That’s one of the reasons we’re defending against this suit.”

Asked why his clients signed the orders, Ohio-based attorney James Kolenich said they did so because they “didn’t intend to come back anyway.”

“Generally, they don’t place much of an impediment to the people who signed them,” he said about the consent decrees. “It was only about what the city was after; they did not want organized groups carrying certain items. … Members of those groups are allowed to go back, but they can’t go in their organizational uniforms.”

 

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Kolenich also is representing Kessler in his legal challenge against the city for denying him a permit to hold another rally in Emancipation Park on Aug. 12. He said a deposition hearing with a city official is expected to take place next week.

A website for the event says Kessler is planning to hold the rally in Charlottesville again but says that he also is planning to use Lafayette Square across from the White House as an alternative location. The website says supporters should be prepared to go to Charlottesville and Washington during the same day.

National Park Service officials earlier this week confirmed that Kessler had applied for an event permit, but approval is still pending and may not be approved until the week of the rally.

NPS spokeswoman Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles said no one else had filed for an event on Aug. 12 as of Wednesday, which means Kessler’s application would get priority for the space. She also noted Kessler and other organizers would have to ensure that they have satisfied the agency’s safety requirements.

Kessler did not immediately respond to questions sent Friday afternoon.

Though it’s possible the rally may take place somewhere else, city spokesman Brian Wheeler said officials are planning for whatever may come. He said more information and a calendar of community events and activities will be available soon on the city’s website.

“The city of Charlottesville recognizes that this August will be an important time for our community to acknowledge painful feelings about the tragic events of last summer and also a time to promote resilience and healing,” Wheeler said.

“We look forward to engaging the community in this recovery process and to sharing the significant training and planning preparations we have undertaken as a city.”

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Chris Suarez is a reporter for The Daily Progress. Contact him at (434) 978-7274, csuarez@dailyprogress.com or @Suarez_CM  on Twitter.

Daily Progress staff writer Ruth Serven contributed to this story.

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