DC Attorney General Karl Racine has filed a federal civil lawsuit targeting two far-right groups involved in the Jan. 6 Capitol riots, the street brawling “Western chauvinist” Proud Boys and wannabe vigilante group the Oath Keepers, accusing them of conspiring to prevent the peaceful transfer of power from Donald Trump’s administration to Joe Biden’s.
The involvement of both groups in the failed insurrection has been extensively documented—over 20 Proud boys including key members like Joe Biggs and Ethan Nordean and nearly as many Oath Keepers faced arrest and/or federal charges in relation to the incident. Racine is relying on the same law cited in a lawsuit against the organizers of the deadly fascist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, parts of which protect government officials carrying out their duties (such as conspiracies to overthrow the federal government) and allow lawsuits against people engaged in conspiracies to deprive others of their civil rights.
The Charlottesville case was partially victorious—while the jury deadlocked on the on the KKK Act claims, they nailed the organizers for $26 million on other claims. But as the Washington Post noted, while there are clear similarities such as the reliance on backlogs of digital evidence, Racine’s suit differs significantly because it comes from a government actor.
The goal of the lawsuit, Racine told the Post, is to unravel how the two groups are financed and secure “full restitution and recompense” for the DC government, which is on the hook for medical costs to scores of officers beaten by rioters. Racine told the paper, “I think the damages are substantial. If it so happens that it bankrupts or puts these individuals and entities in financial peril, so be it.”
“As the independent attorney general, I have the responsibility to enforce our laws and hold these violent defendants accountable,” Racine said during a press conference on Wednesday, according to the Wall Street Journal. “... We filed this suit to seek justice for the brave men and women of the Metropolitan Police Department.”
According to the Journal, the city of DC has estimated that ongoing medical costs for many of the 850 Metropolitan Police Department officers mobilized to respond to the assault on the Capitol runs into the millions. Racine’s suit seeks compensatory, statutory, and punitive damages against the named groups and members. The Anti-Defamation League and the States United Democracy Center helped Racine’s office assemble the lawsuit.
“Last month’s victory in Charlottesville court sent a clear message of the major financial, operational, and legal consequences for violent extremism,” Amy Spitalnick, executive director of Integrity First for America, which represented plaintiffs in the Charlottesville suit, told Gizmodo in a statement. “We know that civil lawsuits have the potential to bankrupt and dismantle hate groups and their leadership — and help prevent them from striking again. There’s so much work ahead. Kudos to Attorney General Racine and all of his partners in this important effort.”
Racine declined to tell the Post whether he had discussed the suit with officials from the Department of Justice, which is currently pursuing federal charges against every one of the dozens of defendants except for Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio (he was in jail on Jan. 6). However, it’s clear the case relies heavily on evidence that has already been dug up amid the federal investigation into the insurrection, including affidavits from criminal cases and a trove of digital evidence like text messages and social media histories.
“Over the course of several weeks, the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, their leadership, and certain of their members and affiliates—motivated by a desire to overturn the legal results of the election and initiate a second term of Donald Trump’s presidency—worked together to plot, publicize, recruit for, and finance their planned attack,” the lawsuit states. “The result of that planning, the January 6th Attack on the Capitol, was not a protest or a rally. It was a coordinated act of domestic terrorism.”
Later, the lawsuit states: “The Defendants used social media and electronic messaging platforms to coordinate the Attack, including by recruiting individuals to participate in the Attack, promoting strategic tactics for use in the Attack, coordinating collection and distribution of tactical gear and weapons, and planning and organizing travel for themselves and their co-conspirators. These efforts began well before January 6th.”
Members of the Oath Keepers, which styles itself as a militia organization, face some of the most serious criminal charges stemming from the attack, according to NPR. While some of the group’s members breached the Capitol interior on Jan. 6, its leader Stewart Rhodes is not accused of doing so, but of coordinating with members before and while they went in. Prosecutors have mostly charged Proud Boys with members with instigating the mob and coordinating the attack, NPR separately reported, but some face charges of assaulting, resisting, or impeding officers. One member named in the DC suit, William Chrestman, is charged with threatening “to assault, kidnap, and murder a federal law enforcement officer.”
A transcript of a phone call obtained by prosecutors showed that after the attack, Chrestman allegedly boasted he “stormed the Capitol Building, we rushed that shit, we took that house back... me and two others, we were the first ones through the gate.” Chrestman also allegedly boasted of assaulting an officer and claimed to have “started a revolution” by sparking efforts to breach the fences around the Capitol.
“Unlike others whose violence was either more spontaneous or associations more informal, the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers were allegedly far more organized and premeditated with respect to their illegal conduct,” Brian Levin, a professor of criminal justice and director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, told Gizmodo.
As the Post noted, only a few Proud Boys or Oath Keepers have pleaded guilty and are cooperating with the government. The Proud Boys, for example, have largely used the defense that their preparations for conflict were against left-wing counterprotesters (despite the fact that the only organized opposition to the MAGA crowd on Jan. 6 was the police and security forces at the Capitol).
Jonathon Mosley, a lawyer who represents Philadelphia Proud Boys leader Zachary Rehl and Oath Keeper Kelly Meggs, told the Post the suit was going after the wrong culprits: “You can’t file a fantasy in court. There were clearly violent people who assaulted police that day, but that wasn’t the Proud Boys or the Oath Keepers.”
Steven Gardiner, Research Director at Political Research Associates, told Gizmodo that while members of both groups stormed the Capitol, they did so as part of a far more expansive anti-democratic movement on the far right. He specifically pointed to research by the University of Chicago Project on Security and Threats showing those arrested in connection in the attack appeared to be part of a disturbingly broad mass movement largely centered around conspiracy theories like QAnon or the Great Replacement (which claims whites are being systematically replaced by racial and ethnic minorities) that bears distinct differences from previous patterns of right-wing extremism. One example is that the insurrectionists on Jan. 6 were largely comprised of middle-aged Americans in the professional class, rather than the type of younger, disaffected male stereotypically associated with fringe groups.
“These kinds of lawsuits have been used in a few high profile cases, for example the judgement against neo-nazi Tom Metzger in the 1990s over the murder of Mulegeta Seraw by racist skinheads who had been influenced by Metzger,” Gardiner told Gizmodo. “The result can effectively shut down organizations and marginalize leaders. This is a legitimate use of the legal system and I think AG Racine is justified in pursuing it.”
“However, it’s important not to look at lawsuits of this sort—or even criminal prosecution—as a kind of magic bullet that will end white nationalism or anti-democratic political violence,” Gardiner added. “Most of those involved in the storming of the Capitol were not Proud Boys or Oath Keepers, or any other defined group. There were part of the much larger MAGA movement mobilized primarily by then-President Trump and his supporters and enablers in Congress.”
“Unfortunately, because today’s extremist landscape is both diversified, fractured and often less hierarchal, the threat today involves not only groups like these, but also others who dine from an a la carte extremism buffet,” Levin told Gizmodo. He added that movement is “also frequently targeting not only national governance, but increasingly state and local fora as well.”
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the jury “ruled against the plaintiffs on the KKK Act claims.” The jury was instead deadlocked on those claims, meaning it made no determination of liability.