By Karen Dunn, Roberta Kaplan, Amy Spitalnick
The Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol followed a playbook we’ve seen before.
We know because we’re bringing the federal lawsuit against the neo-Nazis, white supremacists and hate groups responsible for the Charlottesville violence. With each new bit of information, the parallels between Unite the Right and Stop the Steal become more alarming. A straight line can be drawn from Charlottesville to the Capitol — and it is imperative, for our safety and for our democracy, that we all understand how to connect the dots.
In August 2017, white supremacists, neo-Nazis and other far-right extremists descended on Charlottesville. As the evidence in our case details, the violence that ensued was no accident. It was meticulously planned for months in advance in private chat rooms: a racist, violent conspiracy that will finally be held accountable in court later this year.
As with the Charlottesville attack, what happened at the Capitol was no accident. These were not lone wolves who spontaneously decided to storm the U.S. Capitol building. Rather, for weeks in advance, on both mainstream and fringe social media sites, these extremists organized, making clear that there would be violence if lawmakers, media, law enforcement and others did not reject the results of the 2020 election.
One person on the far-right TheDonald forum asked, “What if Congress ignores the evidence?” “Storm the Capitol,” was the response, with hundreds of users liking the post. There were countless similar posts across various sites.
These posts eerily echo the Discord chats in which the Charlottesville violence was planned, where there was explicit discussion of hitting protesters with cars nearly a month before the attack that took Heather Heyer’s life and grievously injured our plaintiffs.
As in Charlottesville, the Capitol insurrectionists showed up with weapons and in tactical gear, prepared for violence. When these extremists say they’re going to do something, we must believe them.
The parallels with Charlottesville don’t end with the fact that both were violent conspiracies planned online. At the core of both Unite the Right and Stop the Steal is a vile, pervasive white supremacy that includes palpable anti-Semitism. The motivation for these extremists’ violence is their bigotry.
Much of this hate is predicated on the idea of the country being “stolen” from white people. “Jews will not replace us” was a direct callout to the vile Great Replacement theory, which argues that the white race is being replaced by people of color, with Jews as the puppet masters.
In fact, some of the same white supremacists who terrorized Charlottesville showed up at the Capitol, such as “Baked Alaska” and Nick Fuentes who were photographed ransacking Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office. One of the chief cheerleaders of the Capitol attack was neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin, a central player in the Charlottesville violence and a defendant in our suit.
And just as in Charlottesville, within hours of the violence, perpetrators defaulted to the same excuse they used in 2017: Antifa, even though there is zero doubt that this was a premeditated far-right extremist attack.
Now, these same extremists are back online, using the Capitol attack to recruit. So where do we go from here? The only path forward is one of accountability.
Our Charlottesville case heads to trial this year — and even before trial, there has been true accountability for the leaders of the violence, from large financial penalties to an extraordinary evidentiary sanctions decision and even jail time. It has deterred many extremists from participating in subsequent actions. Richard Spencer recently complained that he has been “financially crippled” by the case, while other defendants have had to halt plans for new buildings or events.
But beyond our case and a handful of individual prosecutions, there has generally been little accountability for violent extremism. There is now an opportunity to make clear the severe consequences of this terror.
With a new administration in office, there is an opportunity to bring the full weight of the federal government to bear against these extremists — and ensure that the playbook seen in Charlottesville and at the Capitol can never be used again.
Karen Dunn is a partner at Paul Weiss and a former federal prosecutor in Virginia. Roberta Kaplan is the founding partner at Kaplan Hecker Fink LLP. Amy Spitalnick is the executive director of Integrity First for America, the civil rights nonprofit backing the Charlottesville lawsuit. This piece was first published by JTA.