By Leah Vann
Nothing can quite prepare you for suing Nazis.
That’s what Michael Bloch, counsel for Integrity First America and former Bronx public defender, said in an online IFA panel hosted by the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas’ Women’s Philanthropy Division and its Attorney’s Division on Thursday, Sept. 10.
The panel, which included Bloch, IFA legal partner Jessica Phillips and IFA Executive Director Amy Spitalnick, addressed the gathering on the IFA’s work in the Sines v. Kessler case, where plaintiffs are suing prominent white nationalist organizations and individuals they believe conspired to commit the violence that unfolded as a result of their Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville in August 2017.
“Defendants have raised the First Amendment, saying that what they did that weekend was just protected speech,” Bloch said. “But the case does not focus on protected speech. We agree with the defendants’ rights to say and express their views and carry the symbols they want to carry.
“What they don’t have the right to do is to commit violence or plan to commit violence.”
The IFA is using the Civil Rights Act of 1871 as the legal theory of the case. The act was passed by Ulysses S. Grant during the Civil War, and was designed to reinforce the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, by giving the government the right of action to combat conspiracies that were depriving individuals of their civil rights.
Spitalnick, the executive director of Integrity First America, said that the plaintiffs in the suit were among the 19 injured when white supremacist James Alex Fields Jr. rammed his car through a crowd of counter-protestors, killing one.
Spitalnick added that it’s important to recognize that this case is representative of a growing movement of white supremacist and alt-right extremism in the U.S. and across the world.
She cited the Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue shooter, Robert Bowers, communicated with leaders of the white supremacist movement through a far-right website before his attack in 2018, which killed 11 people.
Then Brenton Tarrant’s gun, which he used in the shooting at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2019, killing 40 people, had a white supremacist symbol popularized by American neo-Nazi Matthew Heimbach painted on it. The Christchurch shooting inspired the El Paso Walmart shooting, which killed 20 people, in April 2019.
According to the ADL, far-right extremists killed more people in 2018 than any other year since 1995, the year of the Oklahoma City bombing. In 2019, the ADL tracked the most antisemitic events on record.
“By taking on these extremists, we can make a major financial, legal and operational dent in their ability to operate and, ultimately, dismantle the individuals and groups that are at the center of this larger violent movement,” Spitalnick said.
Already, the IFA team has won over $41,000 in sanctions against three neo-Nazi defendants who failed to show up for depositions and comply with court orders. The court date for the trial was originally Oct. 26, but is being rescheduled due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Cases like this take a toll on both the legal team and the plaintiffs. Spitalnick said that members of the legal team have received threats containing antisemitic imagery and have had to get law enforcement involved for protection from threats of violence.
Phillips said she has spent a lot of time with the plaintiffs over these past three years preparing their depositions and hopes for not only the success of the case, but for a place the plaintiffs can share their pain publicly.
“Many of them, even three years later, are still suffering from the physical, emotional and psychological impacts of what the defendants did,” Phillips said. “I truly hope and think that being able to be physically present in court and tell the jury and the judge what happened to them and what their experiences were will be extremely cathartic. They’re very, very brave people.”
The panel culminated with a plea to get involved and donate to the IFA. Every dollar donated to the IFA directly supports the Sines v. Kessler case’s security and evidence collection costs. In honor of the upcoming High Holidays, Spitalnick said the website has both a toolkit for clergy members to share the work with their congregation and a social media toolkit for those who get involved.
“Don’t let this issue fall off your radar screen,” Spitalnick said. “It’s so easy to move on a few days after the last attack and last round of violence. The news cycle moves very quickly and the broader conversation happening right now is key.”
By Leah Vann