Here’s a reality that the insurrectionists who besieged the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, are now learning: When you physically attack a public institution and commit crimes against civil authorities, the criminal charges—such as “seditionist conspiracy”—you inevitably face are just the beginning. Just wait ‘til the civil courts, where the people you have harmed get to sue you for damages, weigh in.
Just ask Stewart Rhodes and his compatriots in the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys, who already face those daunting criminal charges. This week they were added to the federal civil lawsuit filed late last year by D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine seeking to hold those groups, as well as others involved in the violent attack on the Capitol, financially culpable for the millions of dollars in damage they caused, including injuries to Capitol Police officers.
“We’re committed to bankrupting the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys who conspired in the attack,” Racine tweeted.
Racine filed his original lawsuit on Dec. 14, naming 31 people—all members of the two far-right organizations that played central roles in the insurrection—culpable for damages incurred during the attack. Among them were Proud Boys leaders Joe Biggs, Ethan Nordean, Zachary Rehl, and Enrique Tarrio, as well as key Oath Keepers such as Kelly Meggs and Joshua James. All of them have been charged criminally by federal authorities as well.
The latest round now includes Rhodes, who was charged with seditionist conspiracy in January after avoiding arrest for more than a year as evidence began piling up implicating him. He was charged along with Edward Vallejo, Joseph Hackett, David Moerschel, and Brian Ulrich, who also were added to Racine’s lawsuit. So was Matthew Greene, a Proud Boy who has been cooperating with investigators after pleading guilty to conspiracy charges.
Racine told The Washington Post that the goal of the lawsuit is to expose how these groups are financed and to secure “full restitution and recompense” for the damages inflicted on Washington. The largest of these, Racine said, has involved the huge costs incurred treating scores of injured Metro Police officers, including Officer Michael Fanone. Rioters assaulted Fanone with a stun gun and dragged down the Capitol steps, during which he lost consciousness, suffered a heart attack, and had traumatic brain injury.
“If it so happens that it bankrupts or puts these individuals and entities in financial peril, so be it,” the attorney general said in an interview when the case was filed.
The lawsuit seeks damages under the modern version of the federal Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, a Reconstruction-era law that, besides outlawing the notorious hate group, also allows individuals to sue when they are injured by their criminal plots. It is modeled in that regard on the recent federal civil lawsuit that found the organizers of the deadly 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, financially culpable for millions and rendering them bankrupt.
Such lawsuits have been used for years by organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center to hold violent far-right extremists such as Tom Metzger’s White Aryan Resistance and the Idaho-based Aryan Nations culpable for their members’ violence, similarly bankrupting them. While the strategy has a few critics—Glenn Greenwald once described it as an “abuse of the court system”—it has historically proven to be one of the most powerful tools for enabling communities to hold far-right extremists accountable for the violence they perpetrate.
Assisting Racine’s lawsuit are two nonprofit groups: the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the States United Democracy Center (SUDC).
“There is no substitute for bringing a civil suit that seeks damages against each of the individuals and groups responsible,” said Norman Eisen of the SUDC, a veteran of the Obama White House Counsel’s Office. “It is a way to assure those bad actors never do it again.”