How Civil Rights Groups sue Racists into Submission

Courtroom in the historic E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse which houses the U.S. District Court and U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit 2017 (Highsmith, Carol M./Library of Congress)

On Tuesday the NAACP announced its lawsuit against Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani, the Oath Keepers, the Proud Boys, and other extremists for their role in the Capitol Insurrection. Pursuing civil litigation against hate groups and bigots is not a new tactic. In fact, this tactic has been successfully used against the KKK!

Quick Explainer on Civil vs. Criminal Cases

First, we need to distinguish that these court cases are civil cases and not criminal cases. This means that the defendants (Trump, Spencer, the KKK) are not facing jailtime or imprisonment. Instead, these individuals and their groups are facing civil liabilities like court injunctions and punitive damages. Civil Rights groups are using the law to block hate groups from engaging in racist behavior and drain their war chests.

In a civil lawsuit the plaintiffs (NAACP, SPLC, Integrity First) must overcome a burden of proof that requires a preponderance of evidence.

Under the preponderance standard, the burden of proof is met when the party with the burden convinces the fact finder that there is a greater than 50% chance that the claim is true. — Cornell Law LII

In contrast to criminal cases where the burden of proof is beyond a reasonable doubt.

In other words, the jury must be virtually certain of the defendant’s guilt in order to render a guilty verdict. This standard of proof is much higher than the civil standard, called “preponderance of the evidence,” which only requires a certainty greater than 50 percent. — Cornell Law LII

Origin of the Laws Used to Sue Hate Groups

After the Civil War, Congress aggressively pushed progressive anti-racist laws. (Not only progressive for their time, but progressive for our times as well.) Three Constitutional Amendments were added that ended chattel slavery, promised equal protection under the law, and granted all men regardless of race the right to vote. And a mountain of Civil Rights laws to guarantee that equal protection. (Unfortunately, white supremacy would win out and most of these laws were struck down for violating a “state’s right” or a “private citizen’s right” to oppress their fellow Americans as they saw fit.) Most notable of the Enforcement Acts was the Ku Klux Klan Act which gave teeth to the federal government to aggressively put down white domestic terrorism.

Basically, the laws the NAACP, SPLC, and Integrity First are using to combat extremism were intended and designed to do so since the racist backlash after the Civil War.

SPLC: Vietnamese, Etc. v. Knights of K. K. K. and Injunctions

In the 1970s, the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and Texas Emergency Reserve (TER), a right-wing militia, terrorized Vietnamese fishermen settled in Seadrift, Texas, a small coastal town in Texas just north of Corpus Christi and south of San Antonio and Houston. Many of these residents were refugees fleeing the Vietnam War.

Klan Boat Patrol (SPLC)

After two Vietnamese men were acquitted for the murder of a white fisherman on the grounds of self-defense, the KKK showed up and wantonly burned down Vietnamese homes and boats in retaliation.

The SPLC, an organization dedicated to fighting and tracking hate groups in America, sued the KKK on behalf of the Vietnamese Fishermen by utilizing these historic Civil Rights laws. Their case was that the KKK, TER, and Louis Beam all conspired to deprive these Vietnamese-Americans of their Constitutionally guaranteed Civil Rights.

The SPLC and Vietnamese community won their legal battle! They got the state of Texas to issue an injunction prohibiting the KKK and TER from executing militant training exercises. Taking on the KKK and winning proved successful for this local Vietnamese community!

Integrity First: Sines v. Kessler and Bankrupting

Integrity First is currently suing Richard Spencer and organizers of the Unite the Right white supremacist rally that occurred in Charlottesville, North Carolina. In the same fashion as the SPLC case, Integrity First is accusing the white supremacists of conspiring to deprive others of their Constitutionally guaranteed Civil Rights.

Unite the Right Rally goers clash with counter-protesters (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

In the court filed complaint, Integrity First provides damning evidence showing widespread racist, misogynistic, anti-Semitic, and violent messages relayed between the white supremacists to plot, plan, and attack. In fact, the Capitol Riot has drawn parallels to the Charlottesville mob.

Integrity First has the explicit goal to bankrupt these hate groups and deter them from engaging in these violent rallies. And so far, it is working.

In addition to this case, the SPLC was successful in bankrupting the Kentucky chapter of the KKK in 2008 on behalf of a Latino teen brutally beaten by two Klan members in 2006. Not to mention bankrupting the Aryan Nations in Idaho from a 2000 lawsuit. Punitive damages are intended to punish these hate groups. And they work.

NAACP: Thompson v. Trump and a Two Pronged Attack

The NAACP is using the Ku Klux Klan Act to sue the insurrectionists of the January 6th riot for conspiring to interfere with Congress’s constitutional duties. Right now, the NAACP is seeking both an injunction and punitive damages to drain these right-wing extremists’ war chests. A “combined arms” strategy to combat extremism. The Ku Klux Klan Act was used by President Ulysses S. Grant to suppress violence in the South after the Civil War when domestic terrorists were terrorizing congressmen. Exactly what domestic terrorists in the Capitol mob sought to do.

Trump supporters storm the Capitol (John Minchillo/AP Photo)

Utilizing the Ku Klux Klan Act in this modern era is novel but Trump and his supporters were intent on blocking Congress from certifying President Biden’s election win. Even before Biden won the election, these right-wing extremists were intent on never accepting an opponent’s win.

In Summary

Using the courts to serve injunctions and bankrupt hate groups is successful and a winning strategy to tackle extremism. The courts have proved to be an opportunity in suppressing misinformation too!

The modus operandi of racist groups in America has always been burning down democracy rather than cede any voice to racial minorities. Confronting these hate groups and right-wing extremists head on in courts is a much-needed strategy to protect and defend the Constitution and democracy.



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Stevan Molinar

Stevan Molinar

Management Consultant — Accenture; M.A. International Relations — University of Chicago; Former U.S. Army Infantry Officer. I write on Politics and Economics.