Comment: Suing Proud Boys, others aims to stop another Jan. 6

While criminal cases continue, civil suits have cam hold instigators responsible and send a message.

By Karl Racine, Norman Eisen, Jonathan A. Greenblatt / Special To The Washington Post

On Dec. 14, 2020 — exactly a year ago Tuesday — presidential electors representing both major parties met in all 50 states and the District of Columbia to choose our next president. The electors did their jobs. But when their choices were sent to the Capitol, a violent insurrection targeted, disrupted and delayed the count for the first time in U.S. history. Without accountability for the events of Jan. 6, we risk seeing this kind of violence take hold as an enduring feature of our political life.

That’s why we are teaming up in a landmark lawsuit against two violent groups and their members and affiliates for their role in the Jan. 6 attack. The litigation, filed Tuesday, is the first civil case brought by a government body to hold insurrectionists — here, the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and certain of their members and affiliates — accountable for the harm they inflicted on that day. This lawsuit is about holding accountable the violent groups and individuals who conspired to attack our freedom, brutalize our law enforcement officers and terrorize our community.

The Justice Department deserves credit for bringing criminal cases against many of the individual bad actors who stormed the Capitol. Each of those prosecutions is a step toward accountability, and each reveals something new or important about the larger threat to our democracy. But criminal cases can’t fully account for the scope of the conspiracy; much less force compensation, like a civil suit can. And the District of Columbia deserves to be made whole.

The world watched — captivated and horrified — as the insurrection unfolded at our Capitol. But it’s different for the District. Washington, D.C., is where Americans come to make their voices heard, and the District is used to hosting rallies and protests as part of our civic identity as the U.S. capital. This was not a rally or protest, though; it was a coordinated attack. And no one felt that more directly than the hundreds of brave law enforcement officers who suffered, and continued to suffer, physical, mental and emotional injuries and other trauma as a result of the insurrection after they defended the Capitol, the District and our democracy.

The violence perpetrated by the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and their members and affiliates — while unique in its severity and scope — is far from an isolated occurrence. Violence is an inextricable part of both organizations. Just like the Proud Boys, members and affiliates of the Oath Keepers have been arrested in connection with, and convicted of, a range of violent criminal activities, including various firearms violations, conspiracy to impede federal workers, possession of explosives and threatening public officials.

On Jan. 6, members and affiliates of both groups stormed the Capitol, openly rioted, broke through police barricades, physically forced their way into the building and stalked the halls.

The District’s Metropolitan Police officers — including the three who died — were among the courageous team of first responders who defended the Capitol and the city from the violent, angry mob. As a direct result of the attack, those officers sustained bruises, lacerations, shattered spinal disks, wounds from being hit with a metal fence stake and concussions from blows to the head from objects; including metal poles ripped from inauguration-related scaffolding and even the pole from an American flag.

These were just the physical wounds. Many officers also required — and in some cases, still require — mental health care. Some who responded were still on leave more than six months after the attack.

For those officers, Jan. 6 isn’t over. And the attack on our democracy isn’t over, either. More than 11 months later, a faction of our leaders is pushing America to simply move on from this dark day in history. Not only is such behavior irresponsible, it’s dangerous.

We also are witnessing a major increase in hate and political violence in America. Election-related lies and conspiracy theories helped fuel the insurrection; and those same lies pose a serious threat to our country today.

Every day, because of those lies, our state and local election officials — the trusted guardians of our democracy — face violent threats and harassment.

But truth is a powerful cure. This lawsuit injects the detailed truth into our body politic about what happened on Jan. 6 and who must be held responsible.

This suit is seeking substantial financial damages to obtain restitution and recompense to victims, including law enforcement officers, many of whom continue to suffer, as well as the District itself. Prior cases have used discovery to determine significant sources to pay damages, and we will do the same here. We’re working to hold accountable the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers and their individuals and leaders for planning, publicizing, recruiting for and financing the violent attack. We’re seeking to prevent such a catastrophe from ever happening again. And we’re trying to get justice for the brave law enforcement officers who defended our city and the democracy that is seated here.

We filed this complaint under federal and state laws, including the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, a Reconstruction-era law specifically designed to protect against violent conspiracies like what we saw unfold on Jan. 6. The Klan Act was written to protect our democracy by defending the civil rights of its members; and it still today forbids conspiracies to violate civil rights. The Anti-Defamation League, our nation’s oldest anti-hate organization, and the States United Democracy Center, an organization committed to supporting state and local officials in their ongoing fight for our democracy, teamed up with the District of Columbia because we all have a deep understanding that our republic is still at risk. And tragically, there is still an urgent need for this civil rights law born in a dark era of American history.

Democracy isn’t just an institution, or a process. It’s a set of ongoing ideals and challenges. While the solutions to all of the challenges our democracy faces will not be found in a courtroom, the judicial system has and will continue to have a key role to play. The courts are essential vehicles in our quest for answers regarding the insurrection and for countering the anti-democratic forces that seek to drive us apart.

The insurrectionists tried to overthrow our democracy. We have to use every tool at our disposal to prevent it from happening again; and this case is proof we are going to fight to make sure history does not repeat itself.

Karl Racine is the attorney general of the District of Columbia.

Norman Eisen is the chairman of the States United Democracy Center and served as special counsel to the House Judiciary Committee during the first Trump impeachment.

Jonathan A. Greenblatt is the CEO and national director of ADL, the Anti-Defamation League.

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