ACLU Will No Longer Defend Armed Protestors

Some of you may have watched the Vice News mini documentary of the events in Charlottesville through the perspective of a cadre of white supremacists. One of the lead characters in that film is a fellow by the name of Christopher Cantwell, introduced as a “White nationalist” and speaker for the Unite the Right rally.

In an interview with the Vice reporter Elle Reeve, Cantwell boasts that he carries a pistol, goes to a gym and is “trying to make myself more capable of violence,” before bashing Donald Trump for “giving his daughter to a Jew.”

By the end of the two-day event, after the brutal killing of Heather Heyers by one of Cantwell’s comrades-in-arms, he makes a last appearance back in a hotel room in Roanoke Rapids, NC. Here, Cantwell sheds his arms – a theatrical move designed for maximum camera effect. He tosses an automatic weapon of some sort on his bed. Then pulls out three handguns and a knife, holstered and hidden on his body. “I came pretty well-prepared for this thing today,” says Cantwell with the smirk of a grin crossing his face.

Cantwell returns for a solo appearance on 16 August, where he rants on about his terror over a possible arrest and killing by the Charlottesville police.

It’s hard to tell whether those are genuine tears or coke-induced sniffles but Cantwell grinds on in his pitiful dirge for nearly five minutes. Key to this story is his one comment about working with the ACLU to gain legitimacy for the Alt-Right rally that brought fisticuffs, beatings, a weaponized Dodge Charger and the death of a young woman and injuries to 19 others in the path of that car.

In fact, the Virginia branch of the American Civil Liberties did go to bat for the rally organizers and succeeded in their legal representation. The two-day demonstration of KKK, Neo-Nazis and assorted white supremacists were granted a permit for their gathering. But now legal representation of these groups may grind to a halt.

On 17 August, Anthony Romero, the executive director of the ACLU, announced a deliberate change in policy. His organization will no longer defend groups that seek to demonstrate or march with firearms.

The abrupt change in policy is directly related to the violence in Charlottesville. It removes the legal resources of the ACLU from any future protest groups seeking representation.

“If a protest group insists, ‘No, we want to be able to carry loaded firearms,’ well, we don’t have to represent them. They can find someone else,” said Romero.

The policy change departs from the historic umbrella of protection offered by the organization, which has defended the Constitutional rights of parties that include white supremacists, fascists and backers of the Citizens United Supreme Court case.

Romero’s announcement was followed by a tweet reiterating the limits of free speech as defined in the First Amendment and case law.

Even with this barrier, the ACLU will continue to review pleas for legal help from white supremacists. However, Romano promises much stricter screening of such cases and absolute “Nos” when firearms are added to the demonstrators’ planned marches.

This means that the Christopher Cantwells and organizers of extremist groups will be forced to hire private attorneys such as Glenn Greenwald, who has represented nazis, rather than benefit from the ACLU’s pro bono representation.

The new policy also hopes to blunt criticism leveled at the organization for its defense of the Unite the Right rally.

However, the ACLU’s move looks like a pre-emptive strike against that violent fringe element loosened and legitimized by Donald Trump. As news of imminent protests by these groups circulate, there is a parallel movement to restrict their appearances and prevent further bloodshed. These cannot be outright denied but it’s hoped that their potential for harm can be blunted.

According to one news report, nine Alt-Right demonstrations will occur the weekend of 19-20 August. Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Los Angeles, Mountain View, CA, New York, Pittsburgh, Seattle and Washington, D.C. are each preparing for marches and rallies.

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