Editor’s Note: Amy Spitalnick is the executive director of Integrity First for America, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization dedicated to holding those accountable who threaten longstanding principles of our democracy. Spitalnick previously served as communications director and senior policy adviser to the New York attorney general. The views expressed here are hers. View more opinion on CNN.
A white nationalist opened fire in a synagogue in Poway, California, just days ago. But right now, in some toxic corner of the internet, others like him are already planning another attack. Or they’re spewing racist hate and glorifying violence – and their hordes of followers are posting and sharing.
Those of us tracking the disturbing rise of far-right hate know — because that’s what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia, where Integrity First for America, the group I direct, is helping residents sue the two dozen neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and hate groups who planned and executed the August 2017 violence. These defendants are a who’s who of the white nationalist movement: the individuals who run neo-Nazi sites like the Daily Stormer, the groups that are responsible for the majority of white nationalist propaganda on US college campuses, the creator of the term “alt-right.”
The violent attacks that killed Heather Heyer and injured numerous others weren’t spontaneous; they were the result of months of meticulous online planning on websites like Discord, a site created for video gamers that was co-opted by these defendants to plan the violence. These men spent months hyping up their followers for a weekend of violence against minorities and discussing details down to which weapons to bring. Their postings served as a virtual road map, going so far as to discuss whether it’s legal to run over protesters and sharing an image of a “protestor digestor” tractor. The defendants tried to block the suit on free speech grounds, a petition the court rejected.
There was a time when even white supremacists believed their goals, like the creation of a white ethnostate, were too radical to achieve through conventional advocacy. They conducted themselves in the shadows, not in the public sphere. Meetings took place in the woods; they wore hoods and robes to protect their anonymity. For many avowed supremacists, spewing hatred was more of a side hustle than a full-time job.
But times have changed. Emboldened by some political leaders who refuse to condemn this hate, white supremacists have stepped proudly out of the shadows. They now don suits and ties, give provocative speeches at public universities, and use these online platforms to organize “rallies” that quickly descend into violence, from California to Charlottesville.
None of these attackers is a lone wolf. They are part of an online cabal that perpetuates this violent hate. This network of white nationalist terrorists is hiding in plain sight, encouraging and planning the next attack.
We have seen up close just how inspirational these sensational public hate crimes are to other participants in the white power movement. Defendants in our suit, and the followers who read their screeds on sites like the Daily Stormer and Gab, are downright giddy every single time.
One defendant posted this to the Daily Stormer during the events in Charlottesville: “Someone is getting gassed! My guys on the ground can’t see who – LET’S HOPE IT’S JEWS!”
After the Christchurch massacre at two New Zealand mosques, the same defendant posted to the same site about the “immediate dopamine-induced grin produced by playing the video of the assault … a kind of joy filled my soul that was like something pure from my childhood.”
Other posts suggest some of the defendants view the man who slaughtered 11 worshippers as they prayed at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh as a hero. He appears to have been partially inspired by some of our defendants, communicating with them on Gab in the weeks leading up to the attack.
And we know the white nationalist movement is already lionizing the Poway shooter. Here’s what one of our defendants said about the shooting: “There is nothing else that could have happened. There is no way that the behavior of the Jews could result in anything other than a response.”
Meanwhile, the next disaffected white nationalist is likely looking on and fantasizing about how he, too, can make a name for himself in this twisted community.
Our suit is about delivering justice for the victims in Charlottesville and dismantling the infrastructure of this violent movement. Our case is a pioneering effort to use our justice system to take on the leadership of the white nationalist movement. A jury verdict will make clear that what happened in Charlottesville has no place in the United States — and the damages sought could bankrupt the organizations and individuals responsible.
But we can’t do it alone. How many violent attacks in the name of white nationalism will we tolerate until this is seen as the national emergency it is? Until our federal government will invest in – rather than cut – programs like the Department of Homeland Security’s Domestic Terror Intelligence Unit, meant to help tackle this crisis? How long until these online platforms get serious about cracking down on hate, harassment and threats and not allowing themselves to be abused by those promoting violence under the guise of free speech?
Until they do, the leaders of this violent movement will keep this cycle going – and it’s only a matter of time until the next Poway.