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Lessons for Buffalo? Meet the Activist Who Sued the White Supremacists Behind Charlottesville & Won

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The Buffalo shooter wrote racist screeds online before targeting and killing people in a majority-Black neighborhood. We look at the incident’s similarities to other white supremacist killings, particularly the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Amy Spitalnick is the executive director of Integrity First for America, a nonprofit organization that successfully sued the white supremacist organizers of Unite the Right. Spitalnick says tactics such as live-streaming are characteristic of previous acts of white supremacist terrorism, and calls for systemic change and preventative measures amid a clear pattern of violence. “This is precisely part of a cycle of white supremacist violence in which each attack inspires the next one,” says Spitalnick.

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StoryMay 20, 2022Buffalo: India Walton on the Racist Massacre & Community’s Need for Gun Control, Good Jobs, Housing
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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show looking at the crisis of white supremacist violence in the United States and the response to Saturday’s racist mass shooting in Buffalo, New York, where an 18-year-old white gunman killed 10 people, all African American, at a supermarket in the heart of the Black community in Buffalo. On Wednesday, the House passed legislation to bolster federal resources to prevent domestic terrorism. This comes after President Biden visited Buffalo Tuesday.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Look, we’ve seen the mass shootings in Charleston, South Carolina; El Paso, Texas; in Pittsburgh; last year in Atlanta; this week in Dallas, Texas; and now in Buffalo — in Buffalo, New York. White supremacy is a poison. It’s a poison running through — it really is.

AMY GOODMAN: Investigators say the gunman spent months plotting to carry out the mass shooting and used the online platform Discord to share details about his plot 30 minutes before the massacre. He also posted a 180-page document citing the racist so-called replacement theory. The gunman accused African Americans of seeking to, quote, “ethnically replace my own people,” unquote. Similar vitriol has been referenced in other racist attacks, including the violent 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where organizers chillingly chanted, “Jews will not replace us.”

For more, we’re joined by Amy Spitalnick, who’s been described as a 21st century Nazi hunter, executive director of Integrity First for America. She successfully sued white supremacist organizers of the violent 2017 Unite the Right rally in an effort to bankrupt them and shut them down. She’s the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors.

Amy, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you respond to what happened in Buffalo and the way the Buffalo shooter is often described as a kind of lone wolf, a troubled kid, and how you dealt with that in Virginia, and what you think could be a way to begin to cope with the horror?

AMY SPITALNICK: Thanks so much for having me.

Look, what happened in Buffalo is not an isolated incident. The shooter is not a, quote-unquote, “lone wolf.” This is precisely part of a cycle of white supremacist violence in which each attack inspires the next one, made all the more dangerous by an increasingly normalized replacement theory ideology that’s permeating through the Republican Party right now. And so it’s impossible to separate this attack from the cycle of attacks we’ve seen in recent years — Charleston, Charlottesville, Pittsburgh, Poway, El Paso — January 6, to an extent, fits right into this pattern — and, of course, now Buffalo, in addition to the record-level hate crimes we’ve seen against so many communities — the Black community, the Asian community and many others. And so, again, it’s important to understand this within that cycle.

How we break that cycle requires quite a bit, and it requires a sort of accountability we saw in Charlottesville for those responsible for that violence. But you can’t simply sue or prosecute your way out of this problem. It requires also building into our society systemic measures to actually get to the root of what’s causing this, the prevention. It requires dealing with social media companies. It requires so much more that we as a society have just failed to address, despite the warning signs that have come again and again, and, of course, these horrific massacres that stay in the headlines for a few days, and then we move on. And it’s so important we not move on this time.

AMY GOODMAN: So, if you can talk about the fact that the suspect actually shared plans for the plot 30 minutes before? Talk about the social media platform Discord and the parallels you see in other cases.

AMY SPITALNICK: Well, Discord five years ago is where the Charlottesville neo-Nazis planned their violence, in meticulous detail. They created all of these channels in which they discussed everything from what to wear to what to bring for lunch to whether they could hit protesters with cars and then claim self-defense, which is, of course, precisely what happened. The evidence in our case, which led to the verdict against the organizers of the Unite the Right this past fall, illustrates just how meticulous this planning was and how central Discord was.

So, despite the fact that we’re now nearly five years after Unite the Right, we now are learning that this Buffalo shooter used Discord not just in the 30 minutes leading up to the attack but actually in advance to log his planning in a private chat, and then opened it up to a more public audience just beforehand. And what this tells us is that despite claims from Discord that they care about addressing extremism, five years after Unite the Right, five years after the platform was first exploited to plan horrific white supremacist violence, the same thing has happened again. And it’s not just Discord, although they are, sadly, a perfect example right now. We know that the —

AMY GOODMAN: Who are they owned by?

AMY SPITALNICK: I believe that they are owned by — I believe that they are a self-sufficient organization. I could be wrong. But they are part of a broader tech community that has washed its hands of its responsibility to deal with white supremacist violence and other extremism that’s running rampant on its platform. Just this morning, NBC News reported that the shooter learned how to outfit his gun on YouTube, and some of those videos are still up there. And so, this is a problem that we know is systemic among social media companies, that after attack after attack, nothing has been done to sufficiently deal with this. And it’s not just the sites —

AMY GOODMAN: And, Amy, the significance of him live-streaming, and where he did that?

AMY SPITALNICK: Well, live-streaming is a common tactic by white supremacist extremists. We’ve seen this in multiple attacks, including in the Christchurch massacre, which targeted the Muslim community in New Zealand a few years ago and seemingly inspired this attack. And it’s important to understand that this is a deliberate tool by white supremacists not just to achieve the sort of glory many of them want in the fight for their people, as they see it, but also to perpetuate the cycle of violence in which each attack inspires the next one. We know, for example, that the Pittsburgh shooter, who killed 11 Jews praying in synagogue there a number of years ago, talked to some of the Charlottesville leaders before his attack. This Christchurch shooter donated to some of our Charlottesville leaders and painted onto his gun a white power symbol that was first popularized by another one of our defendants. Christchurch was live-streamed and, in turn, inspired Poway, El Paso and now Buffalo. And you see how this cycle continues, in which these supposed lone wolves are taking deliberate steps not just to, of course, undertake the sort of massacre we saw in Buffalo last weekend, but make sure that someone looking on can be inspired to do the same.

AMY GOODMAN: And the role of Facebook?

AMY SPITALNICK: The role of Facebook is incredibly important to understand, because that’s, frankly, one of the sites so many average Americans are on. There was a piece of evidence in our Charlottesville lawsuit, an email that was sent from Facebook to the neo-Nazi organizers of Unite the Right the evening of the torch march, encouraging them to boost their posts, which promoted the torch march and “great replacement” theory. The fact that the algorithm at Facebook is directly encouraging promotion of this sort of white supremacist extremism is a perfect example of how broken the system is. And no matter what Facebook tells you that they’re trying to do to address this, we’re, again, years after the fact with little change.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Amy Spitalnick, if you could explain what it is you did exactly, this lawsuit? You won what? Twenty-five million dollars. What was the strategy that was used? And what do you think the effect has been?

AMY SPITALNICK: So, on behalf of nine Charlottesville community members who were injured in the violence five years ago, our organization, Integrity First for America, supported them, in partnership with an incredible legal team, in bringing a civil lawsuit against the two dozen organizers at that violence, names that I suspect many of your viewers know — Richard Spencer, groups like the National Socialist Movement, certain Klan groups — a who’s who of the violent white supremacist movement in America, that specifically organized, promoted, planned and then celebrated the violence five years ago, again, down to discussions of whether they could hit protesters with cars. And the evidence, which is now in our website, and I would encourage folks to check out, is just stunning in terms of how well planned it was and how rooted in the same replacement theory and antisemitic, racist, xenophobic, white supremacist ideology it all was. So, taking them to court for this violent conspiracy under a number of federal and state laws, the trial began in October. I believe you all were covering it. And just before Thanksgiving, our plaintiffs won a verdict upwards of $26 million in punitive and compensatory damages against every single defendant, finding them liable for this violent conspiracy.

And civil litigation is so important for a number of reasons, including the financial and operational consequences that you alluded to earlier. Taking on their finances, taking on their ability to operate can make a huge difference in this movement’s ability to perpetuate the cycle of violence. And we’re also now seeing our case serve as a model for lawsuits going after those responsible for January 6, lawsuits brought by the D.C. AG, by members of Congress, members of the Capitol Police, against the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani and others. And so, again, accountability is crucial, but you can’t simply sue or prosecute your way out of this problem, and it needs to go hand in hand with the sort of preventative measures many are now talking about for the first time.

AMY GOODMAN: Amy, finally, you are the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors. How does that inform what you do and connect you to what took place in Buffalo this past weekend?

AMY SPITALNICK: Well, you know, for much of my life, my grandparents’ story was a far-off story. And it’s now, in the last five to 10 years, become a cautionary tale of what happens when violent white supremacy and hate go unchecked. And I think it makes it all the more important to understand how everything that’s happening in this country right now is part of this broader far-right, extremist, anti-democratic movement. You can’t separate the normalization of white supremacy on the right, these horrific attacks, from the broader anti-democratic movement we’re seeing, the anti-abortion actions, the anti-LGBTQ+ actions, the voter suppression measures. All bound up in this white supremacy is an anti-Black racism, a xenophobia, an antisemitism, an Islamophobia, a misogyny, a homophobia and so much more, that puts every single one of our communities at risk if we don’t fit into this vile, narrow vision for what these white supremacists believe this country should be.

And it’s so important that our leadership and that all of us understand how interconnected all of these actions are and that what we’re witnessing now is a far-right assault not just on our communities, as we saw in Buffalo, but on the very tenets of our democracy, that puts so much at risk and that makes it all the more important, again, not just to hold those responsible accountable to prevent these measures, but to truly make sure we are dealing with the underlying structural problems that have gotten us to this horrific moment.

AMY GOODMAN: Amy Spitalnick, I want to thank you for being with us, executive director of Integrity First for America, successfully sued white supremacist organizers of the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally, 2017, winning more than $26 million, granddaughter of Holocaust survivors.

Coming up, we go directly to Buffalo to speak with the longtime community organizer India Walton. Stay with us.

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