Federal prosecutors and the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) in Washington, DC, colluded with far-right groups in cases against anti-Trump protesters, a recently filed lawsuit alleges.
Filed by the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund (PCJF) last week, the lawsuit against DC Mayor Muriel Bowser and Karl Racine in the US Attorney’s office seeks information about the relationship between the prosecutors and police and right-wing political groups.
“The police here are really serving the political goals of these far-right organisations,” Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, executive director and constitutional rights lawyer at PCJF, told Al Jazeera.
“We are seeing a pattern of this taking place around the country,” she said.
“While there have always been members of police departments who have acted out in abusive and racist behaviour against the civilian population, we’re now seeing it at an institutional level.”
The lawsuit refers to prosecutors’ introduction of “doctored” video into evidence during the trial of six defendants who were facing decades behind bars for their alleged participation in a rally against President Donald Trump’s inauguration.
Those defendants were found not guilty in December 2017, but there was widespread criticism of the evidence provided by Project Veritas, a right-wing NGO known for targeting leftists and anti-fascists.
The defendants were part of a group of more than 230 people who were arrested and charged with a slew of felonies owing to their alleged participation in the rally.
Last month, the US Attorney’s Office in Washington, DC, dropped charges against 129 of the 188 people who were still on trial, saying that it intended to focus on charges against 59 defendants instead.
“To date, despite multiple inquiries, the DC MPD is withholding and refusing to make public information that would shed light on the nature and extent of the relationship between the DC MPD, its officers, and private political non-governmental entities from whom it accepts information to be used against those entities’ political opponents,” the lawsuit states.
It accuses the District of Columbia of “unlawfully” denying a request to provide information the PCJF sought in a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) filed in November 2017. The MPD has refused to respond to the request, according to PCJF.
“The DC MPD and its officers have worked with and received information from private, politically motivated, right-wing organisations including Project Veritas and Oath Keepers to be used against the political opponents of those organisations,” the lawsuit continues.
It goes on to inquire about police working with the Oath Keepers, a pro-Trump militia group that has been involved in violent demonstrations against anti-fascists and anti-racists.
“When you have far-right political organisations that are acting in pursuit of their own political goals, which include acting against their political opponents, the police are really acting in their service when they work with them,” Verheyden-Hilliard said.
Contacted by Al Jazeera, the MPD declined to comment on the lawsuit.
The same week the PCJF filed the FOIA, Project Veritas was exposed by the Washington Post for attempting to plant a false story in the newspaper.
The Post reported that a woman employed by Project Veritas claimed that Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore had impregnated a woman as a teenager.
Verheyden-Hilliard described Project Veritas as a “completed discredited” group.
She argued that police collusion with the organisation was part of a “targeted crackdown on social justice advocates, anti-fascists and environmental activists in the US”.
A key piece evidence against me and other J20 defendants is a video that comes from Project Veritas.
— Youre only punk once (@dpetrohilos) February 14, 2018
The lawsuit came a week after court documents demonstrated that police investigating a violent neo-Nazi rally worked with white supremacists to identify counterprotesters.
‘Police emboldened the Nazis’
The documents, filed earlier this month, accuse police of attempting to conceal the identity of a white supremacist.
Yvette Felarca, whose legal name is Yvonne, is one of three anti-fascist activists who were charged over their alleged involvement in the counter-demonstration against a June 2016 neo-Nazi rally organised by the Traditionalist Worker Party (TWP) and Golden State Skinheads in Sacramento, California.
Felarca is an organiser with By Any Means Necessary (BAMN), a hardline civil rights organisation.
During that rally, confrontations broke out between the two sides, and several people were stabbed.
White supremacist William Scott Planer, who was detained in Colorado Springs after putting an anti-Jewish sticker on a local synagogue, was also charged for his alleged involvement in the rally.
Attorneys representing Felarca, who was stabbed in the arm and beaten on the head during the confrontations, filed a motion to dismiss the charges.
The motion to dismiss claims that Felarca’s constitutional rights were violated and provides evidence of collusion between the neo-Nazi groups and the California Highway Patrol (CHP).
Felarca’s attorneys say they obtained evidence of CHP investigators working with TWP, a group that advocates a white ethnostate and is part of the alt-right.
The alt-right is a loosely knit coalition of white supremacists, white nationalists and neo-Nazis.
In a phone call with TWP member Doug McCormack, an organiser of the June 2016 rally, CHP investigator Donovan Ayres promised to suggest redacting his name for his safety.
“I’m gonna suggest that we hold that or redact your name or something … uh … until this thing gets resolved,” Ayres said, according to court documents.
“Yeah, I’d appreciate it,” McCormack replied, going on to claim anti-fascists were “trying to cause… serious problems for people” by “finding out where people are working and… calling the bosses”.
In his report, Aryes noted that McCormack was one of the several neo-Nazi demonstrators who had brought a knife to the protest.
In a response to the defendants’ motion to dismiss, the prosecutors said the allegations were “inaccurate or fabricated”.
Shanta Driver, Felarca’s lead lawyer and national chair of BAMN, accused CHP and Sacramento District Attorney of “cover-up and collusion with Nazis”.
“There is a direct path from the threat of murder by fascist TWP members in Sacramento and the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville,” she told Al Jazeera by email.
“Police and prosecutors have repeatedly targeted anti-fascist demonstrators for arrests and charges. This policy of collusion has emboldened the fascists to escalate their violent attacks.”
Describing CHP and the DA as “arrogant” and accustomed “to meeting no resistance”, Driver argued that the case is a “textbook witch-hunt of anti-racists”.
‘Long, sordid history’
David Ponton, an assistant professor and historian at the University of South Florida, said there is a “long, sordid history” of cooperation between white supremacist groups and police departments that stretches back to the end of slavery in the 19th century.
“[It] really becomes clearest to me after Reconstruction ends in 1877, and the relationship between the two has been sustained into the 21st century … and despite professionalisation efforts that were meant to make police departments more accountable (to themselves, mostly, but sometimes to the public),” he told Al Jazeera.
Ponton explained that the relationship is rooted in a “broader American culture to which police officers are not immune, that tends to not recognise white supremacy as such until an attack is egregious enough – [for example], the Charleston church shooting – to upend our colour-blind sensibility”.
In 1916, police and public officials looked on as a mob lynched Jesse Washington, an African American teenager who had been convicted of murdering a white woman in Robinson, Texas.
The police stood by as a crowd castrated Washington, cut off his fingers and left him hanging over a bonfire.
In Tulsa, Oklahoma, riots broke out between African Americans and white residents when rumours of a potential lynching spread throughout town after Dick Rowland, a 19-year-old black man, was arrested on suspicion of raping a white woman in 1921.
When a group of African Americans showed up at the police station to prevent the potential lynching, confrontations erupted. Two days of violence ensued, with police officers allegedly joining white mobs in their rampages.
Dozens of people died, most of them African Americans. The National Guard was eventually deployed, and thousands of black residents were rounded up and detained.
Similar incidents took place throughout the 20th century, particularly during the civil rights era (1954-1968).
More recently, an April 2015 Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) Counter-terrorism Policy Guide, which was obtained by The Intercept last year, noted that “militia extremists, white supremacist extremists and sovereign citizen extremists often have identified active links to law enforcement officers”.
In June 2017, a member of a right-wing militia group assisted police officers as they arrested an anti-fascist protester at an alt-right gathering, The Guardian reported at the time.
The PCJF’s Verheyden-Hilliard described the pattern as “clear” evidence of US police aligning itself with far-right groups and corporate entities, citing the arrest of indigenous protesters in Standing Rock, North Dakota.
“The Trump administration has given a green light to legitimise these right-wing organisations and serve their interests as well as those of corporations,” she concluded.
“It represents a clear signal that, as we have a resurgent social justice and anti-fascist movement against white supremacists and industries destroying the environment, you have at the same time police collaborating with [the far right] and corporate entities, such as fossil fuel.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article misstated William Scott Planer’s name.