The Surprising History Of The Law That Charlottesville Rioters Allegedly Violated

October 2, 2018 3:26 p.m.

Allegra Kirkland reports that four white supremacists were arrested in California and brought to Virginia today where they will be charged for their involvement in 2017’s violent clashes in Charlottesville. Instead of being indicted for hate crimes, they will be charged with rioting and conspiracy to riot, though U.S. Attorney Thomas Cullen said other charges could be added later.

It’s a story that comes with an ironic historic footnote.

The anti-riot provision under which the white supremacists were charged was part of the 1968 Civil Rights Act. The provision was inserted into a package of civil rights legislation in order to crack down on anti-war protests and inner-city riots, which conservatives at the time cast as the work of a few radical agitators.

It reads, in part:

Whoever travels in interstate or foreign commerce or uses any facility of interstate or foreign commerce or uses any facility of interstate or foreign commerce, including, but not limited to, the mail, telegraph, telephone, radio, or television, with intent – (A) to incite a riot; or (B) to organize, promote, encourage, participate in, or carry on a riot; or (C) to commit any act of violence in furtherance of a riot; or (D) to aid or abet any person in inciting or participating in or carrying on a riot or committing any act of violence in furtherance of a riot.

At the time, many saw the law as an effort to quash free speech. It was nicknamed the Rap Brown Law after the influential, confrontational Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leader, and was later used to go after the Chicago Seven, activists arrested during the 1968 Democrat Convention protests and indicted under the law in 1970.

“The effect of this ‘anti-riot’ act is to subvert the First Amendment guarantee of free assembly by equating organized political protest with organized violence,” a group of celebrities, writers and academics — including Noam Chomsky, Susan Sontag, I. F. Stone, and Norman Mailer — wrote in The New York Review of Books at the time, part of an effort to raise funds for the defense of the Chicago Seven. “Potentially, this law is the foundation for a police state in America.” (Some of the Chicago Seven were convicted, but the convictions were later reversed.)

Now the law, once used to target civil rights activists and leftists, is being put to a very different use: Targeting white supremacists who traveled across states to participate in a gathering that was, by any number of measures, a riot.

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