First Vigil -- Tracking White Supremacist and neo-Nazi violence

First Vigil is a project to track far-right individuals, and their affiliated groups, as they proceed through the American justice system. The project focuses on far-right violence in America, and seeks to shine a light on what happens after the news cameras go away.

All people on this site are presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. Arrests, charges, and indictments are not considered evidence of wrongdoing. All defendants presented herein have a right to due process. The public also has a right to learning the disposition of their cases.

What is this site about?

This site uses public records data to track far-right individuals as they are processed through the criminal justice system. The site is not intended to be a comprehensive list of every far-right individual who has made the news for a crime. Instead, the focus is initially built on looking at incidents the have been in the system since about early 2017. It is our hope that by making the data easier to access, it will make it easier for activists and journalists to get involved and actually attend court hearings and provide notes, reports, and more.

Why “First Vigil”?

Some tech services give you randomly-generated names when you start a new project. When this project was started, the random name given was “first-vigil.” We think it fits, as anti-fascist researchers are the first warning beacons and the first line of defense against far-right violence.

Why track court cases?

An astonishing amount of information about far-right organizing is revealed in court documents and during hearings and trials. This information is critically important for activists to understand far-right motivations, methods, and connections. Without paying close attention to what is happening in court, this key information will be lost.

As an example of a success story, consider the incident of the shooting after the Richard Spencer rally in Gainesville. Reports say that an SUV containing four men got in an engagement with counter-protesters and one man, Tyler Tenbrink, allegedly shot at a counter-protester. Tenbrink is now facing charges for attempted murder. Two of the other men, William and Colton Fears, have legal trouble of their own, but until now, the fourth man was not known, as he was neither arrested nor charged.

Through publicly-available court records, researchers were able to identify the fourth man and identify his connections. A missing piece of the puzzle was found only due to this work.

What qualifies for being tracked on the site?

The site is predominantly interested in tracking incidents of far-right violence. By far-right, we generally mean incidents that are or can be connected to hate crimes, terrorism, reactionary extremism, and white supremacy. In some cases, we track cases that are not violent per se, but involve people linked to known white supremacist or neo-Nazi groups.

What is being tracked?

The system tracks things on a case basis. The fundamental unit in our tracking system is a court case, which may have many parties, can represent many charges, and has many possible outcomes. The reason that we track by cases, instead of by individuals or organizations, is because cases are the concrete unit that can be researched conclusively.

Why aren’t you tracking far-left crimes? Aren’t both sides just as bad?

No. Both sides are not as bad. Far-right violence is the largest source of political violence in the United States and is an oft-ignored problem, even by law enforcement. By committing a resource to tracking far-right violence, we hope to promote a better understanding to how individuals are processed through the criminal justice system.

Doesn’t this violate [insert law here]?

No. The data are based on public records. These records are public domain and have no copyright. As they are public records, reporting on these matters does not violate data protection practices, defamation laws, or copyright laws. Moreoever, all cases in First Vigil have already been published in reputable journalistic sources. Newsworthy information published by journalistic institutions is protected free expression and is vital to a functioning society.

It is possible that some information is incorrect. Mistakes are unintentional, and please let us know if there is a mistake, so that it can be corrected as quickly as possible.

Why do the charges reported not reflect what is reported in the news?

The criminal justice system varies from place to place in the US, and it is not impossible for charges to be dropped, added, modified, and so forth.

In aggregating the data, we apply some basic rules:

  • before an indictment, charges can change. Any charge that doesn’t make it through to indictment is not reported;
  • after indictment, any charge that disappears is considered ‘Dismissed’;
  • charges are based on court records with verifiable code numbers, not news reports.

How do you account for sentencing?

The “sentence” field will reflect a possible sentence range until a sentence is reported. At times, sentences can be concurrent. This is not reflected in the data. The best possible attempt is made at matching each charge to its sentence. It should not be taken as a perfect source of truth.

For example: Chris Wayne was found guilty of three Class 1 misdemeanor charges in Charlottesville General District Court. The judge sentenced him to three years in jail with all but five months suspended. It’s not immediately clear how those five months were partitioned to each charge, or if each of them were given a five month sentence to run concurrently, or some combination. In this case, we simply assigned the values in such a way that they added up to the five months.

Why is a case listed as open if a guilty verdict was returned?

Even after a verdict is returned, the matter continues. Sentencing and appeals can follow the verdict for weeks, months, or even years. All of these hearings are tracked.

Is the data available?

It is a planned feature to makea all data available and verifiable. De-centralizing the data is a key goal of the project. Stay tuned!

Is this automated?

No. Aggregating these data is an extremely manual process, as much of it is behind logins, every system is different, and sometimes it requires calling or emailing court clerks for access. There are ways to help with this. The Contributing section will be up soon.

Who is running this?

A team of activists deeply concerned with fascism and right-wing violence is responsible for the technical, editorial, and research work.