A group of Kenosha protesters say Facebook empowered and enabled a Wisconsin-based militia and the Antioch teenager accused of shooting and killing two people at an August protest in Wisconsin.
A federal lawsuit filed Tuesday in the Eastern District of Wisconsin, alleges negligence, civil conspiracy, and infliction of emotional distress in connection with the Aug. 25 shootings of 26-year-old Anthony Huber and 36-year-old Joseph Rosenbaum.
Defendants in the case include Facebook Inc., the "Kenosha Guard" militia, and an extremist group known as the Boogaloo Bois. The lawsuit, citing Reconstruction-era provisions, also accused 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse and alleged militia members Ryan Balch and Kevin Mathewson of violating protesters' rights.
"There are two main points," said Jennifer Sirrine, a Massachusetts-based attorney who helped draft the lawsuit. "The first has to do with the militia groups and the racist right-wing groups who threaten the safety and the lives of protesters."
Sirrine said she hopes the lawsuit urges Facebook to comply with its policies against violent rhetoric.
She and fellow attorney, Colorado-based Jason Flores-Williams filed the 39-page civil complaint on behalf of four people who attended the protest. One of those people – 23-year-old Hannah Gittings – attended the protest with her boyfriend Anthony Huber and watched him die after prosecutors say Rittenhouse shot Huber, Sirrine said.
"It’s been really difficult. She’s a single mom. She works two jobs," Sirrine said. "She was obviously very traumatized to see her partner shot and killed right in front of her."
Huber and Rosenbaum were among the crowd of people protesting the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man who was seriously injured after Kenosha police officer Rusten Sheskey shot him on Aug. 23.
One of the lawsuit's complainants, Nathan Peet, said militia members “forcibly corralled” him into a parking lot, where he witnessed Rittenhouse shoot and kill Rosenbaum, according to the lawsuit.
“Though (Peet) attempted to rescue the man and take him to a nearby hospital, he was unable to do so due to the lack of space and chaos that had been generated by the militia’s corralling tactics,” the attorneys said in the lawsuit.
The lawsuit seeks unspecified punitive and money damages as well as in injunction to prevent Facebook from violating its policies, court records show.
According to the lawsuit, Facebook ignored more than 400 complaints from users who were concerned about a Kenosha Guard event titled "Armed Citizens to Protect Our Lives and Property."
One Facebook comment cited in the lawsuit read referenced a user's plan to show up to the event armed and kill looters.
"In failing themselves and failing us, it resulted in an absolutely horrific violation of many people's rights, and then of course violence and killing," Flores-Williams said.
At the time, Facebook claimed the event itself didn’t violate the website’s policy. Instead, Facebook encouraged at least one user to block the page if they no longer wished to see its content, court records show. Facebook has since designated the shooting as a mass killing and removed Rittenhouse's accounts, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in an Aug. 28 video.
In a statement emailed to the Northwest Herald on Wednesday, one of Rittenhouse's attorneys, Lin Wood, called the lawsuit a "blessing in disguise."
"As to Kyle Rittenhouse, this lawsuit is errant nonsense but may provide a golden opportunity for obtaining documents and sworn testimony from Facebook to bolster Kyle’s future defamation case against Facebook for falsely accusing him of mass murder," Wood said. "Thus, I view the lawsuit as a blessing in disguise."
Neither Mathewson nor Balch is charged in connection with the shootings. Balch – who is described in the lawsuit as "a Nazi sympathizer, and avowed member of the Boogaloo Bois" – was the subject of a Southern Poverty Law Center Hatewatch investigation after the shooting.
Mathewson, who identified himself as the "commander" of the Kenosha Guard, recruited more than 3,000 RSVPs to the Facebook event and planned to "guard and block entrances on the streets around the protest," according to the lawsuit.
Christopher McNeal, a Black man and one of the protesters taking Rittenhouse and Facebook to court, said Kenosha Guard members assaulted and harassed him the night of the protest. When he sought help from the Kenosha Police Department, he was unable to distinguish between legitimate police officers and militia members, according to the lawsuit.
Another plaintiff, 40-year-old Black woman Carmen Palmer, attended the protest with her children and her church’s social justice group. She claimed militia members pepper sprayed her and other church members as the protesters attempted to repair their slashed tires and leave the area.
“It was the scariest experience of my life,” Palmer said in the civil complaint. “And I have seen a lot, I had to keep it together for my children, but when I got home, I had a panic attack.”
Rittenhouse remained at a Lake County juvenile detention center Wednesday evening. He’s scheduled for an extradition hearing Friday morning. The teenager is considered an adult in Wisconsin courts where he’s charged with first-degree reckless homicide and other offenses in connection with the Aug. 25 shootings, records show.