When the white supremacists came to Charlottesville last summer, Emily Gorcenski decided to protest. Charlottesville was her home, and she didn’t want to see fascists marching through the street. But at a counter-protest, Gorcenski was hit with pepper spray by one of the rally’s speakers. Christopher Cantwell later pleaded guilty to using pepper spray on Gorcenski and others , and spent three and a half months in prison.
Gorcenski, a data scientist, was compelled to do more. She realized her training could help her communicate with both the police and the activist community. “Generally speaking, activists don’t trust police,” she told me over Skype. “I’ve taken the approach of deliberately positioning myself to be a person who can talk to the police because we need that role.”
With the help of other activists, Gorcenski built First Vigil, a list of court cases tied to white nationalists. First Vigil tracks the charges, the defendants, links back to the court documents, and—crucially—provides the date and location of the next hearing. She wants to make it easier for journalists and researchers to track these cases and what happens in the courtroom is often as important as what’s written down in case logs.
“One of my interests is tracking white supremacists as they go through the court system, because there’s a lot of really useful information that comes out of these proceedings that you don't necessarily find any other way,” Gorcenski told me.
“The story isn’t just the shooting. There’s so much more to it than that.”
Court documents are a treasure trove of information. Although it seems like America’s white nationalist movement is a large and complex network, the group of people involved in active street violence and attending multiple rallies for white nationalist Richard Spencer is actually small and intimate. According to Gorcenski, reading court documents and listening to testimony helps fill in the blanks and build a bigger picture of the movement.
“These organizations are very fluid,” Gorcenski said. “And in order to effectively track what they're doing, why they're doing it, where they're meeting, who they’re meeting with, and what their motivations are, you have to understand the internal dynamics of how they work. And so we are trying to basically build a resource that is not just a database, but a way to contextualize all of that.”
Gorcenski pointed to a recent New York Times Magazine article about a shooting after a Spencer rally in Gainesville, Florida. Four people were involved in the shooting, but the police only arrested three. “One hundred percent of the reporting on this incident up to this point talked about the three people who were arrested, but there were four people in the Jeep,” Gorcenski said. “So who’s the fourth person?”
Gorcenski tracked down the original arrest report and found the fourth person’s name. She also learned that the fourth person gave a false address during the arrest that linked back to a fifth person, a well-known Nazi in the Houston area. That fifth person wasn’t in the Jeep, but was in Gainesville at the time of the shooting. Gorcenski had uncovered another link in the network.
“We’re actually uncovering these connections as we’re doing this work,” she said. “The story isn’t just the shooting. There’s so much more to it than that.”
October 2018 marked an uptick in white nationalist violence in America: Proud Boys assaulted people in New York City; a man killed two people in a grocery store in Kentucky while telling a bystander that “whites don’t shoot whites;” a man mailed pipe bombs to prominent democrats, journalists, and George Soros; a shooter murdered 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue.
Groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and people such as Elon University professor Megan Squire also build and maintain databases that track hate groups, but the SPLC focuses on the big picture and Squire’s database isn’t available to the public. First Vigil is publicly accessible, and digs into the details the SPLC leaves out.
The court cases are the first piece of what Gorcenski envisions as a larger, crowdsourced database. “A lot of the data science projects overlap heavily with building infrastructure for cloud applications,” she said. “What I've learned is how to stand up robust infrastructure to handle things like large data.”
Gorcenski’s longer term goal is to turn First Vigil into a place where people can go to a fascist rally, take pictures of the participants, and upload them. She wants to archive and document known white nationalists online, forever.
“The Nazis hate it,” Gorcenski told me. “People go to hearings… They take notes and they send me pictures. And all of that is going to be part of the system eventually, to make all that knowledge known.”
Doxing and public shaming is a popular tactic employed by both the political right and left right now, but there are dangers to doing it, regardless of who is being doxed. When you reveal someone's identity on the internet in a heated context like this, even when they’re people accused of horrendous crimes, you have no control over how the mob reacts.
Gorcenski, however, believes that because First Vigil uses public court documents, it is fair game. “First Vigil is based entirely on public records data, sourced directly from court systems,” she said. ”It cannot therefore be used as a doxing tool, as it is merely covering things that are already in public record. The tool does not provide names and addresses, contact numbers, familial connections...potential witness or victim information, or anything like that.The language on First Vigil is clear that all people are innocent until otherwise proven guilty. It can no more be a source of harassment than PACER [a tool that allows users to access public court records electronically].”
The first thing a user sees when they open First Vigil is a list of the pending court cases it’s tracking followed by a table of contents, then a disclaimer. “It is with high hopes that this information is used to save lives,” First Vigil says. “This is not an endorsement of the police, of state violence, or of state intervention. This is simply a repository of the most accurate possible information, culled from public records, newspapers, and court hearings.”
“All people on this list 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.”