On October 28, 2017, Juli Briskman’s day started out in normal fashion. Still recovering from a recent marathon, the Virginia resident opted to ride her bike that afternoon for exercise. While she was cycling, President Donald Trump’s motorcade, coming from his nearby golf course, passed her. Briskman, who wasn’t a fan of the president’s policies, flipped off his line of SUVs twice before she went her way.
Briskman didn’t think anything more of what she did. “I went about my day, my night, my slow Sunday morning,” she recalls, believing everything was fine.
But over a day later, a friend texted Briskman how “proud” she was, and Briskman’s life changed forever. What was a fleeting act of resistance became a viral one after members of the press corps traveling with Trump snapped photographs of the then-unidentified Briskman giving the leader of the free world the birdie and tweeted them.
Eventually, people deduced who the cyclist was, but Briskman didn’t understand the magnitude of her middle finger moment until the owner of a yoga studio where she taught asked her to take her affiliation with the business off of her personal Facebook page due to threats. Briskman decided it was a good time to talk to human resources at Akima, the private government contractor where she worked full-time, in case word spread.
After an initial meeting explaining the situation, Briskman believed she was covered. After all, as her lawsuit would later lay out, an unnamed Senior Director of Operations at Akima had previously posted a caption on his personal Facebook page that said “You’re a fucking Libtard asshole” and hadn’t been terminated. On top of that, human resources officials made it clear that as long as Briskman wasn’t doing anything like responding to media requests or tending to the social media flames during business hours, it was fine.
But she says that the case is much more dire and far-reaching than one of obscene speech; it’s about what Briskman, her lawyers at Geller Law Group, nonpartisan nonprofit Protect Democracy are calling “autocratic capture” under Virginia law’s at-will employment doctrine that prohibits termination for anything that undermines “core Virginia public policies.” They argue that instead of directly silencing dissenting citizens, governmental figures — like Donald Trump — use indirect threats toward private companies to ensure that employers silence their employees for them; in the case of Akima, a government contractor, the threat of a voided contract loomed large. In turn, autocratic capture means that people who want to partake in various forms of activism must choose between paying the bills or raising their voices, even if they’re partaking in non-violent, peaceful protest in their off-duty time.
“You can’t just use government contractors or other ways to just make people’s lives hell because they don’t agree with your administration,” Briskman says of Trump’s tactics and the reason behind her lawsuit. “So I think for me it’s the message that we’re not going to put up with this. We’re not going to put up with suppressing free speech in this country; no matter where the force is coming from, we’re not going to put up with it.”
The case hasn’t been without its challenges. During a motion to dismiss hearing on June 29th, Judge Penny F. Azcarate of the Fairfax County Circuit Court dismissed the claim of autocratic capture under the Virginia public policy doctrine, saying that based on her own reading of the case law, Briskman’s lawsuit would need to point to a specific statute. However, Azcarate said that she would hear an amended argument from Briskman in the future. Briskman’s legal team says they’re definitely moving forward with the case and are considering if they want to pursue that amended complaint or appeal the judge’s ruling.
Juli Briskman’s case, however, isn’t just about one lone woman giving the middle finger to the president. It’s about the uptick in backlash facing private citizens at the hands of Trump and his administration.
For example, professional football player and activist Colin Kaepernick filed a grievance against the National Football League for collusion, in which he argues that teams conspired together to keep him from getting signed to a team due to his political activities. Kaepernick started kneeling during the National Anthem at football games to protest racism and police brutality against the Black community and people of color, eventually drawing the ire of Donald Trump himself, who pressured NFL team owners — many of whom donated to his campaign — to reprimand players who took similar stances.
Meanwhile, other private citizens who don’t necessarily have the same means or profile have also found themselves attacked by the president and his administration. Most recently, Stephanie Wilkinson, the owner of the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Virginia, faced public backlash from Trump and vandalism and protests at her restaurant, for refusing to serve Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders due to her actions as part of the Trump administration. Wilkinson had to resign from her position as executive director of the local business group Main Street Lexington following the incident. Her business will also remain closed until at least July 5.
And while the specifics of Briskman, Kaepernick, and Wilkinson’s circumstances differ, one thing’s for sure: The direct rage of Donald Trump is affecting how private companies do business and how private citizens conduct themselves. While Briskman was luckily able to find a new job that aligns with her values and ethics, Kaepernick is still without a quarterback contract, and there’s no telling what long-term effects Donald Trump’s outburst will have on Wilkinson’s small business.
As for what she hopes to achieve with her time in court, Briskman believes her lawsuit isn’t solely about the ruling; it’s about standing up for the people directly impacted by Trump’s ire, as well as the hundreds of thousands who feel the ripple effects of his censorship, like employees at government subcontractors just as she once was.
“I think the best outcome is that we send a message that people shouldn’t have to choose between principles and their pocketbooks in this country,” she says.