It was a weekend of rage, hate, violence and death in Charlottesville four years ago — one that awakened much of this country to a resurgence of far-right extremism and that President Biden has said inspired him to run for president.
Jury selection has begun for a federal civil trial in Charlottesville, where jurors will decide whether the organizing of the Unite the Right rally amounted to a conspiracy to engage in racially motivated violence. The trial is scheduled to last until Nov. 19. Here’s what you need to know.
Why are white supremacists on trial?
The plaintiffs’ attorneys are arguing that those who organized and promoted the weekend of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville engaged in a conspiracy to commit racially motivated violence.
They have more than five terabytes of evidence, including a leaked trove from the communication platform Discord, where planners messaged about the rally using slurs against Black and Jewish people and sharing violent fantasies of cracking skulls and driving into crowds.
Defendants argue this kind of violent rhetoric was protected speech related to a permitted rally to protest city plans to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. The ensuing attacks, defendants argue, stemmed from planning failures on the part of the police and from counterdemonstrators who wanted to directly confront them.
“Defendants brought with them to Charlottesville the imagery of the Holocaust, of slavery, of Jim Crow, and of fascism,” the plaintiffs say in the complaint. “They also brought with them semiautomatic weapons, pistols, mace, rods, armor, shields, and torches.”
To bring this lawsuit, the attorneys are invoking the Reconstruction-era Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, which was designed to protect newly emancipated Black people from the Ku Klux Klan.
“We had no idea when we brought this case that there was going to be somewhat of a renaissance to the KKK Act,” said plaintiffs’ attorney Roberta Kaplan, who is well-known for Supreme Court arguments that were instrumental to federal recognition of same-sex marriage and shaped this case from its beginning in 2017. “Sadly, that’s just a testament to the fact that we have a situation in our country today where people can credibly accuse others of committing the kind of act that Congress was worried about after the Civil War.”
Though the lawsuit does not specify a dollar amount sought for damages, plaintiffs’ advocates said they hope to bankrupt the defendants. The lawsuit is backed by Integrity First for America, a civil rights nonprofit organization.
Who are the plaintiffs?
The nine plaintiffs represent the kind of American diversity that the defendants reject.
They include an ordained minister, a Colombian American undergraduate at the University of Virginia, an African American landscaper, and a multiracial paralegal who was a co-worker and friend of Heyer. Four of the plaintiffs were struck when 20-year-old white nationalist James A. Fields Jr. plowed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing Heyer. Marcus Martin, another plaintiff, needed surgery for a broken leg and ankle, and Natalie Romero suffered a skull fracture. Those not physically injured say they suffered lasting emotional distress and trauma that, in some cases, caused them to miss work.
“The organizers of the Unite the Right Rally robbed me of my ability to feel safe, feel secure, feel at ease — even in my own home,” plaintiff Liz Sines said in a statement. “This case reminds me that we are not powerless as we face this seemingly relentless campaign of violence and hatred. And that constant reminder over the last four years has helped me move forward.”
Who are the defendants?
The defendants include some of the country’s most notorious racists: Jason Kessler, the main organizer behind the deadly Unite the Right rally; Richard Spencer, a featured speaker at the event; Andrew Anglin, who publishes the hate site the Daily Stormer; Matthew Heimbach, a white nationalist leader with ties to far-right factions in Eastern Europe; and Christopher Cantwell, who was dubbed the “Crying Nazi” after a viral video showed him weeping upon learning that he was wanted by authorities in connection with the rally.
“They’re tasked with proving that I entered into a conspiracy to commit or inspire or direct racially motivated violence,” Spencer said in an interview with The Washington Post. “They’re not going to be able to demonstrate that.”
Though some defendants are expected to testify, court documents show that many have been uncooperative, failing to comply with court orders. One defendant, Jeff Schoep, former commander of the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement, said his cellphone “accidentally” fell into the toilet, making it impossible to recover potential evidence, the plaintiffs complained in court filings.
There are also defendants who are representing themselves, such as Spencer and Cantwell, putting plaintiffs in the uncomfortable position of being questioned directly by the people they’re suing.
What has happened in this case so far?
Suing two dozen white supremacists and hate groups means that virtually everything about the trial is unusual in terms of security, threats against lawyers and defendants’ refusal to cooperate.
Personal security is the top expense for the plaintiffs. Cantwell, who has referred to the Holocaust as “supposed” and quoted Adolf Hitler in court documents, was dropped by his own attorneys, in part for allegedly threatening a lawyer for the plaintiffs.
Already, the plaintiffs have received default judgments against seven defendants who refused to cooperate. At least three defendants face tens of thousands of dollars in sanctions for flouting multiple court orders, documents show. Potential jurors will be asked their opinions on Black Lives Matter and antisemitism.
Most of the white supremacists named in the lawsuit have been deplatformed by social media companies or have removed themselves.
Some defendants have also walked back their most extreme views or rejected the white power movement altogether. Spencer, for example, said that his views do not align with today’s right-wing concerns and that he voted for Biden and is fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. For him, he said during a June 2020 court hearing, the years-long lawsuit has been “financially crippling.”