A panel of 11 jurors in Charlottesville, Virginia, decided against a group of white nationalist defendants and ordered them to pay millions in damages on Tuesday, concluding a lengthy and unconventional trial that sought to hold them financially accountable for working to spread hate.
The jury was unable to reach a verdict on two main claims, which included whether the defendants conspired to commit racially motivated violence.
Still, the defendants will likely be forced to pay six-figure damages each to nine plaintiffs who joined the August 2017 demonstrations against the “Unite the Right” rally ― two days of clashes between far-right extremists and counterprotesters that left one woman dead, dozens injured and a scar on modern American history.
In total, defendants are currently on the hook for more than $25 million.
The jury’s decision signals a warning to right-wing extremist groups operating nationwide, and may offer guidance for future cases like it. Plaintiffs attempted to employ the KKK Act of 1871, a law meant to weaken the Ku Klux Klan, which permits civil lawsuits to be brought in federal court against anyone who conspires to commit racially motivated violence. But it was the questions relating to that law that deadlocked the jury.
The sprawling suit, brought by the nonprofit Integrity First for America, named around two dozen individuals and groups largely known among extremism researchers. They included Richard Spencer, the white nationalist believed to have coined the phrase “alt-right,” and Christopher Cantwell, who produced a thrice-weekly racist podcast until being sentenced to prison for extortion earlier this year.
“It has been a long four years since we first brought this case,” the plaintiffs said in a joint statement declaring victory on behalf of “everyone else in the Charlottesville community who stood up against hate in August 2017.”
“Our single greatest hope is that today’s verdict will encourage others to feel safer raising our collective voices in the future to speak up for human dignity and against white supremacy,” the plaintiffs said.
“This case has sent a clear message: Violent hate won’t go unanswered. There will be accountability,” IFA executive director Amy Spitalnick added Tuesday.
The lawsuit’s progress was slowed over the past four years — and not just by the pandemic. Certain defendants repeatedly refused to cooperate with court orders to produce evidence, leading Judge Norman K. Moon to issue sanctions against multiple parties before the trial even began.
All nine plaintiffs testified that the events of 2017 were indelibly seared into their memories. Several were still dealing with physical problems relating to injuries sustained that weekend, and all had experienced mental health issues relating to the violence.
Four of the plaintiffs were hit by the Dodge Challenger that a 21-year-old Ohio man, James Alex Fields, drove straight into a crowd of anti-Nazi protesters on Aug. 12, 2017, giving them injuries ranging from concussions to a broken hip. Five others were either present for the violent tiki-torch march on the University of Virginia’s campus on Aug. 11, 2017, witnessed the car attack, or both.
Fields was also named in the civil suit, having already been tried and convicted in 2019 for the death of one anti-white-supremacy protester, 32-year-old Heather Heyer, and sentenced to life behind bars.
Serving as co-lead counsel for the plaintiffs were Roberta Kaplan and Karen Dunn ― a progressive New York attorney and a former Virginia prosecutor, respectively, who said they were “thrilled” with the jury’s verdict. Their challenge was twofold: to prove to the jury that the defendants conspired to commit acts of violence, and that their motivation for doing so was racial and antisemitic animus. Jurors were specifically asked to weigh whether the violence was “reasonably foreseeable” based on the defendants’ actions.
By law, Kaplan and Dunn did not need to show that every single defendant was connected, although they made numerous links over the course of the trial. Several defendants went to the same parties at what they called the “fash loft” (short for “fascist”) in the months before Unite the Right was slated to be held on Aug. 12. Some used Discord, a messaging platform largely used for gaming, to plan details of the event ― including how they would get to Charlottesville, what they would chant and whether it is legal to hit protesters in the street in the state of Virginia with your car. (It is not.)
“All of these leaders brought their troops to the battle,” Dunn told jurors in her closing remarks.
The defense repeatedly tried to shift the blame for Unite the Right onto antifa, or anti-fascist activists, attempting to show that certain plaintiffs fostered sympathies with antifa because some of them followed left-wing Twitter accounts.
While defendants in criminal trials are constitutionally guaranteed the right to an attorney, the same is not true for defendants in civil trials. Thus, Spencer and Cantwell were forced to serve as their own representation when they were unable to hire lawyers. That allowed each man, both avowed white nationalists, to get up and counter-examine the plaintiffs’ witnesses themselves, leading to bizarre and sometimes uncomfortable scenes playing out inside the courtroom, particularly when they questioned their accusers.
Their arguments were generally rooted in the constitutional right to free speech and freedom of assembly. But they also seemed at some moments to be performing for an audience rather than participating in a formal judicial process.
At several points, defendants praised Adolf Hitler, and Cantwell used his opening statements to name-check “Mein Kampf,” use the N-word and promote his podcast.
On one day of proceedings earlier this month, everyone who dialed into the public conference line got an unpleasant reminder of the type of followers the defendants attract. A glitch in the phone system unmuted people who were dialed in, Vice News reported, letting a swarm of trolls to overwhelm the line with racist slurs, the N-word and right-wing slogans like “Let’s Go Brandon,” which is slang for “fuck Joe Biden.”
Although planning for Unite the Right began as a protest against a local petition to remove Charlottesville’s Robert E. Lee statue, it rapidly evolved into a wider event for “alt-right” figures to air their racist views. Community activists realized this and organized counter-demonstrations, where the clashes primarily, but not exclusively, took place. Counter-demonstrator DeAndre Harris was severely beaten in a parking garage by assailants who were later sentenced from two to eight years behind bars.
At the civil trial, a sea of messages illustrated how organizers believed there would be violence at the rally in large part because they planned to goad counter-protesters into engaging physically, then respond with disproportionate force.
Online communications shown to the jury revealed how organizers fretted over their public perception, or “optics.” They discussed whether they would carry the same type of tiki torch, as well as the public relations advantages of wearing black clothing versus office attire. The advantage of black appeared to be that it hides blood well ― important for neo-Nazis who wished burnish their reputation while lashing out against their enemies. One white nationalist group named in the lawsuit, Identity Evropa, instructed its members to come crisply dressed in white polos and khakis.
In the end, Kaplan and Dunn asked the jury to consider awarding plaintiffs who were struck by Fields’ car between $7 million to $10 million in damages each; for the others, they requested between $3 million to $5 million each.
In the aftermath of the violence, then-President Donald Trump infamously claimed that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the conflict ― sparking outrage as he repeatedly failed to condemn the overt racism and antisemitism on full display. Trump instead attempted to cast Unite the Right as a simple debate over Confederate monuments ― most of which were erected in response to civil rights gains for Black Americans.
But the prevalence of Confederate monuments is now, slowly, on the decline. Many were removed following the May 2020 police killing of George Floyd, and the massive nationwide protests for racial justice that ensued.
Charlottesville’s Lee statue was finally removed earlier this year and is expected to be melted down into a public art display by a local museum for Black culture and history.
Other states and localities have been reconsidering Confederate-inspired school names and Confederate flags that have long been associated with racist hate. Another monument to Lee ― a huge 12-ton statue in Richmond, Virginia ― was taken down in September to cheers from an assembled crowd: “Hey, hey, hey, goodbye.”
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