Jury claps unite the real organizers with millions in damages over racist violence

A panel of 11 jurors in Charlottesville, Virginia, ruled against a group of white nationalist defendants, ordering them to pay millions in damages on Tuesday, ending a lengthy and unconventional lawsuit that sought to hold them financially responsible for working on to spread hatred.

The jury was unable to reach a verdict on two main allegations, which included whether the defendants conspired to commit racist-motivated violence.

Still, the defendants are likely to be forced to pay six-figure damages each to nine plaintiffs who took part in the August 2017 demonstrations against the “Unite the Right” demonstration – a two-day clash between extreme right-wing extremists and counter-protesters that left a woman dead. dozens wounded and a scar in 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 can provide guidance in future cases like it. Plaintiffs tried to apply the KKK Act of 1871, a law that was to weaken the Ku Klux Klan, which allows civil lawsuits to be brought in a federal court against anyone who conspires to commit racially motivated violence. But it was the questions concerning the law that set the jury firm.

The expansive suit, brought by the nonprofit organization Integrity First for America, named about two dozen individuals and groups widely known among extremist researchers. They included Richard Spencer, the white nationalist believed to have invented the term “alt-right,” and Christopher Cantwell, who produced a racist podcast three times a week until he was sentenced to prison. for extortion earlier this year.

“It’s been 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 to hatred in August 2017.”

“Our greatest hope is that today’s judgment will encourage others to feel more secure by raising our collective voices in the future to speak for human dignity and against white supremacy,” the plaintiffs said.

“This case has sent a clear message: Violent hatred will not go unanswered. There will be accountability,” IFA CEO Amy Spitalnick added on Tuesday.

The progress of the trial has been slowed down over the last four years – and not just by the pandemic. Certain defendants repeatedly refused to cooperate with court orders in presenting evidence, prompting Judge Norman K. Moon to impose sanctions on several parties before the trial even began.

All nine plaintiffs testified that the events of 2017 were indelibly burned into their memories. Several still had physical problems related to injuries sustained that weekend, and all had experienced mental problems related to the violence.

Four of the plaintiffs were hit by the Dodge Challenger that a 21-year-old man from Ohio, James Alex Fields, drove directly into a crowd of anti-Nazi protesters on August 12, 2017, causing them injuries ranging from concussion to a crush. hip. Five others were either present at the violent tiki torchlight march on the University of Virginia campus on August 11, 2017, and saw the car attack or both.

Fields was also named in the civil lawsuit after he had already been prosecuted and convicted in 2019 of the death of an anti-white supremacy protester, 32-year-old Heather Heyer, and sentenced to life behind bars.

Roberta Kaplan and Karen Dunn served as co-lead attorneys for the plaintiffs, a progressive New York attorney and a former Virginia prosecutor, respectively, who said they were “excited” about the jury’s verdict. Their challenge was twofold: to prove to the jury that the accused conspired to commit acts of violence, and that their motivation for doing so was racial and anti-Semitic animus. Juries were specifically asked to weigh whether the violence was “reasonably predictable” based on the actions of the defendants.

By law, Kaplan and Dunn did not have to show that each defendant was connected, even though they made several connections during the trial. Several defendants went to the same parties at what they called the “fascist ceiling” (short for “fascist”) in the months before Unite the Right was to be held on August 12th. Some used Discord, a widely used messaging platform for games, to plan details about the event – including how they would get to Charlottesville, what they would sing, and whether it was legal to hit protesters on the streets of Virginia with your car. (It is not.)

“All of these leaders brought their troops to the battle,” Dunn told jurors in her concluding remarks.

The defense repeatedly tried to shift the blame for Unite the Right onto antifa or anti-fascist activists, trying to show that certain plaintiffs nurtured sympathy with antifa because some of them followed left-leaning Twitter accounts.

While defendants in criminal proceedings are constitutionally guaranteed the right to a lawyer, the same does not apply to defendants in civil proceedings. Spencer and Cantwell were thus forced to act as their own representation as they were unable to hire lawyers. It allowed every man, both declared white nationalists, to stand up and even interrogate the plaintiffs’ witnesses, leading to bizarre and sometimes unpleasant scenes unfolding inside the courtroom, especially when they questioned their prosecutors.

Their arguments were generally rooted in the constitutional right to freedom of expression and assembly. But they also worked for a few moments to perform for an audience rather than participating in a formal lawsuit.

On several points, defendant Adolf praised Hitler, and Cantwell used his opening remarks to name “Mein Kampf,” use the N-word, and promote his podcast.

On a day with the case earlier this month, everyone who called the public conference line received an unpleasant reminder of what type of followers the defendants are attracting. An error in the telephone system silenced the people being called, It reported Vice News, to let a swarm of trolls overwhelm the frontier with racist slander, the N-word and right-wing slogans like “Let’s Go Brandon,” which is slang for “fuck Joe Biden.”

Although the planning of Unite the Right began as a protest against a local petition to remove Charlottesville’s Robert E. Lee statue, it quickly evolved into a broader event for “alt-right” figures to air their racist views. Community activists realized this and organized counter-demonstrations in which the clashes took place primarily but not exclusively. Counter-demonstrator DeAndre Harris was hard hit in a parking garage of assailants who were later sentenced to two to eight years behind bars.

At the civil trial, a sea of ​​messages illustrated how the organizers felt there would be violence at the rally, in large part because they planned to encourage counter-protesters to engage physically, and then react with disproportionate force.

Online communication shown to the jury revealed how organizers worried about their public perception, or “optics”. They discussed whether they would wear the same type of tiki torch, as well as the PR benefits of wearing black clothing versus office wear. The advantage of black seemed to be that it hides blood well – important for neo-Nazis who wanted to purge their reputation while attacking their enemies. A white nationalist group mentioned in the trial, Identity Evropa, instructed its members to come crisply dressed in white polo shirts and khaki.

Finally, Kaplan and Dunn asked the jury to consider awarding plaintiffs hit by Fields’ car between $ 7 million and $ 10 million in compensation each; for the others, they requested between $ 3 million and $ 5 million each.

White nationalists carry tiki torches across the University of Virginia's Charlottesville campus.
White nationalists carry tiki torches across the University of Virginia’s Charlottesville campus.

NurPhoto via Getty Images

In the wake of the violence, then-President Donald Trump infamous claimed that there were “very nice people on both sides” of the conflict – which triggered outrage as he repeatedly failed to condemn the blatant racism and anti-Semitism that was shown. Trump instead sought to portray 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 proliferation of Confederate monuments is now, slowly, on decline. Many were removed after the police killing of George Floyd in May 2020 and the massive nationwide protests for racial justice that followed.

Charlottesville’s Lee statue was finally removed earlier this year and is expected to be fused into a public art exhibition by a local museum of black culture and history.

Other states and localities have reconsidered Confederate-inspired school names and Confederate flags that have long been associated with racist hatred. Another monument to Lee – a huge 12-ton statue in Richmond, Virginia – was taken down in September to the cheers of an assembled crowd: “Hey, hey, hey, goodbye.”

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