I am praying for a big win by the plaintiffs!
Excerpts from the Article:
As hundreds of white supremacists prepared to descend on Charlottesville in 2017, they hashed out logistics in private chat groups. They suggested a dress code of polo shirts during the day and shirts with swastikas at night. They worried about mayo on sandwiches spoiling in the August heat. And they swapped tips on how to turn ordinary objects into lethal weapons, according to messages cited in court papers.
Such detailed planning is central to a lawsuit filed by nine Charlottesville residents who allege physical harm and emotional distress during the deadly “Unite the Right” march and rally, where a torch-carrying mob chanting “Jews will not replace us!” awakened the country to a resurgence of far-right extremism. After four years of legal wrangling, a civil trial begins Monday in a federal courtroom in Charlottesville, where a jury will decide whether the organizing of the rally amounted to a conspiracy to engage in racially motivated violence.
“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 semi-automatic weapons, pistols, mace, rods, armor, shields, and torches.”
The planners’ messages, part of a leaked trove from the group-chat platform Discord, are laced with slurs against Black and Jewish people, along with violent fantasies of cracking skulls and driving into crowds. One meme showed “John Deere’s New Multi-Lane Protester Digestor,” a made-up vehicle to steamroll opponents — a macabre forecast of the car-ramming attack that would kill 32-year-old counterprotester Heather Heyer and injure at least 19 others.
Because only a handful of participants faced criminal charges, the plaintiffs’ lawyers say, the civil suit is one way to correct what they call a lack of accountability that paved the way for other extremist violence, including the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. The racist, bigoted imagery on display in Charlottesville in August 2017 — a shock to much of the nation at the time — is now regularly spotted at right-wing gatherings throughout the country.
Suing two dozen white supremacists and hate groups means that virtually everything about the trial is unusual. The judge has ordered litigants not to discuss the extraordinary security backdrop to the trial; personal security is the top expense for the plaintiffs. Potential jurors will be asked their opinions on, for example, Black Lives Matter and antisemitism. Court exhibits will include vile messages that come from more than 5 terabytes of evidence. To make their case, the plaintiffs’ attorneys are dusting off a Reconstruction-era statute that was designed to protect newly emancipated Black people from the Ku Klux Klan.
Then there are the defendants, some of the most notorious racists in the country, including: Richard Spencer, a neo-Nazi figure who was a featured speaker at the rally; Andrew Anglin, who publishes the hate site the Daily Stormer; and Matthew Heimbach, a white-nationalist leader with ties to far-right factions in Eastern Europe. Defendant Christopher Cantwell, who has referred to the “supposed Holocaust” and quoted Hitler in court documents, was dropped by his own attorneys in part for allegedly threatening a lawyer for the plaintiffs.
Some of the defendants are expected to testify, but 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.
A main argument of the defendants is that the violent rhetoric used ahead of that August weekend was protected speech related to a permitted rally to protest city plans to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. The mayhem that unfolded, defendants argue, stemmed from planning failures on the part of the police and from counterdemonstrators who wanted direct confrontation with the marchers.
Fast-forward 150 years. The same law that targeted racist vigilantes after the Civil War now underpins the suit against the modern-day hate groups that planned the “Unite the Right” rally. At least two KKK factions are among the Charlottesville defendants.
“What’s dismaying for me is that it’s necessary to use a statute like the Ku Klux Klan Act from the 1870s in this day and age to address civil rights violations by white supremacists,” said Rich Schragger, a Charlottesville resident and law professor at the University of Virginia.
The plaintiffs in this lawsuit represent the kind of American diversity that the defendants reject. They are of different religions, races and ethnicities, court documents show. 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’s.
When 20-year-old white nationalist James A. Fields Jr. sped his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, he killed Heyer and struck four of the plaintiffs, according to court documents. Marcus Martin needed surgery for a broken leg and ankle that he suffered when he pushed his fiancee, plaintiff Marissa Blair, out of the path of the car. Plaintiff Natalie Romero was directly hit by Fields, the blow throwing her against a parked car and causing her to suffer a skull fracture. In the aftermath, court documents say, Romero wanted to lie down and close her eyes, but worried that if she did, she would die.
Plaintiffs who were not physically injured say they suffered lasting emotional distress and trauma. The suit does not specify a dollar amount sought for damages.
“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.”
At least five defendants are representing themselves at trial. Among them is Cantwell, who was dubbed the “Crying Nazi” for a viral video that showed him weeping upon learning that he was wanted by authorities in connection with the rally. He later pleaded guilty to two counts of misdemeanor assault and battery for pepper-spraying counterprotesters. He is in prison and could not be reached for comment.
In one court filing, Cantwell cited a passage from Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.” In another, he used the word “Holocaust” with a registered trademark sign, as if to cast doubt on Nazi Germany’s atrocities. Cantwell also made a threat to the plaintiffs’ attorney Roberta Kaplan, who is Jewish and well-known for Supreme Court arguments that were instrumental to federal recognition of same-sex marriage.
Cantwell called Kaplan an anti-Jewish slur and a “whore” and said that after “she loses this fraudulent lawsuit, we’re going to have a lot of [expletive] fun with her,” according to a May 2020 filing. Cantwell has asked the court that his “perceived biases” against Jewish people be excluded from proceedings.
One of the many peculiarities of the trial is that because the white supremacists are representing themselves, plaintiffs are likely to find themselves in the uncomfortable position of being questioned directly by the people they’re suing.
The plaintiffs and their advocates, including several of the nation’s civil rights groups, argue that the First Amendment does not protect the methodical planning of racial violence.
“If they had simply gone to Charlottesville and stood on the street corner with their swastikas and their flags, and their bigoted, racist, antisemitic chants, that would’ve been protected speech,” said Amy Spitalnick, the executive director of Integrity First for America, a civil rights nonprofit organization backing the lawsuit. “But that’s not what they did,” Spitalnick said. “They planned violence, and then they went to Charlottesville and engaged in that violence, and they celebrated the violence.” Chanting “White lives matter!” and “Jews will not replace us!” several hundred white supremacists carrying torches.
The years-long suit has been “financially crippling,” Spencer said during a June 2020 court hearing. At least three defendants face tens of thousands of dollars in sanctions for flouting multiple court orders, documents show. Most of the white supremacists named in the suit have been deplatformed by social media companies or have removed themselves.
“This case alone is not a magic bullet — no interventions in and of themselves are magic bullets,” Simi said. “They have to be part of a much broader strategy to combat, essentially, this type of fascism, this type of hatred, this type of extremism. And, unfortunately, we really haven’t yet developed that broad-based strategy.”