The violence at the white nationalist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville shocked the country, with people being beaten to the ground, lighted torches being thrown at counterdemonstrators, and a self-proclaimed Hitler admirer ramming his car into a crowd, killing one woman and injuring dozens more.
The driver of that car is currently serving a life sentence in prison for murder and hate crimes. More than four years later, a civil trial will decide whether the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who organized the protests should also face charges.
Jury selection for the trial in U.S. District Court in Charlottesville, which is expected to last a month, began on Monday. Integrity First for America, a non-profit organization formed in response to the Charlottesville violence with the goal of disarming the instigators of violence through litigation, funded the lawsuit.
It accuses some of the country’s most prominent white nationalists of orchestrating a “carefully planned conspiracy” to commit violence against Blacks, Jews, and others on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation. A firestorm erupted after then-President Donald Trump failed to strongly condemn white nationalists, instead declaring that “very fine people on both sides” existed.
Hundreds of white nationalists descended on Charlottesville on Aug. 11 and Aug. 12, 2017, ostensibly to protest city plans to remove a statute of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
The nearly two dozen defendants include: Jason Kessler, the rally’s main organizer, who describes himself as a “white civil rights” leader; Richard Spencer, who coined the term “alt-right” to describe a loosely connected band of white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and others; and Christopher Cantwell, a white supremacist who became known as the “crying Nazi” after posting a tearful video when a warrant was issued for his arrest on assault charges for using pepper spray against counter-demonstrators.
The plaintiffs include four people who were injured when James Alex Fields Jr. rammed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters.
The case is based on a massive collection of chat room exchanges, social media postings, and other communications in which the defendants use racial epithets and discuss demonstration plans, including what weapons to bring.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs are relying on a 150-year-old law passed after the Civil War to protect freed slaves’ civil rights and shield them from violence.
The Ku Klux Klan Act, as it is commonly known, contains a rarely used provision that allows private citizens to sue other citizens for civil rights violations. To win a judgment, the plaintiffs must show that the defendants planned and conspired to commit racially motivated violence, and that the plaintiffs were injured as a result.
The plaintiffs’ attorneys claim they have 5.3 terabytes of digital communications from the defendants, including many on the online platform Discord that were first leaked by Unicorn Riot, a left-wing media collective.
According to the lawsuit, there were “countless exhortations to violence” on Discord, including one allegedly written by a defendant who said, “I’m ready to crack skulls,” and another who said, “It’s going to get wild.” Please bring your boots.” However, the white nationalists named as defendants claim that the mention of weapons and combat was intended only in the event that they had to defend themselves against counter-protesters. They claim the First Amendment protects their communications.
According to the plaintiffs, the defendants and their co-conspirators surrounded counter-protesters, kicked and punched them, and climbed atop the statue while yelling “Hail Spencer!” “All hail Victory!” “We own these streets!” Spencer exclaimed to the crowd.
Spencer, who is representing himself in court, has stated that he had no involvement in the planning of the event and had no knowledge of any conspiracy to commit racially motivated violence. He stated that he is looking forward to telling his story to the jury, noting that emotions are still running high in the aftermath of the Charlottesville events.
The lead plaintiff, Elizabeth Sines, said she is still haunted by the violence she witnessed that weekend, including Fields plowing his car into the crowd.
The plaintiffs’ lawsuit seeks unspecified monetary damages as well as a ruling that the defendants violated their constitutional rights.