(CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va.) — In a mixed verdict, a jury awarded more than $25 million in damages Tuesday against white nationalist leaders for violence that erupted during the 2017 Unite the Right rally.
A nearly one-month long civil trial ended in Charlottesville. The jury found white nationalists responsible for four counts of the lawsuit brought by nine individuals who sustained emotional or physical injuries in protests that lasted two days.
This verdict will be a repudiation of the white nationist movement and especially for two dozen people and organisations who were charged in federal court with orchestrating violence against African Americans and Jews in an elaborately planned conspiracy.
The plaintiffs’ lawyers invoked an old law that was passed 150 years ago after the Civil War, which protected freed slaves against violence and preserved their civil rights. The law, commonly known as the Ku Klux Klan Act is a rare provision which allows citizens to sue others for violating civil rights.
On August 11th and 12th 2017, hundreds descended upon Charlottesville in support of the Unite-the-Right rally. The protest was to supposedly remove the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. During a march on the University of Virginia campus, white nationalists chanted “Jews will not replace us,” surrounded counterprotesters and threw tiki torches at them. Avowed Adolf Hitler admirer drove his car through a group of protesters the next day. He killed one and injured dozens of others.
Then-President Donald Trump touched off a political firestorm when he failed to immediately denounce the white nationalists, saying there were “very fine people on both sides.”
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James Alex Fields Jr. is currently serving life imprisonment for the murder and hate crime of his car driver. Integrity First for America (a civil rights non-profit organization) named Fields as one of the defendants in the suit.
The lawsuit accused some of the country’s most well-known white nationalists of plotting the violence, including Jason Kessler, the rally’s main organizer; 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” for posting a tearful video when a warrant was issued for his arrest on assault charges for using pepper spray against demonstrators.
The trial featured emotional testimony from people who were struck by Fields’ car or witnessed the attacks well as plaintiffs who were beaten or subjected to racist taunts.
Melissa Blair, who was pushed out of the way as Fields’ car slammed into the crowd, described the horror of seeing her fiancé bleeding on the sidewalk and later learning that her friend, 32-year-old Heather Heyer, had been killed.
“I was confused. “I was afraid. It was terrifying to think about the lives of all those present. The scene was terrifying. It was all blood. I was terrified,” said Blair, who became tearful several times during her testimony.
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In their testimony, several defendants used racist epithets. They also defiantly affirmed their support of white supremacy. They also blamed each other and the antifascist group known as antifa, for the violence that broke out that weekend. Other witnesses said that violence was only used after their or their accomplices were assaulted by counter-protesters.
“We were coming to the rescue of our friends and allies that were being beaten by the communists,” said Michael Tubbs, chief of staff of the League of the South, a Southern nationalist organization.
The defendants tried to discredit Fields in closing arguments before the jury. Their lawyers said that the plaintiffs hadn’t proved they had conspired for violence at Fields.
The plaintiffs’ lawyers showed jurors a large collection of text messages, chat rooms and social media posts by defendants. This was to show the jury the depth of their communication before the rally. It also helped to support their claim of having planned it.
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“If you want a chance to crack some Antifa skulls in self defense don’t open carry,” Kessler wrote in a message about two months before the rally. ”You will scare the sh-t out of them and they’ll just stand off to the side.”
They claimed that there had been no conspiracy. Their blustery speech before the rally, however, was only rhetoric. This is covered by the First Amendment.
Norman Moon issued default judgements before the trial against seven additional defendants who had not responded to the lawsuit. Those defendants will be awarded damages by the court.