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Jury awards $25m in damages to victims in 2017 ‘Unite the Right’ assault in Charlottesville

‘This case has sent a clear message: violent hate won’t go unanswered’

Alex Woodward
New York
Tuesday 23 November 2021 22:47 GMT
Donald Trump blames both sides for Charlottesville violence

A federal jury has determined that a group of prominent white nationalists including Richard Spencer, Jason Kessler and Christopher Cantwell engaged in conspiracy to converge neo-Nazis and hate groups for the so-called “Unite the Right” rally that saw torch-wielding crowds and mass violence in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017.

The jury in US District Court was not able to reach a verdict on two federal conspiracy charges, including conspiracy to commit racially motivated violence and whether defendants had knowledge of the conspiracy and failed to prevent it from taking place.

Jurors found James Alex Fields Jr – who is serving life in prison for the murder of Heather Heyer after driving his car into a crowd – was liable for assault and battery and intentional infliction of emotional harm against several defendants who were struck by his car. Those claims included $12m in damages.

Jurors also awarded $200,000 in punitive damages against all 12 defendants, plus $1m against five white nationalist groups, and awarded compensatory damages in other charges, for a total of roughly $25m.

The landmark verdict on 23 November arrived amid heightened scrutiny into far-right violence and online-driven conspiracy theories and hate movements across the US, as lawmakers and federal law enforcement and Joe Biden’s administration centre far-right domestic violent extremism in national security issues.

“This case has sent a clear message: violent hate won’t go unanswered. There will be accountability,” said Amy Spitalnick, executive director of civil rights organisation Integrity First for America, which supported the litigation.

“These judgments underscore the major financial, legal, and operational consequences for violent hate – even beyond the significant impacts this case has already had,” she said in a statement. “And at a moment of rising extremism, major threats to our democracy, and far too little justice, this case has provided a model for accountability.”

Co-lead counsel Roberta Kaplan and Karen Dunn said in a joint statement that the verdict gives plaintiffs “the justice they deserve after the horrific weekend of violence and intimidation in August 2017.”

“Today’s verdict sends a loud and clear message that facts matter, the law matters, and that the laws of this country will not tolerate the use of violence to deprive racial and religious minorities of the basic right we all share to live as free and equal citizens,” they said.

Hundreds of white nationalists descended on Charlottesville over two days in August 2017 for the rally, ostensibly organised around their objection to the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E Lee from public view.

A crowd chanted “Jews will not replace us” and “blood and soil” as men marched with lit tiki torches on the University of Virginia campus. The following day, white supremacists and hate groups armed with clubs and rifles clashed with counter protestors, and Fields, 22, accelerated his car into a crowd and killed Ms Heyer and injured 35 others. He was convicted of first-degree murder and pleaded guilty to 29 of 30 federal hate crime charges and sentenced to life in prison in 2019.

For nearly a month, jurors reviewed mounds of evidence, including video of the car attack, and testimony from nine plaintiffs, as well as racist vitriol from the defendants.

Unlike in a criminal trial, in which the jury must find guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt” to reach a guilty verdict, US District Court Judge Norman Moon told jurors that they must agree that they found a “preponderance of evidence” to validate the plaintiffs’ claims.

The lawsuit targeting Fields and several others involved with the rally tried to rely on the 150-year-old Ku Klux Klan Act, which initially sought to combat the white supremacist group in the aftermath of the Civil War. The law has been invoked in two cases against former president Donald Trump and his allies for their role in the 6 January attack on the US Capitol.

Jurors ultimately could not reach a unanimous decision on whether to convict on that federal civil rights law.

The lawsuit lists some of the most well-known figures among American hate groups, including Mr Kessler, among the chief organisers of the rally, and Mr Spencer, a white nationalist who was taken credit for coining the term “alt-right” and represented himself at the trial.

Mr Cantwell, a white supremacist labelled a “crying Nazi” for posting a tear-filled video after learning of charges against him for pepper-spraying protesters during the tiki torch rally, also represented himself, and appeared to try to hijack the proceedings as a “tremendous opportunity” to promote his ideology.

As cities across the US revived debate about the removal of Jim Crow-era monuments to Civil War figures and events, erected largely as part of a Lost Cause campaign a generation after the war, violent white supremacists increasingly came to their defence.

The events in Charlottesville brought mainstream attention to the resurgence of far-right extremism and online-driven hate and conspiracy theories, and how white nationalists organise through online networks.

“Defendants brought with them to Charlottesville the imagery of the Holocaust, of slavery, of Jim Crow, and of fascism,” plaintiffs alleged in their complaint. “They also brought with them semiautomatic weapons, pistols, mace, rods, armor, shields, and torches.”

At a press conference in the aftermath of the Charlottesville attack, then-president Trump appeared to suggest blame for the rally’s violence lay “on both sides” as reporters sought to understand whether he was providing a moral equivalence to white supremacists and what Mr Trump called the “alt-left”.

He added: “They didn’t put themselves – and you had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides. You had people in that group. Excuse me, excuse me. I saw the same pictures as you did. You had people in that group that were there to protest the taking down of, to them, a very, very important statue and the renaming of a park from Robert E Lee to another name.”

Joe Biden, who has pointed to images of the attacks in Charlottesville as what motivated him to run for president, announced in his campaign that Mr Trump’s “very fine people” remarks had “assigned a moral equivalence between those spreading hate and those with the courage to stand against it.”

In the days and months that followed, the former president, who once supported removing such statues from public view, began to weaponise division over the debate, painting a vision of a nation under attack that critics have called a racist dog whistle signalling the erasure of so-called white identity.

Mr Biden has repeatedly invoked the events in Charlottesville as emblematic of the “battle for the soul of America,” among one of his campaign themes.

“What happened in Charlottesville – and securing the promise of America for every American – motivated me to run for president and now motivates my Administration’s work to ensure that hate has no safe harbor in America,” he said in a White House statement in August.

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