By DENISE LAVOIE, Associated Press
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) – Violence at the white nationalist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville has shocked the nation, with people beaten to the ground, lit torches thrown at counter-protesters and a self-proclaimed Hitler admirer pushing down his car into a crowd, killing one woman and injuring dozens more.
The driver of this car is serving a life sentence for murder and hate crimes. Now, more than four years later, a civil trial will determine whether the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who staged the protests should also be held accountable.
Jury selection began Monday for the trial in Charlottesville U.S. District Court, which is expected to last for a month.
The lawsuit was funded by Integrity First for America, a nonprofit formed in response to the violence in Charlottesville with the goal of disarming the instigators of the violence through litigation.
He accuses some of the country’s best-known white nationalists of orchestrating a “meticulously planned plot” to commit violence against blacks, Jews and others on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion. religion and sexual orientation. A firestorm erupted after then-President Donald Trump did not firmly denounce white nationalists, saying there were “very good people on both sides.”
Hundreds of white nationalists descended on Charlottesville on August 11-12, 2017, ostensibly to protest the city’s plan to remove a statute from Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
The nearly two dozen defendants are: Jason Kessler, the main organizer of the rally, who calls himself a “white civil rights” leader; Richard Spencer, who coined the term âalt-rightâ to describe a loosely connected group 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 an arrest warrant was issued for his arrest for assault for using pepper spray against counter-demonstrators.
The plaintiffs include four people who were injured when James Alex Fields Jr. crashed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters.
The case is based on a large collection of chat room exchanges, social media posts and other communications in which the defendants use racial epithets and discuss plans for the protests, including weapons to bring.
The plaintiffs’ lawyers rely on a 150-year-old law passed after the civil war to protect freed slaves from violence and protect their civil rights.
Commonly known as the Ku Klux Klan Act, the law contains a rarely used provision that allows individuals to prosecute other citizens for civil rights violations. To get a judgment, plaintiffs must prove that defendants conspired to commit racially-motivated violence and planned it in advance – and that plaintiffs were injured as a result.
“This is the only case that really takes the leadership and organization of the white supremacist movement,” said Karen Dunn, one of the trial’s lead attorneys.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs say they amassed 5.3 terabytes of digital communications from the defendants, many of them on the online platform Discord initially disclosed by Unicorn Riot, a left-wing media collective.
The lawsuit alleges that there were “countless exhortations to violence” on Discord, including one by a defendant who allegedly wrote: “I’m ready to break skulls” and another who wrote: “This is going to go crazy. . Bring your boots.
A third reportedly wrote: “The time is fast approaching when, in all the white towns of the West, corpses will be piled in the streets as high as men can stack them.”
But white nationalists named as the accused claim that talking about weapons and fighting was only meant in case they had to defend themselves against counter-protesters. They claim that their communications are protected by the First Amendment.
“You can say any nasty thing about any person or group you want that is protected by the First Amendment. It’s not me saying that, it’s the Supreme Court,” said W. Edward ReBrook IV, lawyer for Jeff Schoep, the longtime former leader of the neo-Nazi group the Nationalist Socialist Movement and one of the defendants.
Spencer, who the Southern Poverty Law Center calls “a suit and tie version of former white supremacists,” joined his fellow white nationalists at the University of Virginia on Aug. 11. Participants carried tiki torches and walked to a statue of Thomas. Jefferson chanting “The Jews will not replace us.”
The plaintiffs allege that the defendants and their co-conspirators surrounded counter-protesters, kicked and punched people and climbed to the top of the statue shouting “Hail Spencer!” Â»Â« Hi Victoire! Spencer told the crowd, “We own these streets!”
Spencer, who is representing himself at the trial, told The Associated Press he did not help plan the event and was not involved in any conspiracies to commit racially-motivated violence. He said he was eager to tell his story to the jury, noting that emotions were still high over the events in Charlottesville.
âI also think people don’t have a closed feeling about Charlottesville, so in a way, they want to achieve some type of purging of a bad feeling, they want to engage in what is indeed a scapegoat, âSpencer said.
Elizabeth Sines, the main complainant, said she was still haunted by the violence she saw over the weekend, including Fields crashing her car into the crowd.
âIt changed who I am forever,â Sines said in a statement released by his lawyers. “The organizers of the Unite the Right rally robbed me of my ability to feel safe, secure, at ease, even in my own home.”
The lawsuit seeks unspecified monetary damages and a ruling that the defendants violated the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights.
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