As hundreds of white supremacists prepared to descend on Charlottesville, Virginia, 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 Unite the Right, the deadly two-day 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.
“One message of this case is that these events — like Charlottesville, like Jan. 6 — they’re not these spontaneous, flukish events that just happen,” said Karen Dunn, a prominent trial lawyer serving as co-lead counsel for the plaintiffs. “There is an enormous undercurrent of planning, of intent, and of purposefulness that we all need to wake up to.”
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 Unite the Right; 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.
“Their entire case is based around this concept that, like, we’re bad people because of the things we think, that are legally protected speech,” Heimbach said in an interview.
Most other defendants and their attorneys did not respond or declined requests for comment.
For Charlottesville residents, the trial will offer the most in-depth look yet at the violent incursion that stigmatized their city.
Brenda Brown-Grooms, a 66-year-old African American pastor, recalled the fear she felt when she saw the torch-bearing mob that Friday evening, Aug. 11, 2017. The next day, she said, she was at another church near the Lee statue and had to close the doors because chemical irritants from the rally were wafting into the building, stinging her eyes and throat.
The trial will force many residents to relive those visceral moments. Brown-Grooms calls it difficult, but necessary. “It’s a trauma we can’t avoid,” she said about the trial. “There’s a possibility of great good coming out of it.”
In 1870, with the KKK and other White mobs terrorizing Black citizens to deny them their post-emancipation rights, Congress passed three laws known collectively as the Enforcement Act to safeguard the right to vote, hold office and serve on juries.
The last of the laws, the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, “was designed to eliminate extralegal violence and protect the civil and political rights of four million freed slaves,” according to a history section of the U.S. House of Representatives’ website.
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 Unite the Right. 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.”
Already, the plaintiffs have received default judgments against seven defendants who refused to cooperate. Of those fighting the suit, Jason Kessler, Nathan Damigo, and the group Identity Evropa are represented by James Kolenich, a lawyer from Ohio who previously said he took on this case to “oppose Jewish influence in society.” Kolenich did not respond to a request for comment. His co-counsel, Elmer Woodard, replied with a one-word email: “No.”
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.
Spencer, who is representing himself after failing to pay his attorney, said it will be a “benefit” for him to be able to directly address the jury and cross-examine plaintiffs. He maintains that he went to Charlottesville for the Unite the Right rally as an invited speaker, not an organizer. In an interview, he made no excuses for his record of hate speech but denied conspiring with the other defendants about actions on the ground that weekend in Charlottesville.
“They’re tasked with proving that I entered into a conspiracy to commit or inspire or direct racially motivated violence,” Spencer said. “They’re not going to be able to demonstrate that.”
Joshua Smith, who is representing three of the defendants, including Heimbach, blames the day’s violence on the city’s lack of security preparation that put rallygoers and counterprotesters in the same area, a move the defendants say made clashes inevitable. They point to an independent report that found that Charlottesville security officials were ill-prepared for the rally, a failure that led to “disastrous results.”
W. Edward ReBrook IV, a lawyer representing Schoep and the National Socialist Movement, argued that the suit is motivated by “a desire for vengeance.”
“If not for the fact that the defendants are mostly white supremacists, the suit would have been dismissed years ago,” ReBrook said in a statement.
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.”
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The fiery scenes from those two days in August 2017 have made the name Charlottesville shorthand for the racism and bigotry that seeped into the mainstream under Donald Trump, whose comment that there were “very fine people, on both sides” of the event caused outrage even among some of his supporters.
“Charlottesville, Virginia,” were the first words Joe Biden said as he declared his 2020 candidacy in a campaign video that showed chilling scenes from the rally he called “a defining moment” for the nation. Since taking office, Biden repeatedly has invoked the city in discussions of far-right extremism, which federal authorities consider the deadliest and most active domestic threat. And when the White House in June unveiled the nation’s first strategy to combat domestic terrorism, Charlottesville was mentioned in the introduction.
Still, extremism analysts say, the nation’s problem with far-right violence did not begin on the streets of Charlottesville and will not end in a Charlottesville courtroom, even if the jury finds evidence of a conspiracy.
Words and images that were jolting in 2017 are now ingrained in the conservative mainstream, perhaps most notable being the “Great Replacement Theory,” the conspiratorial idea of an engineered demographic replacement of White Christians. That idea is frequently repeated by right-wing pundits such as Fox’s Tucker Carlson, who has millions of viewers.
“Repugnant, conspiratorial views that seemed bizarre and shocking to most Americans on Aug. 11 and 12, 2017, are absolutely being mainstreamed now every single day,” said Megan Squire, a professor in computer science at Elon University who tracks online far-right organizing, including the planning ahead of Unite the Right. “You can add vaccine conspiracies, COVID hoax conspiracies, QAnon-type stuff — it’s all completely mainstream on the right at this point.”
Pete Simi, a longtime researcher of far-right movements who will testify as an expert witness at the trial, said the trial’s importance is twofold. First, he said, it is important to “correct the historical record” by showing evidence that the violence was a planned feature of the two-day event, not a spontaneous outgrowth. Second, he added, pressure from the lawsuit already is hampering the defendants’ ability to operate and raise money.
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.
A few have walked back some of their most extreme views or even rejected the white power movement altogether. As if to show how out of step he is with today’s right-wing concerns, Spencer said that he voted for Biden, is fully vaccinated against the novel coronavirus, and views the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol as “utterly buffoonish.”
That sidelining impact is important, Simi said, because many of the defendants represent what was seen as the new guard of the white supremacist movement, which had lost veteran organizers to death and prison in the early 2000s. Squashing the emergence of new leaders through public pressure and the courts is useful, Simi said, but the problem is far more complex than can be remedied by a single lawsuit.
“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.”