Lawyers for the plaintiffs cited 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.
Hundreds of white nationalists descended on Charlottesville for the Unite the Right rally on August 11-12, 2017, apparently to protest the city’s plan to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. During a march on the University of Virginia campus, white nationalists chanted “The Jews will not replace us,” surrounded the counter-demonstrators and threw tiki torches at them. The next day, an avowed admirer of Adolf Hitler crashed his car into a crowd of counter-demonstrators, killing one woman and injuring dozens more.
Then-President Donald Trump sparked a political storm when he did not immediately denounce white nationalists, saying there were “very good people on both sides.”
The driver of the car, James Alex Fields Jr., is serving a life sentence for murder and hate crimes. Fields is one of 24 defendants named in the lawsuit funded by Integrity First for America, a nonprofit civil rights organization formed in response to the violence in Charlottesville.
The trial accused some of the country’s best-known white nationalists of plotting the violence, including Jason Kessler, the main organizer of the rally; Richard Spencer, who coined the term “alt-right” 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 trial featured moving testimonies from people who were hit by Fields’ car or witnessed the attacks as well as complainants who were beaten or subjected to racist taunts.
Melissa Blair, who was pushed aside when Fields’ car crashed into the crowd, described the horror of seeing her fiancé bleeding on the sidewalk and later learning that her friend, Heather Heyer, 32, had been killed.
“I was confused. I was scared. I was worried about all the people who were there. It was a scene of complete terror. There was blood everywhere. I was terrified,” said Blair, who cried several times during his testimony.
During their testimony, some of the defendants used racial epithets and defiantly expressed their support for white supremacy. They also blamed each other and the anti-fascist political movement known as the Antifa for the violence that erupted over the weekend. Others testified that they only resorted to violence after they or their associates were attacked by counter-demonstrators.
“We were coming to the aid of our friends and allies who were being beaten by the Communists,” said Michael Tubbs, chief of staff of the Southern League, a southern nationalist organization.
In closing arguments before the jury, the defendants and their lawyers tried to distance themselves from Fields and said the plaintiffs had not proven that they had conspired to commit violence at the rally.
The plaintiffs’ attorneys showed the jury a vast collection of chat room exchanges, text messages and social media posts by the defendants to demonstrate the extent of their pre-rally communications and try to prove their claim according to which they had planned the violence well in advance.
“If you want a chance to smash Antifa skulls in self-defense, don’t open the transport,” Kessler wrote in a message about two months before the rally. “You will scare them and they will just stand to the side. “
White nationalists argued that there was no conspiracy and that their vehement speech before the rally was rhetorical and is protected by the First Amendment.
Prior to trial, Judge Norman Moon issued default judgments against seven other defendants who refused to respond at trial. The court will decide on damages against these defendants.