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White nationalists stand trial on Monday in Charlottesville for Unite the Right violence

Two people look at memorial
Aaliyah Jones, right, and Kenny Winston, both of Charlottesville, share a moment at the memorial of their friend, Heather Heyer, who was killed during the Unite the Right rally. (Photo: Steve Helber/AP)

Content Warning: This article concerns white nationalism and quotes antisemitic phrases

More than four years after the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, the people who helped organize the protests will stand trial.

In a federal lawsuit filed in 2017, Charlottesville-area residents accuse leaders of far-right and white nationalist groups of coordinating efforts to carry out violence in the city. The suit names more than 20 individuals and groups, including Richard Spencer, Christopher Cantwell and Vanguard America.

The complaint uses the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, which was adopted during Reconstruction to thwart attacks on Black people after the Civil War. The case hinges on the plaintiffs’ ability to prove organizers had violent, racially-motivated intentions.

“What will come out in the evidence presented at trial has never been heard or seen before and is even more horrifying than what’s out there already,” said Amy Spitalnick, executive director of Integrity First for America. The non-profit civil rights organization is backing the lawsuit.

Far-right groups traveled to Charlottesville on August 11 and 12, 2017 with weapons, shields and banners emblazoned with swastikas to protest the removal of Confederate statues. They carried tiki torches and chanted “Seig Heil” and “Jews will not replace us” among other phrases.What followed were violent clashes with counter protesters, numerous injuries and three deaths.

Leaked transcripts from chat rooms revealed detailed planning and discussions about the potential violence. Spitalnick says plaintiffs’ attorneys have collected 5.3 terabytes of additional evidence including text messages, emails and social media chats that support their case.

“It’s just replete with the most horrific, antisemitic, racist and other bigoted commentary,” she said.

Defendants deny they conspired to commit violence. Joshua Smith is an attorney for three of the defendants, the Traditionalist Worker Party, Matthew Heimbach and Matthew Parrott.

“What we’re probably going to end up seeing is a lot of stuff where basically all that they’re saying is, ‘There was this rally. It was planned. It happened. And also people that went there made racially insensitive remarks or are racist,’” Smith said. “That isn’t sufficient to show racial animus to commit specific violence at that event.”

Smith argues counter-protesters instigated much of the violence and calls the plaintiffs’ invoking of the Klan Act tenuous.

“I don’t like the idea of utilizing old statutes that were passed for very specific reasons to be expanded in novel ways in order to attack political opposition that we don’t like,” he said.

Randolph McLaughlin is a civil rights attorney in New York. He says that “old statute” was never actually successfully used until 1982 when he represented five African American women in a lawsuit against the Chattanooga,Tennessee branch of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

“We argued to the jury, successfully, that racially motivated violence was a badge and incident of slavery,” he said.  “If they’re arguing, as we did, that the 13th Amendment is at play, then that’s helpful, because I think we have a precedent in Chattanooga that can help them.”

The trial’s first couple of days will focus on jury selection followed by opening arguments. Several prominent defendants are expected to testify, including Richard Spencer and Christopher Cantwell. Cantwell will be transported to the court from federal prison, where he is serving a sentence for an unrelated conviction.

The plaintiffs are asking for monetary damages and a civil injunction against further acts of violence. That would mean if the defendants commit violence moving forward, a judge can hold them in criminal contempt of the courts’ order and sentence them to prison.

Spitalnick says this case will make clear that there are consequences for violence and extremism.

“Unite the Right is not just an isolated incident,” she says. “It was a preview of the extremism and the violence that’s become far too normalized in this country.”

The trial will run through Nov. 19.

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.