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Lawsuit highlights how far-right groups planned Unite the Right in Charlottesville

Statue held by ropes
John C. Clark/AP
FR171764 AP
Workers remove the monument of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on Saturday, July 10, 2021 in Charlottesville, Va. The removal of the Lee statue follows years of contention, community anguish and legal fights. (AP Photo/John C. Clark)

It’s week two of the month-long trial against white nationalists who planned the 2017 Unite the Right rally. Testimony has been marked by defendants frequently digressing into conspiracy theories and lodging blame at plaintiffs and protesters on the left for the violence in Charlottesville.

The plaintiffs, nine former and current residents of Charlottesville who were injured during the rally, are trying to convince a jury that the defendants — more than 20 far-right individuals and groups — conspired to commit racially-motivated violence in Charlottesville on August 11 and 12.

Plaintiff’s attorneys have presented evidence through depositions, leaked online chats and letters that show organizers had violent intentions.

Earlier this week, jurors heard detailed evidence of hate groups and far-right leaders planning the event, directing participants to dress in khaki pants and polo shirts and contemplating whether it was legal to hit a protester with a car if they were blocking traffic.

Plaintiffs spent several hours examining Matthew Heimbach, who led the Traditionalist Worker Party. Heimbach said his members ditched the polo and khaki combo in favor of all-black attire, in part, he said, because “black hides blood.” 

Plaintiffs’ attorneys made the case that the shields defendants brought to the rally were used as weapons and not for protection. They say defendants used those shields and rolled-up flags to beat a 20-year-old Black man, DeAndre Harris, in a nearby parking garage.

Defendant Christopher Cantwell, who is representing himself in the trial, used cross examinations as an opportunity to glean information about the plaintiffs and his adversaries.  

“I want to know who infiltrated our communications,” he asked plaintiff’s witness Diane D’Costa, referring to the August 11 torch rally that was supposed to be “a secret event.”

Plaintiffs played a deposition from Samantha Froelich, a former member of Identity Evropa and ex-girlfriend of defendant Elliot Kline (Eli Mosley), who has refused to participate in the trial. Froelich described the group’s recruitment methods and how members were instructed to use humor and irony as a ploy to deny wrongdoing.

“As someone were to engage with the alt-right more, become radicalized themselves, you start to realize that they aren't jokes. It's a cover,” Froelich said. “It's how you get away with saying what you actually think, is by using a light tone when you say it.”

Plaintiffs also played a video deposition of Kline being confronted by their attorneys with old Discord conversations between himself and others. In the messages, he laughed about gassing Jewish people, bragged about roughing up liberals three times a week as a bodyguard for Richard Spencer and giving 12 stitches to an “antifa.”

“I’m obviously joking,” he tells the plaintiff’s attorney in the video.

This week introduced testimony from experts and witnesses. Plaintiffs asked Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of modern Jewish history and Holocaust studies at Emory College, to examine the evidence for Nazi symbolism. She found what she said was a “great deal” of overt antisemitism and adulation of the Third Reich.

During the trial, defendants including Heimbach have expressed fondness for Adolf Hitler and said they adhere to his ideas and writings.

Lipstadt was not asked to consider the alleged conspiracy, however.

The plaintiffs in the case are seeking unspecified damages under Virginia law and the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871. They’re also asking the court to bar defendants from similar actions in the future.

Jurors need only to find “a preponderance of the evidence” that organizers conspired to commit violence rather than the higher bar of “beyond reasonable doubt” required in criminal trials.

One of the defendants, James Alex Fields, was sentenced in 2019 to life in prison for driving his car into a crowd of protesters, killing counter-protester Heather Heyer.

Defendants have largely refused to acknowledge that Fields intentionally drove his Dodge Challenger into the crowd on a narrow Charlottesville street, referring to it as an “accident.”

Plaintiffs’ attorneys provided evidence that organizers supported Fields following the attack, put money into his prison account and wrote him letters of solidarity.

​​”I view his prosecution as being severely politically motivated,” Heimbach said while being examined by plaintiff’s attorney Karen Dunn, “a modern political lynching.”

The trial is slated to end on Nov. 19. 

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.