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Unite the Right case and other national lawsuits highlight U.S political divisions

People march with signs
Steve Helber/AP
Demonstrators march on the campus of the University of Virginia in anticipation of the one year anniversary of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Saturday, Aug. 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Last week, Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted of five counts of homicide and endangerment, stemming from a Black Lives Matter protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Today, a jury in Georgia convicted three men of murdering Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, in 2020. Court cases are ongoing in connection to the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot, which some historians and experts say was rooted in ‘white rage,’ a violent form of identity politics that stems from white supremacist ideas.

And in Charlottesville this week, a group of nine residents won $25 million in damages against 20 white supremacist organizers and groups. A jury found the white nationalists responsible for physical and emotional damages caused by the 2017 Unite the Right rally. Almost half of the fines were levied against James Alex Fields Jr., an Ohio man who’s serving a federal sentence for a car attack during the rally.

Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, says each of the cases share themes about race and criminal justice, “and at a kind of basic level about politics, and especially the divisions in the United States over these types of issues.

“[The rally] was a watershed moment for people in this country, to show what can happen with far-right groups and individuals,” he said, noting it took place years before the shootings in Wisconsin or Georgia.

The white nationalists, including Christopher Cantwell and Jason Kessler, also violated Virginia’s criminal conspiracy law — but the jury returned no verdict on claims that the nationalists had broken a federal law known as the KKK Act which is specific to conspiracies to commit racial violence.

NAACP of Virginia Executive Director Da’Quan Love says it’s concerning that the jury did not reach a conclusion on those claims.

“We have no doubt that there was racial motivation for those individuals who travelled to Charlottesville and did what they did,” Love said.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys took years to dig up a trove of texts, emails and social media posts in an effort to prove racial animus and premeditation. According to Tobias, it’s a major reason the case took so long to get to trial. But it takes only one juror in the consensus-based federal system to bar a conviction. Since there was no consensus, no official vote was taken.

Tobias says the huge sum the defendants have been ordered to pay will keep them from operating effectively and planning future rallies.

“The idea here is to punish and send a message and deter the specific defendants “and others that might be inclined to engage in similar behavior,” Tobias said.

This tactic of demonetizing and deplatforming appeared to be effective even in the pre-trial stage, when it was reported that neo-Nazi Richard Spencer could not afford legal representation.

Regardless, Love says what the NAACP really wants to see is criminal charges for the defendants.

“These crimes deserve consequences that cannot just be fundraised their way out of,” Love said. He’s concerned that not handing out firmer punishments now will result in more racial violence down the line.

The VA NAACP is not actively involved in the case, but advocates for the Department of Justice or law enforcement to actively pursue racial violence charges in this case and many more.

The defendants can file for an appeal in the case.

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.
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