Charlottesville: Why are the ‘Unite the Right’ organisers on trial?

Richard B Spencer
Richard Spencer, who coined the term "alt-right", was among the defendants

Over four years after a deadly far-right extremist rally in Virginia, organisers of the event are facing a civil trial to determine whether they should be held responsible for the chaos that ensued.

The “Unite the Right” rally that took place the night of 11 August 2017, in Charlottesville, was seen as a defining moment in recent American history.

An alleged neo-Nazi plowed into counter-protesters with his car, killing one and injuring dozens of other.

Now, nine people injured in the violence are suing 24 of the organisers and promoters, some of whom have gained notoriety as self-declared leaders of the “alt-right”. Jury selection began on Monday and a trial is due to start as early as this week.

Here’s what we know.

What is the lawsuit about?

The lawsuit alleges that the defendants “conspired to plan, promote and carry out the violent events” that took place at the rally.

“Defendants brought with them to Charlottesville the imagery of the Holocaust, of slavery, of Jim Crow and of fascism,” the lawsuit says. “They also brought with them semi-automatic weapons, pistols, mace, rods, armour shields and torches.”

Attorneys for the plaintiffs say they have collected more than 5.3 terabytes of evidence, including social media posts and chat room exchanges from messaging platform Discord.

The lawsuit invokes a 1871 law passed after the US Civil War, which was originally intended to protect black Americans from the Ku Klux Klan following their emancipation from slavery.

The law allows private citizens to sue others believed to have committed civil rights violations. The plaintiffs, however, must prove that the defendants conspired to do so and that injuries resulted.

“That’s just a testament to the fact that we have a situation in this country where people can credibly accuse others of committing the kind of act that Congress was worried about after the Civil War,” attorney Roberta Kaplan was quoted as saying by the Washington Post.

The lawsuit is backed by a campaign group, Integrity First for America.

“The goal, first and foremost, is accountability for the defendants and justice for the plaintiffs and for the community in Charlottesville,” said the group’s Executive Director, Amy Spitalnick.

The statue of General Robert E Lee
The statue of General Robert E Lee was towed away from Market Street Park, Charlottesville


What is the defence team saying?

The defendants include prominent figures in America’s white nationalist and far-right movement, including Jason Kessler, the rally’s main organiser and Richard Spencer, a white supremacist who famously coined the term “alt-right” and spoke at the event.

Some of the defendants, including Mr Spencer and “the crying Nazi” Christopher Cantwell – so nicknamed for a tearful interview he gave in the aftermath of the rally – are representing themselves in court.

Several of the defendants have also claimed that mentions of violence, combat and weapons ahead of the event were referencing the possibility of having to defend themselves from counter-protesters.

Some have said that their communications are protected by their constitutional rights.

“You can say any nasty thing you want about any person or group you want and that is protected by the First Amendment,” Edward ReBrook IV, an attorney for one of the defendants, former Nationalist Socialist Movement leader Jeff Schoep, told the Associated Press. “That’s not me saying that, that’s the Supreme Court.”

Several of the defendants and their lawyers did not respond to the BBC’s requests for comment.

The plaintiffs have already received default judgements against seven of the defendants who refused to cooperate.

What happened at the murder trial?

The man who drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters at the Charlottesville rally, James Alex Fields, was sentenced to life in prison in June 2019.

Four of the plaintiffs in the current lawsuit were injured in the incident, which killed Heather Heyer, 32.

A self-described neo-Nazi from Ohio, Fields pleaded guilty to 29 of 30 federal hate crimes as part of a deal with prosecutors, who agreed to not seek the death penalty.

At his sentencing in 2019, Fields apologised for the “hurt and loss” he caused at the Unite the Right event.

“Every day I think about how things could have gone differently and how I regret my actions,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

In December 2018, Fields was also convicted of murder at the state level.

How might this court case affect future rallies and protests?

Advocates for the plaintiffs have explicitly said that they hope to bankrupt the Unite the Right organisers and send a message to other far-right extremists and white supremacists in the future.

“A case like this can also have much broader impacts in making clear there will be very real consequences for violent extremism, deterring others who are looking on and understanding those consequences,” said Integrity First’s Ms Spitalnick.

Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, who has monitored far-right groups for decades, told the BBC that the case “has the potential to deal a blow to the white supremacist movement”.

Mr Pitcavage said that many rally organisers and attendees already suffered consequences in the immediate aftermath of the rally.

These consequences ranged from job losses and school expulsions after being publicly “outed” as white supremacists, to legal consequences such as the current lawsuit and Mr Field’s murder conviction.

“The trial itself serves white supremacists as a reminder of what a debacle Charlottesville turned out to be,” Mr Pitcavage added. “It’s almost like a booster shot to the backlash in 2017, reminding everyone how badly that turned out for white supremacists.”

How was Charlottesville a defining moment in US politics?

Opponents of former US President Donald Trump often refer to the incident as one of the defining moments of his administration.

At the time, Mr Trump came under fire from both sides of the political spectrum for comments at a news conference, in which he appeared to defend the extremists as “very fine people” and said “many sides” were responsible for the violence. In subsequent statements, he denounced neo-Nazis and other white supremacist groups as “repugnant”.

Mr Trump’s actions at the time later became a rallying cry for supporters of Democrat Joe Biden.

A 2020 campaign video declaring Mr Biden’s candidacy began with the words “Charlottesville, Virginia”.

Mr Biden has referred to the event as “a defining moment” for the United States.


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