TTwo blocks from the oaks and boxwoods slowly turning amber in the downtown Charlottesville park that saw one of the most violent political confrontations of the Trump era is the narrowly federal courtroom secure where the origins of the racist chaos that struck this weekend in mid-August in 2017 are now subject to forensic examination.
Nearly four years after the event, a sprawling civil lawsuit alleging a plot to commit racist violence against nine Charlottesville residents during the white supremacist march and rally Unite the Right brings together some of the most notorious figures of the American alt-right movement.
The case, Sines v Kessler, alleges that 14 people, including Richard Spencer and podcaster Chris Cantwell, white nationalists who represent themselves in court, and 10 far-right groups, including Vanguard America, Identity Evropa and the traditionalist Workers’ Party, violated an obscure federal law known as the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 citing “a plot to obstruct civil rights”.
A diverse jury, identified only by numbers, heard evidence that white nationalists violated the constitutional rights of nine plaintiffs who were injured or emotionally scarred, and who are now seeking compensation. Jurors need only find “a preponderance of the evidence” to assert the responsibility of the defendants.
But some of the defendants are missing, most say they are now broke, and some are using the case as a stage to make their views known.
The statue of Confederate General Robert E Lee, which white nationalists have rallied to rally behind, has been withdrawn, but the political escalation of the chaos over the weekend, which left one young woman dead and 14 injured, continues .
Last weekend, a political coup orchestrated by the Lincoln Project designed to tie Republican Governor-elect of Virginia Glenn Youngkin to the riot appeared to backfire. Charlottesville’s Democratic City Council later condemned the organizers for seeing their city “as nothing more than a political meme, and parading white supremacists around our city as nothing more than a political cosplay.”
But the case and its outcome may have a political rather than a legal purpose. A Democratic lawmaker has filed a similar complaint against those involved in the Capitol Riot that calls Trump, his lawyer Rudy Giuliani and members of far-right groups Proud Boys and Oath Keepers as conspirators.
Yet last week the defendants in the Charlotttesville case, some voicing intra-white nationalist grievances, others portraying Charlottesville as a defensive dusting off with the anti-fascist group Antifa, occasionally prompted presiding judge Norman Moon to rub shoulders. eyes with exasperation.
An inaccurate reading of the American neo-Nazi movement is that those with shaved heads and swastika tattoos that you can see approaching, while preppie extremists, in suits or uniforms of dark shirts, khaki pants, and of New Balance sneakers, are more problematic because, as the lawsuit claims, they plan ahead.
It is those of the second order who are prosecuted in Charlottesville. A massive security device for plaintiffs and attorneys for Integrity First For America, a group supported by George Soros’ Open Society, is outside the courthouse.
This is alarming about the apparent contact between Cantwell, who has pleaded guilty to charges related to pepper spraying counter-protesters and is serving federal prison time for extortion, and Matt Hale, the former head of the Church. Creator’s World, a racist ’90s skinhead group. Hale is currently serving a 40-year sentence for seeking the murder of a federal judge.
Defendants say the Unite the Right rally and march, authorized to assemble through Charlottesville, was designed to protest the city’s plan to remove General Lee and his horse, Traveler, from its imposing plinth. After a series of prior confrontations with the Antifa counter-protesters, they braced for violence.
But authorities in Charlottesville did so too, deploying 1,000 law enforcement officers to keep the peace – and failing – before Governor Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency. Last week, the court heard living testimony from their experience of what far-right planners and promoters call “Charlottesville 2.0”.
Natalie Romero, complainant and first witness to testify in the case, recalled that neo-Nazi James Fields fractured his skull in the same attack that killed 32-year-old counter-protester Heather Heyer. Fields was convicted of first degree murder and several counts of aggravated malicious injury. He was sentenced to life imprisonment plus 419 years.
Romero testified that she witnessed the torchlight parade and heard chants of “blood and dirt” like “almost like thunder.” As if the earth was rumbling.
Another University of Virginia student Devin Willis, also a plaintiff, was able to hear white supremacists chanting “you will not replace us” before appearing in an “ocean of light and flame.” He added that the column “looked like a mob of lynchings”.
The court heard from Holocaust expert Deborah Lipstadt, recently appointed a US special envoy to combat and monitor Joe Biden’s anti-Semitism. (Biden kicked off his presidential campaign with a video denouncing the Charlottesville rally which he called a “defining moment” for the nation.)
Lipstadt was asked to identify phrases and symbols used by organizers and protesters, some to covertly signal right-wing extremism in online forums, others using heraldic-like shields to signal particular shading of the bearer of neo-Nazi ideology.
“I don’t get easily surprised, but I was taken aback,” Lipstadt said.
But the nationalists’ deep attachment to racist symbolism does not, legally, always establish the racist conspiracy. Cantwell had indicated that the tiki torches, for use in the torchlight parade, could be purchased inexpensively at Walmart. Richard Spencer, founder of the National Policy Institute, a white supremacist think tank, said claims that such parades only evoked the Third Reich were “ludicrous.”
“The general feeling is the mystery and magic of fire and darkness,” he explained.
The defendants asserted that the pre-Charlottesville prejudicial conversations at the heart of the case were superficial and hyperbolic. The Nazi salutes, comments that “portable ovens are where they are” and other inflammatory remarks are a “subcultural thing to be weird and dumb,” Spencer said.
Matthew Heimbach, one of the founders of the neo-Nazi Party of Traditionalist Workers, said members of the far right went to great lengths to consider “the most outrageous things we can do to troll and create ‘outrage in the media and get a reaction’.
“They really fell for it,” he added.
The sometimes comical bickering and betrayal between white nationalists, or their use of semantic decoys like “See Kyle” for “Heil Hitler,” should not be misunderstood, testified Samantha Froelich, former member of the white nationalist group Identity Evropa and girlfriend of its founder Elliot Kline, aka Elliot Mosely.
Even their humor, which is by turns horrible, bombastic, and quarrelsome, was a “way that if someone would call you up and say, ‘Hey, this is really a disgusting ideology’, you might turn around and say: this is it. just a joke, we don’t think so. Even if they did.
In an exchange last week, Heimbach described Spencer in costume, invoking Nietzsche, as a “candle.”
“I’ve always thought of you as a bit of a dandy,” Heimbach said.
“Have you ever seen me wearing boat shoes?” Spencer asked.
“Not over my head, but that wouldn’t surprise me,” Heimbach retorted.
The outcome of the trial may prove, like any subsequent action based on the Ku Klux Klan Act case of 1871 around the Capitol Riot, more useful in bringing the neo-Nazi movements of the Trump era into the Federal Court official record only to demand monetary compensation from the defendants.
According to Christina Rivera, co-chair of Congregate Charlottesville, a complainant: “We want people to remember that being actively anti-racist and anti-fascist is the reason we do this work.
The court has already issued default judgments against seven defendants, including neo-Nazis Elliot Kline and Robert “Azzmador” Ray, who refused to comply with court orders to hand over electronic devices. Authorities have been looking for Ray, described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a tough-talking brawler, since June 2018.
Andrew Anglin, who publishes the hate site Daily Stormer, faces a $ 14 million judgment for orchestrating an anti-Semitic harassment campaign against a missing Montana real estate agent suspected of being overseas . Jeff Schoep, former commander of the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement, has said his cell phone “accidentally” fell into the toilet, making it impossible to retrieve potential evidence, and claims to have reformed his view.
But in a phone call to the Guardian on Thursday, the defendant Heimbach dismissed the proceedings as a “show trial.” He claimed that trying to link Nazi Germany to America in 2017 showed that “the plaintiffs were trying to do a Hollywood production in the courtroom.”
He admitted that those on trial weren’t really a unified threat, at least since they had marched together. “The far right is fundamentally fractured ideologically and can hardly sit together in the same room. “