The first day of high-profile litigation over the 2017 deadly white supremacist rally at Charlottesville, Virginia was dominated by plaintiffs’ lawyers. They argued that violence was orchestrated and planned by event organizers.

The defendants and their lawyers acknowledged their views are repugnant to most Americans, but contended police are to blame for the violence because they shut down a permitted rally and pushed opposing groups into the downtown streets, where mayhem ensued.

On Aug. 11, 2017, the “Unite the Right” rally began with lines of white men carrying torchbearers across the University of Virginia campus. They chanted, “Jews won’t replace us!”

It ended when neo-Nazi James Fields drove his car into a crowd, killing Heather Heyer. White supremacists and counterprotesters fought each other. In all, 35 people were injured.

Fields was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Six Charlottesville residents were among the six plaintiffs’ lawyers who played disturbing and dramatic videos of the rally on Thursday. They argued that the violence was pre-ordained by extremist leaders and white supremacist groups, and said they’ll be able to prove the defendants engaged in a conspiracy to commit violence.

“We expect, when the defendants stand up here today, they are going to continue the strategy of plausible deniability,”  said Karen Dunn, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs. They will claim this case is not about their execution or celebration of racially motivated aggression.

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White nationalist Richard Spencer, probably the best-known of the defendants, did just that. He argued that while he holds ideas that most Americans find abhorrent, he didn’t engage in any conspiracy to commit violence at the rally.

Spencer is among the 24 defendants. Seven have default judgments against them. 

Spencer expressed sorrow for Charlottesville’s tragic events and said that the chaos was not premeditated.

“The poet Robert Burns said that, ‘The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry,'” he said. When I think back to Charlottesville, it is clear that I made the wrong decisions.

Saying he views Charlottesville as “a kind of disaster and learning experience,” Spencer introduced the idea that Charlottesville police were largely responsible for the violence. 

White nationalist Richard Spencer (center) and his supporters clash with Virginia State Police in Emancipation Park after the "Unite the Right" rally was declared an unlawful gathering Aug. 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. Hundreds of white nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the "alt-right" clashed with anti-fascist protesters and police as they attempted to hold a rally in Emancipation Park, where a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee was slated to be removed.

In their opening remarks, plaintiffs’ attorneys said they have mountains of evidence showing otherwise. Plaintiffs’ attorneys stated that Spencer and other defendants communicated several weeks before protests began and brought flagpoles and mace to use against counterprotesters. 

Spencer countered by stating that he wasn’t fully engaged in the discussions and was only a participant.

In a long-winded, sometimes confusing rant, defendant Christopher Cantwell, who is serving a prison sentence for extortion and is representing himself in the civil suit, argued he wasn’t one of the key organizers. He too blamed the police.

Cantwell used his now-defunct radio stations to promote himself as an entertainer. He tried to appeal to jurors by saying they were smart people who would see the lawsuit ultimately as a spurious effort to limit the speech of American conservatives. Cantwell argued that his racist views don’t result from hatred and should be openly discussed. 

White nationalist Christopher Cantwell, left, shines a flashlight into the faces of counterprotesters and media cameras on Aug. 11, 2017, on the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville, Virginia.

W. Edward ReBrook (an attorney for Jeff Schoep, the neo Nazi National Socialist Movement which Schoep was a leader) took a similar approach, arguing that Charlottesville’s lawsuit had dire consequences for free expression.

Calling himself a “Thrice-vaccinated Democrat,” ReBrook said it would be “a waste of your time and my time time to try and humanize people who harbor beliefs that most of us would spend our last breaths opposing.”

ReBrook started to describe how the case could chill free speech, but Judge Norman Moon quickly shut him down.

The final straw for Moon came when ReBrook cited actor Brad Pitt’s character Aldo Raine in the 2009 Quentin Tarantino movie Inglorious Basterds.

“He said he likes his Nazis out in the open, in uniform – that way you can identify them,” ReBrook said. If they live underground, that won’t hold true. It is important to consider where they will be most dangerous.

Moon interjected quickly, reminding ReBrook that the lawsuit was about “money damages” only and that it is not about “other matters or ramifications that have no connection with the jury’s considerations.”

ReBrook abruptly ceased his opening statement.

This lawsuit against Charlottesville is just one of many civil actions that groups have brought to try and financially cripple extremists groups. 

Firefighters from northern Idaho and eastern Washington participate in fire training on July 11, 2001, climaxing with the destruction of the church structure at the former Aryan Nations compound in Hayden, Idaho. The only other structure then remaining at the compound was the former residence of Aryan Nations leader Richard Butler, which also was to be used for firefighter training.

In the 1980s and 90s, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed lawsuits against several chapters of the Ku Klux Klan on behalf of plaintiffs who had been intimidated or threatened. The lawsuits caused those chapters to file for bankruptcy or shut down. SPLC filed another lawsuit which led to bankruptcy for the Aryan nations in 2000.

The Charlottesville lawsuit already has hurt the defendants, a collection of the most notorious extremists in the country. Spencer has called the lawsuit “financially crippling,” and five-figure fines have been levied against some of the defendants for failing to produce evidence.

The trial is expected to continue for another two weeks, with the first of the plaintiffs testifying Friday morning. 

Source: USAToday.com

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