Corrections/clarifications: This story originally misstated the number of plaintiffs.
Plaintiffs’ lawyers argued on the first day that violence at the Charlottesville white supremacist rally, 2017, was premeditated and orchestrated by its 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 clear-cut, 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.
On Thursday, nine Charlottesville residents played graphic and disturbing videos about the rally from lawyers representing the plaintiffs. 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 say that the case is not about their execution, planning and celebration of racially motivatedviolence.”
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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 one among 24 defendants. Seven have default judgments against them.
Spencer expressed sorrow for Charlottesville’s tragic events and said that the chaos was not predetermined.
“The poet Robert Burns said that, ‘The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry,'” he said. Charlottesville is the place where I see my worst-laid plans.
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.
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 radio show to promote himself as an entertaining entertainer. He also tried to convince the jurors that they were intelligent people who would see the lawsuit as an attempt to curtail American conservatives’ speech. Cantwell argued that his racist views don’t result from hatred and should be openly discussed.
W. Edward ReBrook was an attorney representing Jeff Schoep as well the neo Nazi National Socialist Movement. Schoep once led them. He argued that the Charlottesville suit has grave consequences for freedom of speech.
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. They won’t have that effect if they are underground. Ask yourself, “Where will they be more hazardous?”
Moon interjected quickly, reminding ReBrook that the lawsuit was about “money damages,” and not about “other matters or ramifications that have no connection with the jury’s considerations.”
ReBrook ended abruptly his first statement.
Charlottesville’s lawsuit is one more in a series of civil suits brought by organizations that want to financially cripple hate groups.
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.