More than four years after a lethal demonstration by far-right extremists in Virginia, the organizers of the event are facing a civil trial to determine whether they should be held responsible for the chaos that followed.
The “Unite the Right” rally that took place on the night of August 11, 2017, in Charlottesville, was seen as a defining moment in recent American history.
An alleged neo-Nazi attacked the demonstrators with his car, killing one and injuring dozens.
Now, nine people injured in the violence are suing 24 of the organizers and promoters, some of whom have gained notoriety as self-styled “alt-right” leaders. The jury selection began on Monday and the trial is expected to start as early as this week.
Here’s what we know.
- “A Battle for the Soul of America”
- Charlottesville forward: I regret my actions
- The black man who defied the Klan
What is the cause?
The lawsuit claims that the defendants “conspired to plan, promote and carry out the violent events” that took place during the demonstration.
“The defendants took pictures of the Holocaust, slavery, Jim Crow and fascism with them to Charlottesville,” says the lawsuit. “They also brought with them semi-automatic weapons, pistols, clubs, rods, armor shields and torches.”
The plaintiffs’ attorneys say they have collected more than 5.3 terabytes of evidence, including social media posts and chat room exchanges from the Discord messaging platform.
The lawsuit calls for an 1871 law passed after the American Civil War, originally intended to protect black Americans from the Ku Klux Klan after their emancipation from slavery.
The law allows private citizens to sue others who are believed to have committed civil rights violations. Plaintiffs, however, must prove that the defendants conspired to do so and that injuries resulted.
“This is 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 concerned about after the civil war,” the lawyer said. Roberta Kaplan from the Washington Post.
The cause is supported by a campaign group, Integrity First for America.
“The goal, first and foremost, is accountability for the defendants and justice for the plaintiffs and the Charlottesville community,” said the group’s executive director, Amy Spitalnick.
What is the defense team saying?
Defendants include leading figures from the American and far-right white nationalist movement, including Jason Kessler, the rally’s main organizer, 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 “Weeping Nazi” Christopher Cantwell – so nicknamed for a tearful interview he gave in the aftermath of the demonstration – are representing themselves in court.
Many of the defendants also said that the mentions of violence, fighting and weapons before the event referred to the possibility of having to defend themselves against counter-demonstrators.
Some have claimed that their communications are protected by their constitutional rights.
“You can say anything bad you want about any person or group that you want and that is protected by the First Amendment,” Edward ReBrook IV, a lawyer for one of the defendants, former Socialist Nationalist leader Jeff, told The Associated Press. Schoep. . “I’m not saying it, this is the Supreme Court.”
Many of the defendants and their lawyers did not respond to BBC requests for comment.
The applicants have already received judgments in absentia against seven of the defendants who refused to cooperate.
What happened to the murder trial?
The man who drove his car into a crowd of 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 Ohio neo-Nazi, Fields pleaded guilty to 29 of 30 federal hate crimes as part of a deal with prosecutors, who agreed not to seek the death penalty.
Upon his sentencing in 2019, Fields apologized for the “hurt and loss” he caused at the Unite the Right event.
“Every day I think about how things could have turned out differently and how I regret my actions,” he said. “Excuse me.”
In December 2018, Fields was also convicted of statewide murder.
How could this court case affect future rallies and protests?
Supporters of the plaintiffs have explicitly stated that they hope to bankrupt the organizers of Unite the Right and send a message to other far-right extremists and white supremacists in the future.
“A case like this can also have a much wider impact in making it clear that there will be very real consequences for violent extremism, discouraging others who are watching and understanding those consequences,” said Integrity First’s Spitalnick.
Mark Pitcavage, senior researcher at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, who has been monitoring far-right groups for decades, told the BBC that the case “has the potential to deal a severe blow to the white supremacist movement.”
Pitcavage said many rally organizers and attendees have already suffered consequences immediately after the rally.
These consequences ranged from job losses and expulsion from school after being publicly “exposed” 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 Charlottesville has turned out to be a debacle,” added Pitcavage. “It’s almost like a callback to backlash in 2017, reminding everyone how bad it went 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 highlights of his administration.
At the time, Trump was targeted from both sides of the political spectrum for comment at a press conference, in which he appeared to defend extremists as “very good people” and claimed that “many sides” were responsible for the violence. In subsequent statements, he denounced neo-Nazis and other white supremacist groups as “repulsive”.
Trump’s actions at that time later became a rallying cry for supporters of Democrat Joe Biden.
A 2020 campaign video declaring Biden’s candidacy began with the words “Charlottesville, Virginia”.
Biden called the event “a defining moment” for the United States.
- United States
“A Battle for the Soul of America”
- 9 August 2018
Charlottesville forward: I regret my actions
- June 28, 2019
The black man who defied the Klan
- 23 August 2018
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