For Charlottesville Survivors And Activists, The Work Goes On

The "Unite the Right" civil trial is highlighting progressive efforts to make positive changes in the Virginia community.

In the coming days, a dozen jurors will decide whether a group of extremists owe money ― potentially millions ― to some of the people they terrorized four years ago during a horrifically racist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Integrity First for America, the nonprofit funding the civil lawsuit alongside nine plaintiffs, has indicated an aim to bankrupt the two dozen defendants, a mix of individuals and organizations that share similar hateful ideologies.

For some of the city’s progressive activists, though, the trial is more of a hum in the background.

Kathryn Laughon, a University of Virginia nursing professor involved with anti-fascist and anti-racist community efforts, told HuffPost that it’s “just one part of the larger work that’s gone on” in recent years.

The “Unite the Right” rally in 2017 grabbed international headlines as photos and images from the event ― men shouting racist and antisemitic slogans while holding lit torches ― evoked memories of the Jim Crow South and Nazi-era Germany. The day the rally was slated to take place, an Ohio man, James Alex Fields, drove his car into a group of counterprotesters. One woman was killed, while others suffered painful injuries.

What it also did was draw residents’ attention toward their city’s history and structural problems that perpetuate inequality. It had a galvanizing effect for progressive causes, Laughon told HuffPost, noting that she considered herself “a run-of-the-mill liberal up to the summer of 2017.”

In recent weeks, Charlottesville residents have moved forward on plans to reform zoning laws that have origins in racism ― laws prioritizing single-family homes that were designed to perpetuate segregation and exclude people of color from living in certain areas. The city has a plan to change its gifted education program to address racial inequity. Last year, Charlottesville City Schools announced it would no longer employ school resource officers, as part of a nationwide push to remove police from schools amid concerns over how nonwhite people are treated by law enforcement.

During the most uncertain days of the coronavirus pandemic, mutual aid groups provided food to people impacted by layoffs and personal protective equipment to front-line workers.

“Institutions that were created in the organizing for 2017, relationships that were built, that brought us together to do that,” Laughon said.

The Confederate monument that inspired “United the Right” ― a statue of Robert E. Lee that some Charlottesville residents were petitioning to remove in 2017 ― was finally taken down last summer. Other Confederate memorials have also been dismantled across the state.

“We’ve had a lot of victories against white supremacy,” said Ben Doherty, a librarian at the University of Virginia’s law library who does community organizing.

The trial currently underway is a reminder of the “ongoing” effects of the summer of 2017, Doherty said.

Jurors began deliberations on Friday and are slated to continue next week until they reach their decisions, guided by a long set of instructions.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs took about three weeks to make their case. They called three dozen witnesses who included experts and the plaintiffs themselves, whose injuries ranged from post-traumatic stress disorder to concussions to various broken bones that have led to expensive medical bills.

“I hope people are seeing how traumatic this was not only to the plaintiffs who are brave enough to put themselves out there in the trial, but for all the survivors of Aug. 11 and 12,” Doherty told HuffPost.

“For every defendant you’ve heard, I can name many other people who probably have nearly identical stories, and who have the same sequela ― the same medical costs, all these things ― who, for various reasons, are not part of the lawsuit,” Laughon said.

One such woman, Tadrint Washington, was sitting in a car with her sister waiting for the counterprotesters to clear the road when Fields’ car slammed into her rear bumper, throwing her forward. Molly Conger, a Charlottesville resident who has been tirelessly tweeting updates on the “Unite the Right” trial, urged her nearly 120,000 Twitter followers to support Washington earlier this week; Washington says the injuries she endured triggered health problems that make it difficult for her to earn a living, according to her GoFundMe page.

Emily Gorcenski, a data scientist and activist who was repeatedly attacked by white supremacist defendants at the “Unite the Right” trial, emphasized the long view in a previous interview with HuffPost.

“Charlottesville is an ongoing story with ongoing struggles, and has been for 400 years and will be for another 400 years,” Gorcenski said. “If we really want to understand what this case is truly about, it is about the right for the people here to seek freedom to shape a community the way that fits them.”

Doherty echoed those sentiments: “Whatever the outcome might be, what people should take away from this, is just keep showing up.”

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