The civil trial over the deadly 2017 “Unite the Right” rally got underway in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Thursday as lawyers for community members argued that white nationalist organizers of the event planned for and encouraged violence.
“This is a case about violence and intimidation for these plaintiffs,” attorney Karen Dunn said in her opening statement in federal court. “They will tell you this is also a case about justice and accountability: accountability for those defendants who planned and perpetrated this violence thinking that they would get away with it.”
Dunn is representing nine Charlottesville community members who are suing organizers of the rally for what they argue was a conspiracy to commit acts of racial violence. The night of Aug. 11, 2017, dozens of neo-Nazis and white supremacists marched with tiki torches through the University of Virginia’s campus, at one point chanting “Jews will not replace us.” The following day, the extremists clashed with anti-racist counterprotesters before 20-year-old James Alex Fields Jr. intentionally drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, injuring dozens and killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Fields is now serving a life sentence for the attack.
Several of the plaintiffs were badly injured in the attack, including Marcus Martin, who pushed his fiancee out of the path of the oncoming vehicle and suffered a shattered leg and ankle when he was hit by Fields. Another plaintiff, Natalie Romero, had her skull fractured when she was struck by the vehicle. All nine plaintiffs say they have also suffered emotional damages from the day’s events. The nonprofit group Integrity First for America is funding the lawsuit.
The defendants in the case are 14 individuals including white supremacist leaders Richard Spencer, Jason Kessler and “crying Nazi” Christopher Cantwell, who all helped organize the rally, as well as Fields. The suit also names 10 neo-Nazi and white supremacist organizations. Spencer, who told a judge earlier this year that the lawsuit has been “financially crippling,” is representing himself.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs will need to show that organizers of the rally conspired to commit acts of violence ― even if they did not know each other beforehand ― and that the violence was racially motivated. As part of their evidence, lawyers for the plaintiffs say they will show jurors leaked private conversations among the extremists that reveal a lust for violence.
“Evidence is going to show you that many of the defendants were key players in the white nationalist movement,” Dunn said in her opening remarks. “Evidence will show that many of the defendants wanted to build a white ethnostate, a country only for white people, and that it could only occur after a violent race war. The evidence is going to show they wanted to build an army of white nationalists for what they themselves named the ‘battle of Charlottesville.’”
One leaked text between Kessler and Spencer two months before the rally highlights their plans for violence.
“We’re raising an army my liege,” Kessler texted Spencer. “For free speech, but the cracking of skulls if it comes to it.”
The majority of the planning was done through the chat service Discord, Dunn said. Hundreds of thousands of chats among neo-Nazis and white supremacists were also leaked by the independent media organization Unicorn Riot. Lawyers for the plaintiffs say they have sifted through 5.3 terabytes of online data related to the case.
“The defendants never expected their communications to see the light of day, much less be in a courtroom,” Dunn said.
Attorney James Kolenich, who is representing defendants Kessler and Nathan Damigo, argued that his clients aren’t responsible for the conduct of other “Unite the Right” participants, and shifted the blame to anti-fascists.
“[My clients] were planning for the possibility that antifa would attack them, as had happened before,” Kolenich said in his opening statement. “The anti-fascists go wherever the alt-right goes, and they do what they can to physically stop them from expressing their reprehensible ideas, and they are not afraid to use violence to do that.”
In his own opening statement, Spencer tried to distance himself from other white supremacists including Cantwell and Kessler, saying it was Kessler who was the primary organizer, and that he had little interaction with other organizers.
“Christopher Cantwell is also an acquaintance, not a friend,” Spencer told the court. “We ate lunch one time.”
But for all his attempts to distance himself from the day’s violence, slur-filled audio leaked in 2019 and played for the jury on Thursday revealed Spencer’s commitment to racial violence.
“We are coming back here like a hundred fucking times,” Spencer yelled in the leaked audio taken a day after the deadly rally. “I am so mad. I am so fucking mad at these people. They don’t do this to fucking me. We are going to fucking ritualistically humiliate them. I am coming back here every fucking weekend if I have to. Like this is never over. I win, they fucking lose! That’s how the world fucking works.”
Spencer continued: “Little fucking kikes. They get ruled by people like me. My ancestors fucking enslaved those little pieces of fucking shit. I rule the fucking world. Those pieces of fucking shit get ruled by people like me. They look up and see a face like mine looking down at them. That’s how the fucking world works. We are going to destroy this fucking town.”