A Trial Over Hate
Terry H. Schwadron
Oct. 26, 2021
What I find most interesting to contemplate in the civil trial of events surrounding the 2017 Charlottesville, Va. violence now getting underway is the defense.
It’s taken this long for a civil action seeking punishing financial payments to come to court, despite the obvious effects that the Charlottesville actions had on ripping open the poisonous wells of racial and ethnic hatred that seem to live on just under our, well, American skins.
After all, we understand the argument of the nine victims bringing the lawsuit here on behalf of others that neo-Nazis and white supremacists conspired and plotted to bring about a “Unite the Right” rally ostensibly about preserving a statue that ended in violent clashes and a right-wing car being fatally driven into the crowd of protesters.
But the defense, not so much. The question is whether they planned violence.
In court documents and interviews to date, the 24 defendants from 10 White nationalist groups do not seem to have a united strategy, and their arguments include freedom of speech, denial, and self-defense against police misconduct in not keeping them separated from those protesting their rally. Their various actions, and court sanctions and fines, in delaying or destroying materials requested through the legal process already show disjointed, but similar defenses.
Excellent summaries of the cases, the history here, a glimpse of the disparate plaintiffs and defendants can be found in The New York Times and The Washington Post, which each examine through the relevant, odd laws in play as well as the broader effects. Other outlets may be seeking political lessons or leans; these two examine the cases.
As outlined, this Sines v. Kessler civil case is expected to last at least four weeks and involve more than 65 people. Lawyers for the plaintiffs are using texts a leaked trove from the group-chat platform Discord, texts, and social media posts to show coordination to foment violence against a racial minority, which is illegal. They are relying on a 1871 law called the Ku Klux Klan Act that allows people to accuse fellow citizens, rather than the government, of depriving them of civil rights. In a civil trial, it is not necessary to prove “intent,” but the case does depend on evidence of coordination in any plot for violence.
The posts that will be used are filled with derogatory remarks about Black people, Jews, and activists from movements like Black Lives Matter and antifa. They are also filled with oodles of logistical details about where, when, and how to show up, the kind of evidence that shows plotting.
The 14 individuals and 10 organizations do not have a unified strategy for their defense. Some have ignored the proceedings or destroyed materials requested in discovery, provoking fines, court sanctions or default judgments that already link them to a conspiracy.
Some groups named in the lawsuit have disbanded or tried to rebrand in an apparent attempt to evade the court. At least two prominent neo-Nazis who denounced their pasts prompted accusations that they were trying to wriggle out of the lawsuit. The planners, their organizations and their publications have been banned from multiple social media platforms, severely hindering their ability to raise money.
As a result, there has been trouble lining up defense lawyers, and money is being spent on personal security.
Richard B. Spencer, the outspoken White nationalist, is among five representing themselves, which means that he presumably will be questioning victims about how America is turning its back on White people. Spencer has said he couldn’t be part of a conspiracy because he didn’t talk with others before the rally and likened his calls to rally with sports fervor.
Other defendants include James Alex Fields Jr., a neo-Nazi now serving multiple life sentences for driving into a crowd killing Heather Heyer, and exhibits showing a Hitler poster in his bedroom with a copy of “Mein Kampf” on a bedside table. Defendant Jason E. Kessler told interviewers march was meant to defend white history and blames police. Christopher Cantwell, host of an online neo-Nazi talk show who faces an unrelated three-year prison sentence for threatening to rape, says in court documents that the defendants are on trial for being White men and wants to bar testimony on White supremacy and deny existence of the Holocaust.
Andrew Anglin, who publishes the hate site the Daily Stormer; and Matthew Heimbach, a white nationalist leader with ties to far-right factions in Eastern Europe, also are defendants.
So, we can expect that the trial will underscore divisive views of race in America and an airing of the perceived grievance that the future of Whites in this country is under threat.
Finding a jury that can pass an impartiality test sounds daunting.
As such, the trial will take on expanded profile and serve as yet another in a series of gauges of Race in America, where we’re seeing the clashing of more and more extremes, often being echoed by our own politicians under code names. After all, it was Donald Trump as president who said that Charlottesville showed there were very fine people on both sides.”
To the FBI and the federal government, the rise of domestic extremism is being seen as the top lethal threat to the country. Still, few of those responsible for Charlottesville have faced criminal prosecution.
Of course, defendant Fields was convicted of killing protester Hayes and injuring 19 others and the statue of Robert E. Lee is now gone from that downtown Charlottesville park. Yet we’re seeing heavy racial clashes over how we tell students — or not — about slavery, about whether any substantive policy changes will change police violence in too many individual routine cases involving Black citizens, about whether we will countenance more Jan. 6-type insurrections by a rising number of angry White protesters.
With all the squirming, changing of organizational names and legal difficulties involved here, it is not at all clear what a “win” looks like; it looks as if hate is here to stay. Clearly any finding for the defendants will be measured in succeeding waves of supremacist violence.