Opening statements began Thursday in the civil lawsuit filed against organizers of the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia — four years after one person died and dozens were injured in the chaos that ensued as White nationalists, White supremacists and counterprotesters clashed.
The violence — which surrounded a rally to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee — reached a crescendo when James Fields, who was protesting the statue’s removal, drove his car through a crowd of counterprotesters, injuring dozens and killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Fields is serving two concurrent life sentences.
Karen Dunn, an attorney for the plaintiffs, took the podium Thursday morning and laid out the events of August 11 and 12, 2017, when White nationalists and White supremacists marched through Charlottesville and the University of Virginia campus chanting, “Jews will not replace us,” “You will not replace us” and “Blood and soil,” a phrase evoking Nazi philosophy on ethnic identity. They clashed with counterprotesters who gathered to denounce the march.
“The White nationalists climbed the steps of the rotunda at UVA and descended upon 20 to 30 unarmed counterprotesters,” Dunn said, adding “They maced and physically attacked the counter protesters. They screamed in their face, and they threw liquid in their face while wielding lit tiki torches.”
The next day, Dunn said, “They wore riot gear. They marched in formation, they carried shields that were later used to break through the counter protesters and they carried flags that were later used as weapons.”
Dunn warned some of the evidence was graphic and contained violent images, and attorneys for the plaintiffs played a video of Fields’ car plowing through a crowd of counterprotesters.
The plaintiffs, who include city residents and counterprotesters injured in two days of clashes, contend the organizers of the rally engaged in a conspiracy. They are seeking compensatory and statutory damages for physical and emotional injuries they suffered.
“There is one thing about this case that should be made crystal-clear at the outset — the violence in Charlottesville was no accident,” the federal lawsuit says. The plaintiffs are represented by a large team of powerful lawyers with the nonprofit Integrity First for America.
The defendants say they did not initiate the deadly violence that ensued; they argue they were exercising their First Amendment right to protest. They also say there was no conspiracy and that the violence stemmed from law enforcement’s failure to keep the opposing groups separated.
Twelve jurors were selected this week over three days.
Organizers aimed to fuel violence, lawsuit says
Four of the plaintiffs were struck by the car driven by Fields, the lawsuit says. Others claim they were kicked, punched or spat upon.
Organizers of the Unite the Right rally had planned for a violent showdown from the start, plaintiffs’ attorneys contend.
Rally organizer Jason Kessler applied for the event permit in May 2017, claiming it would be a protest against the removal of the Lee statue, the complaint said. The City Council voted to remove the statue in April 2017.
Rally organizers chose Charlottesville so the debate and protest around the statues could serve as a catalyst for a race and religious war, the complaint reads. White supremacists, neo-Nazis and groups such as the Proud Boys and the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan were in the city for events in May, June and July 2017
While Kessler’s permit was for only August 12, the attendees began arriving August 11 and participated in the infamous torchlight march that resulted in counterprotesters being kicked, punched and spit on near the university’s Rotunda, the complaint reads.
The next day was more violent, with clashes all over the city. That’s the day Fields drove a car into the crowd.
The Confederate statues that were the center of violence in 2017 were taken down in July 2021.
Free speech protection will be on trial
At the core of the civil case is the extent to which the Constitution protects free speech when violence is organized online.
Fourteen people are named in the lawsuit. They include Fields, Kessler, Richard Spencer, who was the lead organizer for the August 11 torchlight rally, and Christopher Cantwell, who became the face of the rally after being featured in a Vice documentary.
The suit also names 10 White supremacist and nationalist organizations, including Moonbase Holdings LLC, the company that runs the Daily Stormer website; the League of the South, the Nationalist Socialist Movement and at least two chapters of the KKK.
The defendants used the internet to “solidify a stable and self-sustaining counter-culture,” the complaint reads. Much of the activity toward planning the event and executing violent actions was done through the chat app known as Discord, where users can “set up a series of private, invite-only servers, each providing a space for real-time group discussion,” the complaint reads. Discord is not part of the lawsuit.
“The violence was planned in these closed Discord chats, where they discussed everything in advance — from what to wear, what to bring for lunch, how do you best sew a swastika onto a flag, how do you use free speech instruments to attack people,” Amy Spitalnick, executive director of Integrity First for America, the group representing the plaintiffs, told CNN.
“That is a racially motivated, violent conspiracy. And that’s not anything that’s protected by the First Amendment or by any other sort of right that people have.”
Cantwell wrote a letter to the court last month saying that he and his associates applied for a permit “to hold a demonstration” in 2017. Though they were denied the permit, they sued and won the right to protest.
“We were threatened with violence by the Plaintiffs’ co-conspirators, as we had been countless times before. But we relied on the police to keep us separate, as we had countless times before, and were left with little choice but to defend ourselves when the promised protection failed to materialize,” Cantwell wrote, adding an “army of Jewish lawyers” was behind the lawsuit.
Spencer downplayed the violent protests in a 2018 motion to dismiss the case, writing, “Harsh and bold words, as well as scuffles, are simply a reality of political protests, which are, by their very nature, contentious and controversial.”
Cantwell and Spencer are representing themselves. CNN has reached out to other attorneys representing other defendants. Elmer Woodard, an attorney for three, declined to comment.
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