On Thursday, lawyers and defendants presented closing arguments in the federal civil trial for white nationalists and Neo-Nazis who organized the deadly August 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.
Ostensibly planned in protest of the scheduled removal of a Robert E. Lee statue from a public park, the rally involved a march of tiki-torch-wielding white supremacists chanting things like “Jews will not replace us.” The gathering descended into a violent clash with counter-protestors, which culminated in James Field plowing his car into a crowd of people, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer. (Fields pleaded guilty to killing Heyer and injuring 28 other people and is serving a life prison sentence plus 419 years.)
In October 2017, nine plaintiffs, including several counter-protestors injured in the attack, filed a lawsuit seeking damages for physical and emotional injuries and accusing white nationalists of conspiring to cause racially motivated violence. By the time it went to trial in October 2021, the complaint named 24 defendants, including several white supremecist and nationalist organizations, along with Fields; Jason Kessler, who got the permit for the rally; alt-right activist Richard Spencer; Christopher Cantwell, known for posting a tearful video over a warrant for his arrest; and Daily Stormer founder Andrew Anglin.
The plaintiffs’ argument hinged on the assertion that the defendants had “planned, executed and then celebrated” racially motivated violence and that the violence had been “reasonably foreseeable.”
“The evidence in this case is crystal clear that this plan went as intended,” said attorney Karen Dunn, showing a video of Spencer at the Lee statue declaring victory. She referred to evidence that had been presented to jurors during the trial: Before the rally, defendants had allegedly spoken about fighting a battle, entering a race war, and even discussed the possibility of hitting people with cars; Kessler had messaged Spencer about the rally, saying, “We’re raising an army, my liege, for free speech, but the cracking of skulls if it comes to it.”
Roberta Kaplan, another lawyer for the plaintiffs, thanked the jurors for listening to the testimony of 36 witnesses and for repeatedly watching traumatic videos. She said the defendants would try to argue that they didn’t mean some of the racist or violent things they’d said. “It’s up to you to demonstrate loud and clear, contrary to what defendants would have you believe, that none of this is funny and none of this is a joke,” she said.
Kaplan also revealed to the jurors for the first time how much money the plaintiffs are seeking: $7 million to $10 million for each person struck by Fields’ car, and $3 million to $5 million for the plaintiffs injured in other ways that weekend.
The defendants, as expected, argued that they did not intend violence to occur. Bryan Jones, an attorney representing defendants Michael Hill, Michael Tubbs, and their neo-Confederate organization League of the South, suggested that the plaintiffs were covering up some kind of conspiracy. “Why is it that you don’t get to see the full story until we’ve asked their witnesses questions?” Jones said. “It’s because they’re hiding something from you.”
When Spencer, who represented himself, chose to invoke Jesus. “What made Jesus a radical? An extremist? What got him executed? What made him the object of hatred?” he said, before Judge Norman K. Moon asked him to speak only about this case. Spencer also provided interpretations of some of the evidence that had been presented, like another defendant who said he would “risk a lot for our cause, including violence and incarceration.” Spencer said, “When someone says that they’re willing to risk violence and incarceration, that should not be equated with any desire for those things to occur.”
Edward ReBrook, lawyer for the National Socialist Movement and former NSM leader Jeff Schoep, argued that the suit aimed to prosecute people’s opinions. “We don’t have thought crime in this country,” he told the jury. “In this country, you’re allowed to like Hitler.” He argued that lawyers for the plaintiffs have focused disproportionately on Nazi symbolism and sympathies among the defendants. “Guilt should be defined by one’s actions, not one’s thoughts,” ReBrook said.
Joshua Smith, a lawyer for the Traditionalist Worker Party and its founders, showed a video on white genocide to explain why his defendants had attended the Unite the Right rally. It described globalists and the “Jewish power structure” trying to build an American South with “no Southerners” in it. “Listen to the words,” he said. “There’s no code in that.”
Cantwell also represented himself and addressed the jury about his actions at the rally. “I had a carry permit in August of 2017, and I would not have risked it for the joy of punching some communist degenerate,” he said. He suggested plaintiffs were attention-seekers who “live in their Twitter mentions.” He said he told participants in the rally to obey the law, that he’d wanted the cops to be involved, and that he did not conspire to commit racially-motivated violence. “I was not here to break the law and all of you know that,” he said.
The jury will begin deliberations Friday.