Charlottesville rally organizers found liable by jury
A jury on Tuesday found the organizers of the deadly 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., to be liable for violence, awarding millions of dollars in damages.
Rally organizers Richard Spencer, Jason Kessler and Christopher Cantwell were all found to be liable under state law, The Washington Post reported.
The jury was unable to reach a verdict on two other claims, which dealt with whether organizers conspired to commit racially motivated violence or knew of such a conspiracy and did not stop it.
The case was brought by nine plaintiffs, including four who were injured in the car attack that killed one counterprotester. The individuals testified about injuries they sustained as well as other mental issues that have faced since the incident.
The jury awarded more than $25 million in damages, according to The New York Times.
The far-right white nationalist rally took place in Charlottesville on Aug. 11 and 12 in 2017. It was planned as a protest of the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
On the second day of the rally, James Alex Fields Jr. intentionally drove into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Fields was sentenced to life in prison in 2019.
Throughout the month-long civil trial, defendants did not shy away from their racist and anti-Semitic beliefs. The Times noted that slurs meant to describe minorities were used throughout the testimonies of the defense.
During the testimony of rally organizer Richard Spencer, a known anti-Semite who has advocated for ethnic cleansing, lead attorney for the plaintiffs Michael Bloch played an audio clip recorded one day after the rally in which he could be heard saying, “We are going to destroy this fucking town,” referring to Charlottesville.
As Buzzfeed News reported, Spencer acknowledged that he had made that statement to his supporters but claimed that it did not reflect who he was.
“That is me at my absolute worst. I won’t dispute that that’s me, because at the end of the day I have to live with that,” said Spencer. “My animal brain. That’s me as a 7-year-old. It’s a 7-year-old that is probably still inside me. I’m ashamed of it. That is a childish, awful version of myself.”
Plaintiffs also presented text messages between Spencer and other rally organizers that showed them referring to plans to “dominate the streets” and prepare for an “IRL war,” as evidence that organizers had planned on violence.
The text messages that organizers sent to each other were strewn with racial slurs and references to violent acts such as “cracking skulls.”
The defense argued that the actions that took place in Charlottesville were protected under the First Amendment. They said the responsibility for the violence should fall on the police, claiming they failed to separate the rally-goers and counter-protesters and that any violence that broke out was due to self-defense.
However, other messages presented by plaintiffs showed that lead organizer Jason Kessler had apparently instructed his supporters to mislead police on the size of the rally.
“If the police ask you how many people we have coming don’t tell them,” Kessler wrote in a Facebook message. “If they think we have more than 400 they might be able to help the city pull our permit. Privately we can tout the 800-1,000 number better for our enemies to underestimate us.”
In other messages to his supporters, Kessler provided instructions on how to get a “chance to crack some Antifa skulls,” telling them to avoid openly carrying firearms.
As the Post noted, Kessler and fellow rally organizer Chris Cantwell appeared to have been optimistic about their prospects in the trial.
Cantwell, who is currently serving a 41-month prison sentence for a separate case, bragged about the violence that broke out at the rally on his podcast, which was presented as evidence by the plaintiffs.
Roberta Kaplan and Karen Dunn, co-lead counsel for the plaintiffs, said they were “thrilled” by the verdict in a statement to The Hill.
“The evidence was overwhelming that leaders of the white supremacist movement from all around the country planned for months to bring violence and intimidation to the streets of Charlottesville and that our brave clients, among many others, were injured when they dared to stand up for their values,” they said.
“Today’s verdict sends a loud and clear message that facts matter, the law matters, and that the laws of this this country will not tolerate the use of violence to deprive racial and religious minorities of the basic right we all share to live as free and equal citizens,” they added.
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