A trial is currently under way in a U.S. federal court pitting 24 white supremacists and neo-Nazis against nine plaintiffs who suffered psychological and physical trauma during a violent Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in the summer of 2017.
The rally, which took place from August 11-12, began on a Friday night as hundreds of white men and women marched noisily through the town carrying tiki torches and chanting Nazi and antisemitic slogans, “Blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us.”
The following day, in a blatant show of intimidation, they marched past Congregation Beth Israel, a synagogue serving the town’s Jewish community of some 800 families. On the same day, James Alex Fields Jr., a white supremacist sympathizer, crashed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer, 32, one of the participants.
Donald Trump, the then U.S. president, caused a furore by claiming that “very fine people” could be found “on both sides” of the barricades.
A lawsuit launched by the plaintiffs, none of whom are Jewish, was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic. The case, known as Sines v. Kessler, is named after Elizabeth Sines and Jason Kessler. Sines, a lawyer, was then a University of Virginia law student who experienced “severe emotional distress” watching a car hitting, injuring and killing counter-protesters. Kessler, one of the rally’s organizers, is a member of Proud Boys, a far-right extremist organization.
The plaintiffs, having accused the chief organizers of violating the civil rights of minorities by plotting violence against them, seek compensatory and punitive damages to be decided by a jury, which consists of eight white people and four black people.
One of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, Roberta Kaplan, says her clients “continue to carry … pain and trauma.” She claims the “defendants planned for violence, executed the violence and then celebrated the violence.”
Karen Dunn, Kaplan’s colleague, argues that the defendants “came prepared to commit violence. They wore riot gear. They carried shields they used to break through the counter-protesters, and they carried flags they used as weapons.”
The plaintiffs’ legal fees are being borne by the non-profit civil rights group Integrity First for America, whose director is Amy Spitalnick. The purpose of the lawsuit, she says, is “to bankrupt these groups.” In her view, the violence in Charlottesville was “clearly motivated by racial animus that included not just racism and xenophobia, but very obvious and explicit antisemitism.”
Documents filed by the plaintiffs argue that the defendants brought to Charlottesville “the imagery of the Holocaust, of slavery, of Jim Crow and of fascism,” as well as “semi-automatic weapons, pistols, mace, rods, armor, shields and torches.”
On the eve of the rally, organizers posted a call to arms on the Daily Stormer, an antisemitic website. Their inflammatory message read, “We will eventually win this struggle and secure the existence of our people and future for white children. It is our destiny. Next stop: Charlottesville, Va. Final stop: Auschwitz.”
The plaintiffs, some of whom were injured during the rally, have invoked the 1871 Enforcement Act, or the Ku Klux Klan Act, to bolster their case. Passed by the U.S. Congress during the short-lived Reconstructionist era, the statute was designed to hold Klansmen and other racists accountable for perpetrating terrorism against former black slaves. According to Kaplan, the defendants are in violation of it because they conspired to hurt Jews and people of color.
The statute was used by the federal government during the civil rights to prosecute hardcore segregationists.
Contending that the trial centers around the issue of free speech and the First Amendment, the defendants deny there was a conspiracy to foment violence, claim they acquired a legal permit to hold the rally, and contend that left-wing movements like Antifa instigated the violence.
Apart from Kessler, the defendants include Richard Spencer, an alt-right ideologue who is representing himself at the trial who and admits the lawsuit has been “financially crippling;” Andrew Anglin of the Daily Stormer, and Christopher Cantwell, a podcaster.
The trial is expected to end later this month. Presiding over the proceedings is Judge Norman Moon of the U.S. District Court in western Virginia.
The trial coincides with the third anniversary of the deadliest antisemitic attack in American history. On October 27, 2018, a middle-aged neo-Nazi named Robert Bowers murdered 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Facing more than 60 federal charges, he has pleaded not guilty. If convicted, he could be executed.
In a statement issued on the somber anniversary, U.S. President Joe Biden said, “We must always stand up and speak out against antisemitism with clarity and conviction, and rally against the forces of hate in all its forms, because silence is complicity.”
The specter of antisemitism has spurred four out of 10 Jews in the United States to change their behavior in the past year, according to an unsettling survey released by the American Jewish Committee late last month.
“This is horrible and heart-breaking data,” Holly Huffnagle, the AJC’s director for combatting antisemitism, was quoted as saying.
If nothing else, the current trial in Charlottesville underscores the persistence and resiliency of this age-old phenomenon.