SAY WHAT? - For Thanksgiving, two modest steps toward a justice devoutly to be wished: Ahmaud Arbery's killers go down, and after a landmark, month-long civil trial, a federal jury has found two dozen neo-Nazi, white supremacist and other squalid groups of "very fine people" liable for over $26 million in damages for race-related violence against nine plaintiffs in 2017's infamous Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. The rally, dubbed Woodstock for Fascists, saw a ragged, ugly coalition of white nationalists descend on the University of Virginia that August, with tiki-torch-bearing white goons in khakis and polos screaming "Jews will not replace us" and hurling their torches at anyone who disagreed.
The menacing scene culminated the next day with Hitler-fan-boy James Fields slamming his car into a crowd of peaceful counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer, 32, and injuring 19 others. Now serving several life terms in prison, Fields is one of 24 defendants named in the Sines v. Kessler civil lawsuit brought on behalf of the plaintiffs by Integrity First for America, a nonprofit rights organization formed in the wake of Charlottesville; in a rare legal move, they sought to convict the extremists under an 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act that protected newly freed slaves by allowing them to file civil lawsuits against anyone conspiring to commit race-based violence. The jury deadlocked on those two federal charges, but in a major win they did find the defendants violated similar Virginia state laws banning racial violence or intimidation - historically, coincidentally a strong suit for Nazis and white nationalists.
What became a noxious festival of fascist hate where anyone in a bandana became a sinister player in an Antifa plot began as a protest against city plans to remove racist icon Robert E. Lee from his lofty downtown perch. Using dark chat rooms and unregulated social media - thanks Zuck - it quickly evolved into a fervid scheme to amass foot soldiers, assemble makeshift weapons, and do as much damage as possible to their perceived enemies.
"We are raising an army, my liege," wrote white nationalist and key organizer Jason Kessler to Richard Spencer, who coined the term 'alt-right,' "for free speech but the cracking of skulls if it comes to it." The trial's discovery process - which forced defendants to turn over records, except for those who tried to claim their phones had inexplicably fallen into toilets - offered bountiful evidence the violence was planned in advance. It also unearthed helpful if unsavory details about right-wing funding and networking, as well as private debates, cringeworthy to grisly, about their often-puerile concerns: what they should chant, what kind of tiki torch they should carry, the optics of wearing black (it hides blood well) vs. well-scrubbed white-boy uniforms, whether it's legal in Virginia to run over protesters with cars (it's not). Seven defendants in hiding or otherwise MIA didn't fare much better: Before the trial, Judge Norman Moon had already hit them with default judgments totaling thousands of dollars in sanctions for withholding evidence.
Along with its thorny legal issues, the trial also presented a delicate P.R. balancing act for those who didn't want to see Nazis use the courtroom to spread their bile. The trial wasn't broadcast - listeners could dial in to a public line capped at 500 people, most of whom offered racist slurs and “Let’s Go Brandon” - but many fellow-fascists tuned in to podcasts and live-chats to rage about being silenced. Mostly, the defendants themselves - many banned from social media - tried to turn the proceedings into their own "elaborate performance piece"; said one prosecutor, "This is the Star Wars bar scene of extremism in that courtroom...They know who’s watching.”
There were chaotic rants about free speech, black people, Jewish conspiracies, antifa; name-checks for Hitler and Mein Kampf; podcast promotions and heated defenses of hate speech and rambling discourses about Nazi founder George Lincoln Rockwell. Most outrageous, and representing themselves, were Spencer - he said he's being scapegoated "like Jesus" -and "Crying Nazi" Christopher Cantwell, who kept loudly trying to transform the trial into one of his racist podcasts. Among the weird highlights: Their belligerent cross-examinations of plaintiffs - "How do you feel about fascism?" Cantwell asked a queer Latina woman; she opposes it because it "hates my existence" - and their venomous attacks on each other. Spencer to Kessler: “When did you determine I was a sociopathic narcissist?” Kessler: "You were just despicable to everyone... like a serial killer." All told, observers argued, defendants with no coherent strategy or real defense called only two witnesses and no experts, spun implausible fictions about free speech and self-defense, seemed to think they were embroiled in either a branding contest or Twitter debate not a grown-up legal battle, and generally acted like the Nazi clowns they are.
More importantly, for plaintiffs and many others, the trial revealed "the trauma of when white supremacists descended on our town." Of nine plaintiffs, four were hit by Fields; five others witnessed the car attack or the violent march or both; all said they still deal with physical injuries and trauma. "It was a complete terror scene," said Melissa Blair, who was pushed out of the way of Fields' car but saw her fiance get hit. "It was blood everywhere." Four years later, prosecutors say the jury award of over $26 million in damages is "eye-opening." Said one, “This case has sent a clear message: Violent hate won’t go unanswered. There will be accountability.” In fact, the money may prove largely symbolic.
Many of the groups have dissolved or rebranded; many of their members are in prison, bankrupt, facing other legal battles or alienated from an already fractious crusade; leaving the courtroom, Spencer declared the alt-right "long dead and gone." Still, argues Dahlia Lithwick in Slate, "This isn't about squeezing blood from a stone. It's about widespread agreement that the stone sucks." As violent white supremacy surges, she concedes it's frustrating the Klan Act, also invoked against some Capitol rioters, was unsuccessful as a tool to stop it, suggesting "a huge white hole at the burning center of federal civil rights law." But the award and the trial, exposing fascists whose antics proved "about as riveting as seventh-period health class in middle school," did their job: "They were tagged, every one, as cut-rate Nazis...both unsympathetic (and) uninteresting...The jury saw them for what they were: sad little violent white men begging for relevance." Above all, she writes, "This lawsuit was a template for how to hold violent white racism to account without giving it a platform, and a guide for how to do so with dignity and compassion for the hurting and the dead."
(Abby Zimet has written CD's Further column since 2008. A longtime, award-winning journalist, involved in women's, labor, anti-war, social justice and refugee rights issues.)