Charlottesville defendants found liable for civil conspiracy and ordered to pay millions in damages

Charlottesville defendants found liable for civil conspiracy and ordered to pay millions in damages
White supremacists clash with police in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 12, 2017, Wikimedia Commons

Returning a verdict against dozens of white supremacist leaders and organizations who organized Unite the Right, a Virginia jury has awarded millions in damages to nine plaintiffs who were injured in the violence during the chaotic rally that ended with a car attack by James Fields.

The defendants were found liable in four of six counts, including a Virginia state conspiracy claim that they subjected the plaintiffs to racial, religious or ethnic harassment or violence. But the mixed-race jury deadlocked on a major claim in the civil case against the organizers, whether they engaged in a conspiracy to commit racially motivated violence.

The plaintiffs presented evidence over the course of the four-week trial showing that the defendants meticulously planned the Unite the Right rally on the digital chat platform Discord. While the ostensible reason for the rally was to support two Confederate monuments slated for removal in Charlottesville, the organizers' private communications revealed that their true inspiration was a violent rally four months earlier in Berkeley, Calif. and that they hoped to bait left-wing opponents into the streets, and as primary organizer Jason Kessler put it, "fight this shit out."

The evidence showed that Kessler quickly reached out to Matthew Heimbach, an avowed fascist and antisemite who led the Traditionalist Worker Party and had already organized a coalition of "hard right" white supremacist groups that included League of the South, the National Socialist Movement and Vanguard America. All the organizations sent members to Charlottesville, and the leader of Vanguard America wound up providing a shield to Fields before he drove his car into counter-protesters.

After securing a commitment from Spencer — then the most famous figure in the alt-right movement that emerged on the coattails of Donald Trump's 2016 election — for the headlining speaker slot, Kessler wrote in a phone text: "We are raising an army, my liege, for free speech but the cracking of skulls, if it comes to it." The plaintiffs also presented evidence that Elliot Kline, both a lieutenant to Spencer and a leader of Identity Evropa, organized Unite the Right alongside Kessler. Kline's former girlfriend, Samantha Froelich, testified that he was obsessed with exterminating Jews, saying he would "gas the kikes forever." Robert "Azzmador" Ray, a contributing writer for the neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer, mentioned in a Discord chat in the month prior to Unite the Right that had "just got done with an hourlong chat with some of the organizers and I feel better about the thing. The plan is the same: Gas the kikes." After macing counter-protesters at the Aug. 11 torch march, Ray reported to his fellow neo-Nazis: "I personally literally gassed half a dozen kikes."

Counsel for the defendants argued that Fields car attack was not reasonably foreseeable or intended by the defendants, who anticipated only pushing and shoving, or, at most, fist fights, but the jury evidently didn't buy it. The defendants all testified that they did not know Fields and had not seen him prior to his appearance at the Aug. 12, 2017 rally.

Plaintiff Natalie Romero was injured in Fields' car attack, which left her with a fractured skull, a cleft lip, persistent headaches and trouble maintaining balance. Romero and co-plaintiff Devin Willis were among a small group of University of Virginia students who linked arms around a statue of Thomas Jefferson during a torch march in which white nationalists made monkey noises at them and threw lit torches at their feet while macing, punching and kicking others. All the plaintiffs, who include a pastor, a landscaper, a paralegal who recently passed the bar exam, testified that they have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of physical injuries or emotional distress.

As she and a dozen or so counter-protesters linked arms around statue, Romero described the sound of the approaching torch marchers as "almost like thunder, like the earth was growling." She recalled that they chanted "Blood and soil" and "White power."

"There's another that I hate repeating," Romero testified. "I like, hear it in my nightmares. If my phone buzzes, I hear the same cadence, the 'You will not replace us.' That one is just so terrifying to hear the whole time."

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