United States: Organisers of the 2017 attacks in Charlottesville go on trial

November 30, 2021
Impromptu memorial to Heather Heyer. Photo: Wikimedia commons

Three recent trials involving murderous white nationalists occurred at the same time in the United States.

One was the Wisconsin trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, who shot and killed two protesters and wounded a third at a Black Lives Matter protest.

The second was the trial of three white racists who hunted down and murdered a young Black man for the “crime” of jogging in “their” white neighbourhood in Georgia.

The third was a civil trial of the organisers of the violent and racist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August, 2017. Counter-protester Heather Heyer was killed and 19 others seriously injured when one of the racists, James Fields, drove his car into a crowd. Fields was arrested and convicted, and is serving a life sentence.

The nighttime torchlight march in Charlottesville of about 500 Nazis, chanting “You will not replace us” was filmed and shared across the world.

One of the themes motivating white nationalists is the belief that white people are being “replaced” by — that is, losing their dominance over — Blacks, Latinos and other non-whites.

The Nazis’ chant soon morphed into “Jews will not replace us”, reflecting the widely-held belief of white nationalists that Jews finance and back the movements of Blacks, other people of colour, Muslims, communists and socialists, etc — a resurrection of previous antisemitic tropes.

The civil lawsuit against the organisers of the “Unite the Right” rally was brought by victims seeking compensation.

That the “Unite the Right” rally was held at all indicates how former president Donald Trump’s election gave white racists cover to come out of the woodwork.

Trump said of the Charlottesville events — even after Field’s murderous rampage — that “there were good people on both sides”. This gave white nationalists his stamp of approval.

Since then, such groups thrived under Trump’s cover. There are now more organised, armed and disciplined groups, such as the Proud Boys, the Three Percenters and Oath Keepers. They were the spearhead of the violent attack on the Capitol building on January 6, which was an attempt to overturn the presidential election and reinstate Trump.

There was no lack of evidence at the trial against the more than a dozen of the country’s most prominent white supremacists and groups, including white nationalist theorist and leader Richard Spencer and rally organisers Jason Kessler and Christian Cantwell.

Text messages, social media posts, videos and expert testimony meticulously revealed how the defendants conspired in advance.

Some of what was revealed in court were messages in online chats and message boards exchanged by defendants leading up to the alt-right rally, spewing racist threats.

“This is going to be a violent summer,” Spencer texted a supporter two months before the rally.

At about the same time Kessler wrote to Spencer, “I would go to the ends of the earth to secure a future for my [white] people. This is war”.

“We’re raising an army, my liege,” he said in another exchange. “For free speech, but the cracking of skulls if it comes to it.”

“I think we are gonna see some serious brawls at cville next month too, and we’ll see blood on some of these white polos lol,” Elliot Kane wrote on a platform where he called himself “JUDENJAGER” or “Jew Hunter”.

“I’m willing to risk a lot for our cause, including violence and incarceration, many in my audience would follow me there too,” Cantwell wrote to Spencer a week before the rally, “but I want to coordinate it and make sure it’s worth our cause”.

“It’s worth it,” Spencer replied, “At least for me”.

In a recording in response to Heyer’s murder, Spencer went on a tirade, using slurs for racial and religious minorities, who should “get ruled by people like me”.

At the trial, the defence claimed these were “just jokes” and the hollow talk of angry young men whose fantasies of gassing Jewish people, brutalising Blacks and forming a “white” ethnostate, were not to be taken seriously.

But the jury didn’t agree and found the defendants liable on several counts, awarding the plaintiffs more than US$26 million.

The verdicts will be appealed, and it is not clear how much will actually be paid to the plaintiffs in the end.

This was a partial victory. Significantly, the jury could not agree on the two counts of the indictment charging the defendants with racism.

The defence used their time to turn the court into a forum for racist rants. The defendants knew that their followers from all over the country were listening in on the public access line.

The judge, Norman Moon, allowed this as a valid defence against the indictment.

These rants included numerous use of the n-word, praise of Adolf Hitler, and spewing of racist pseudo science.

Some of the defence lawyers joined in. Within earshot of one of the plaintiff’s lawyers, Roberta Kaplin, who is Jewish and wore a Star of David necklace throughout the trial, defence attorney Joshua Smith repeatedly used the k-word.

During the trial, Nazis on far-right chat rooms listening in were able to break into the public access line and join the courtroom proceedings, saying the n-word numerous times and declaring Trump’s slogan of “Make America Great Again”.

In spite of this racist “defence” strategy, some on the jury couldn’t bring themselves to agree on the charge of conspiracy to organise a racist rally.

Bizarrely, after the trial, the judge praised the conduct of both sides.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.