Charlottesville’s reckoning: Unite the Right organizers go on trial
FILE PHOTO: A photograph of Charlottesville victim Heather Heyer is seen amongst flowers left at the scene of the car attack on a group of counter-protesters that took her life during the "Unite the Right" rally as people continue to react to the weekend violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S. August 14, 2017. REUTERS/Justin Ide/File Photo

A civil trial against organizers of the deadly August 2017 Unite the Right rally gets underway in Charlottesville, Va. today, the culmination of more than four years of litigation.

The plaintiffs, who were injured in the explosion of violence that culminated when James Alex Fields Jr. accelerated his Dodge Challenger into a crowd of antiracist marchers killing Heather Heyer, seek to prove that the white nationalist organizers of the Unite the Right engaged in a conspiracy to commit racially motivated violence under the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871. The plaintiffs have already proven their case against two defendants, Elliot Kline and Robert "Azzmador" Ray, through adverse inference findings by a magistrate judge.

Jury selection is likely to take up the entire day of the first trial, but Judge Norman K. Moon has previously indicated it might spill over to Tuesday.

Testy exchanges between plaintiffs and defendants during a pretrial hearing last week to winnow the pool of prospective jurors suggest jury selection could take longer than expected. During the hearing, defendant Christopher Cantwell, who is representing himself, frequently interrupted plaintiffs' counsel.

"I'm not sure thinking of antifa as terrorists after they spent 2020 looting is a controversial point of view," Cantwell said in reference to a prospective juror that the plaintiffs proposed for excusal.

Cantwell also objected to eliminating a juror who indicated on the questionnaire that he's unable to concentrate because of COVID and would have difficulty being impartial because they are "sick of all this."

"We'll take 15 to 20 minutes on Monday to get to the same point we could get to today," Moon said with evident irritation. "Be that as it may, we'll bring him in.

Later, the judge expressed exasperation when the plaintiff's attorney objected to excusing a juror who said his daughter was a friend of Heyer and that he attended a vigil in her honor.

"It just seems to me that anyone that obviously is probably going to be struck — I think it would be hard for this gentleman to be sympathetic to Mr. Fields," Moon said.

The defendants, including Richard Spencer, were the leading figures of the alt-right movement, a rebranding of white supremacy that took a precipitous tumble in the months following Unite the Right. The alt-right collapsed, in part, because the public, with the notable exception of President Trump, recoiled in horror at the events in Charlottesville, and its numbers dwindled in the face of street opposition and doxing by antifascists while litigation depleted the movement's resources. But while the alt-right and its leaders foundered in early 2018 and its desperate remnants embraced domestic terrorism, the next four years have seen the unfurling of a broader far-right movement rooted in Americanist nationalism, conspiracy thinking, gun fanaticism and eagerness for civil war.

While moments of upheaval have transpired in other cities — Minneapolis; Louisville, Ky.; Kenosha, Wis.; Portland, Ore. and Washington DC — since 2017, Charlottesville has continued grapple with the painful legacy of the Unite the Right rally. After Charlottesville City Council voted to remove the statues of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson in early 2017, Jason Kessler, who is now on trial, mobilized a campaign to protect them that attracted a violent coalition of white supremacist groups. The city finally removed the statues in July 2021, after the Virginia Supreme Court rejected legal challenges. The city is currently considering a proposal from the Jefferson School of African American Heritage Center to melt down the bronze Lee statue and transform it into a piece of public art that would be given to the city.

With 24 defendants and nine plaintiffs, the trial is likely to present logistical hurdles. At least two of the defendants, Cantwell and Spencer, are representing themselves. To complicate matters further, Judge Moon has had difficulty hearing during some of the pre-trial hearings. Moon said during a pretrial hearing on Oct. 22 that the acoustics were so bad in the courtroom that he bought a hearing aid for the trial.

Cantwell, who is serving an active prison sentence for threatening to rape a fellow white supremacist's wife, has complained that he hasn't had adequate time to prepare his defense; on Oct. 22, he unsuccessfully moved to postpone the trial for 12 months.

"I have no idea what's going on," Cantwell told the court. "I don't know what this pile of documents is," he added, gesturing to a box delivered to him in court by one of the plaintiff's attorneys.

Two days before the start of the trial, the plaintiffs requested that Cantwell be severed from the other defendants, in consideration of his due-process arguments, suggesting he could be tried at a later date when he is no longer incarcerated.

During the pretrial hearing, Cantwell declined to stipulate the authenticity of the chats from Discord, a private messaging platform, where the defendants planned the Unite the Right rally.

"I have no reason to put any faith in the context of the Discord materials, which were leaked on the internet," Cantwell said. He went on to suggest without evidence that an employee of the company leaked the chats, and speculated that someone might have manufactured a conversation between him and Spencer.

"Mr. Spencer's not my friend," Cantwell said. Spencer, for his part, said he did not participate in that set of chats, and sought to reassure Cantwell that he needn't worry about evidence being presented to show a conversation between the two.

Another rift in the fractured alt-right coalition was on display when the plaintiffs' sought to prevent former National Socialist Movement commander Jeff Schoep from calling Daryl Davis, a Black blues musician who is renowned for persuading members of the Ku Klux Klan to retire their hoods, as a character witness. The plaintiffs argued that Schoep's purported renunciation of white supremacy is a distraction and irrelevant to his actions before and during Unite the Right.

"I strongly take the side of the plaintiffs," Spencer said. "There is no relevance." (Judge Moon quickly ruled that Davis' testimony is inadmissible.)

Supported by the nonprofit Integrity First for America, the lawsuit aims to hold the organizers of Unite the Right accountable and send a message of hate groups that might intend to plan violent rallies in the future.

"We only break this cycle of violence and extremism by fighting for accountability and justice, which have been so sorely lacking," said Amy Spitalnick, executive director of Integrity First for America. "Of course, the neo-Nazi defendants in our case have tried every trick in the book to avoid that accountability. They've flouted court orders, and withheld and destroyed evidence. Our team hasn't let them get away with it though, and the defendants are now facing the consequences."