CHARLOTTESVILLE, Virginia — Much of the first day of a long-awaited trial to hold two dozen white supremacist figures and groups accountable for the violent “Unite the Right” rally four years ago revolved around one of the far-right’s favorite bogeymen: antifa.
The trial, which stems from a lawsuit alleging the rally organizers conspired to incite the deadly violence of Aug. 11–12 in 2017 could have broad implications for combating the rise in domestic extremism and far-right violence.
The plaintiffs, nine victims of that violence, are seeking damages for physical and psychological injuries, while many in the Charlottesville community and beyond are hoping a verdict in their favor will finally deliver justice against some of the most notorious white supremacists in the country. The plaintiffs’ attorneys and the group backing the lawsuit told BuzzFeed News last week they’d like to see the defendants bankrupted and their white nationalist and neo-Nazi organizations dismantled as a result of the trial.
But when the trial opened with jury selection on Monday at the US District Court for the Western District of Virginia, there was an outsize focus on the decentralized network of antiracist, antifascist protesters who like to wear black clothing and are colloquially known as antifa.
Far-right extremists and their fellow travelers in the Republican party, including former president Donald Trump, have used antifa to explain away criticism and even the Jan. 6 riot at the US Capitol.
In court filings, the defendants have suggested antifa was behind the violence at the “Unite the Right” rally and that some of the plaintiffs may support the antifa movement.
Before prospective jurors arrived in court, they were asked to fill out a 16-page questionnaire with 73 questions submitted by both sides, including, “Are you familiar with ‘Antifa’?... If yes, how would you describe Antifa?” and “If yes, how would you rate your overall opinion on Antifa?” Jurors had the choice of choosing between extremely favorable, somewhat favorable, neutral/neither favorable nor unfavorable, somewhat unfavorable, and extremely unfavorable to the second part of the question.
Other questions focused on jurors’ familiarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, level of concern about race relations, and their opinion on the removal of statues of Confederate leaders. Charlottesville took down its statue of Civil War General Robert E. Lee in July.
Each side had its reasons for focusing on antifa in court. An attorney for the plaintiffs’ laid them out, telling Judge Norman Moon while arguing for one potential juror to be dismissed, “People with extreme views of antifa may be less inclined to believe the defendants were responsible [for the violence at the ‘Unite the Right’ rally] and inclined to believe the defendants' claims of [violence used in] self-defense.”
Some of the potential jurors wrote in their questionnaire that they believe antifa to be “terrorists” and “troublemakers,” observations some repeated when being questioned in court. When asked if he thought antifa was responsible for the “Unite the Right” violence, one possible juror said “most likely.”
Defendant and neo-Nazi Christopher Cantwell, who is without a lawyer and defending himself in the trial, told Moon that potential jurors describing “antifa” as troublemakers “is hardly an extreme view.” He argued to keep jurors who felt that way.
The arguments over antifa meant that jury selection in the trial got off to a slow start, potentially delaying opening arguments if the court fails to get through the rest of the jury pool before the end of Tuesday. Moon was hopeful when the court ended its first day shortly before 7 p.m. that jury selection would finish before lunch on Wednesday. Seven jurors were eventually seated Monday.
Another major point of contention during the jury selection revolved around the pandemic, with several jurors saying they were still recovering from lengthy bouts with COVID and had already been out of work for weeks, thus needing to be excused. Some said they weren’t sure they could wear a mask all day, every day for the duration of the trial either because of health conditions or religious beliefs. The plaintiffs kept on about one man in particular whose mask didn’t cover his nose.
Moon said strict pandemic guidelines would be in place during the trial, including regular testing and a mask mandate.
Measures at the federal courthouse in central Charlottesville on Monday illustrated this and the seriousness with which Charlottesville is taking the physical security of everyone involved. A metal fence encircled part of the building and US Marshals strung up yellow tape around much of the surrounding grounds. Attorneys for the plaintiffs, donning dark sunglasses and carrying boxes of files, were escorted by bodyguards inside. The defendants slipped past journalists and a small group of antiracist activists waiting at the front doors, entering through a rear entrance. And attendance inside the courthouse was limited to a few members of the public and media organizations.
Rosia Parker and Katrina Turner, grandmothers and activists who protested the white supremacists’ tiki torch marches back in 2017, wanted to be inside the court to see them face justice. Instead, they stood outside waving a Black Lives Matter flag. The women told BuzzFeed News they were pleased the trial was moving forward after so the Charlottesville community could finally begin healing.
What Parker called the “summer of hate” — a reference to “Unite the Right” and the havoc it wreaked on the community — was “still an open wound.”
Only a few of the white supremacists involved in the Charlottesville incident have been held accountable for the violence that transpired. James Fields, the white supremacist from Ohio who rammed a crowd of protesters with his car, killing anti-racist protester Heather Heyer, was convicted of first-degree murder in 2018 and sentenced to life in prison. Four men who were convicted in the beating of anti-racist protester DeAndre Harris were sentenced to between two and eight years in prison.
“I’m glad this day has come to where these people, I hope, can be held accountable for what they did,” Turner said.
Emily Gorcenski, a Charlottesville activist and data scientist who was pepper-sprayed by white supremacists in 2017 and has used her skills to track extremists since then, told BuzzFeed News outside the court that she felt confident about a decision in favor of the plaintiffs, even if it takes weeks.
“We have seen over time the evidence that has come out makes it clearer and clearer that this was all part of a plot,” she said. “It was obvious what their plans were, because they were posting about it on Facebook. We have chat messages. I was here, I saw it happen.”