CHARLOTTESVILLE, Virginia — “Check. Check. Check,” neo-Nazi shock jock Christopher Cantwell spoke into the courtroom microphone.
Wearing a blue shirt without a tie or jacket, he proceeded to name-check Mein Kampf, drop the n-word, plug his far-right radio program, call himself “good-looking” and a “professional artist,” and blast antifascist activists all in a matter of minutes. Surprising nobody in the courtroom, Cantwell, who prepared for this moment with help from two other neo-Nazis in prison and spending evenings watching Tucker Carlson, said “I’m not a lawyer … [but] I'm the best attorney I could afford.”
He added, “And I didn’t even stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night.”
It was much more a racist, stream-of-consciousness diatribe than an opening statement in the landmark civil lawsuit trial that could bankrupt Cantwell and several other white supremacists and dismantle their organizations.
But that was how one of 24 organizers and participants of the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville four years ago began what’s expected to be an emotionally charged trial that will last through much of November. Cantwell’s codefendants didn’t do much better.
Violence at the “Unite the Right” rally on Aug. 11 and 12, 2017 — attended by hundreds of white supremacists angry over the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee — turned fatal when neo-Nazi James Fields drove his Dodge Challenger through a crowd of counterprotesters. Fields killed 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injured dozens of others. He is serving multiple life sentences for his crimes.
Four other white supremacists are serving prison sentences of between two and eight years for the beating of anti-racist protester DeAndre Harris that same weekend. But there has otherwise been little accountability for the violence.
Supported by Integrity First for America, a civil rights nonprofit, the lawsuit against the “Unite the Right” white supremacists aims to remedy that. It was filed under the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, which was key in dismantling that group as it swept across the South in the wake of the Civil War. The statute allows victims of racially motivated violence to sue when there’s a conspiracy to carry it out. The law is currently being used in two cases against former president Donald Trump and his allies in relation to the Jan. 6 attack on the US Capitol, including one brought by Black Capitol Police officers and another by members of Congress.
IFA’s high-profile, pro bono legal team, led by attorneys Roberta Kaplan and Karen Dunn, plans to argue that the “Unite the Right” organizers didn’t set out to hold a peaceful demonstration four years ago but instead meticulously conspired to bring violence to Charlottesville.
In Dunn’s opening statement Thursday, she spoke about the 5.3TB of digital information her team obtained through leaked social media posts, private chats, text messages, and emails that show some of the most notorious neo-Nazis and other white supremacists in the country discussing weaponry they would bring to Charlottesville and how they would use them to attack their enemies. She also lamented what they couldn’t find because some defendants had refused to cooperate and turn over evidence — or, in the case of Jeff Schoep, the former leader of the National Socialist Movement, dropped their phone in the toilet.
“They wore riot gear. They marched in formation, they carried shields that were later used to break through the counterprotesters, and they carried flags that were later used as weapons,” Dunn told jurors.
“This case is a case about violence and intimidation that was planned for months and culminated in a tragic and violent weekend on Aug. 11 and 12 of 2017, right here in Charlottesville, Virginia,” Dunn added.
She then played a video of the torch-wielding mob that marched through the city while chanting, “Jews will not replace us!” and “Blood and soil!” She also showed jurors graphic video footage of Fields driving his car into a crowd of counterprotesters and juxtaposed the imagery with messages from the defendants about running people over and doing whatever it takes for their cause, even if it means jail time.
Kaplan aimed to tug at the jurors’ heartstrings, introducing them to the nine plaintiffs — residents of Charlottesville — who were seated in the courtroom and face-to-face with their white supremacist attackers for the first time in four years.
Kaplan spoke about Elizabeth Sines, a law student at the time of the attack who has been emotionally traumatized; Marcus Martin, a Black landscaper whose leg was crushed by the car driven by Fields; Marissa Blair, Martin’s fiancé, who narrowly missed being struck by the car; and others who were physically and psychologically harmed, including a Christian minister, a crisis counselor, and a Colombian American woman whose facial scars from the car attack remind her every day when she looks in the mirror of the horror of Aug. 12.
The way Kaplan and Dunn presented their case stood in sharp contrast to the chaotic, abrasive, and sometimes overtly racist manner that the defendants and their lawyers laid out theirs.
Representing himself because he has said the lawsuit had “financially crippled” him even before the trial began, white nationalist Richard Spencer told the jury in his opening statement that he did not initiate the deadly violence that erupted in Charlottesville; he argued that, because he didn’t know many of other defendants well and hadn’t communicated with them much prior to August 2017, there could not have been a conspiracy. He said that he and Cantwell had swapped some messages here and there and ate lunch together once.
Lawyers for other defendants also tried to distance their clients from those of other attorneys, making it appear as though the members of the group — who had communicated for months over Discord and other messaging apps — were strangers. Several attorneys for the defendants also claimed that the violence stemmed from local law enforcement’s failure to keep the white supremacists and counterprotesters apart.
Some said the violence was the fault of antifa — a decentralized collective of antiracists who protest against the far right — and Black Lives Matter activists.
Jury selection in the case was a challenge; it took three days to find 12 jurors who qualified to decide on the case. The group includes men and women, Black and white, with strong and opposing views on race issues in the US.
“Our plaintiffs have waited four long years for this day. In that time, they’ve tried to move forward with their lives as best they can … but no matter what they do, and no matter how far away from Charlottesville they go, they continue to carry the pain and trauma of those days in Charlottesville,” Dunn told the jury. “While this case is about violence and hatred, it’s also about justice and accountability … justice for the plaintiffs who have lost so much.”
To get that justice, the plaintiffs and their legal team will likely have to endure weeks of difficult testimony and media attention. And — if Thursday’s opening remarks are any indication — some hateful language on the part of the defendants aimed at them.
“You’ll hear us making a couple racist jokes. We’re sort of notorious for those things,” Cantwell said. “But what you won’t hear is a conspiracy to commit any crime, much less a violent one.”