Auf wiedersehen, alt-right
The anti-racists win one in Charlottesville
Elizabeth Sines, et al. v. Jason Kessler, et al., the federal lawsuit over the epochal white riot that engulfed Charlottesville in 2017, is over. It ended just before 3 p.m. today, giving the jurors plenty of time to head back to their central Virginia hometowns for the long Thanksgiving weekend. That timing was a factor, observers around the courthouse noted, that likely played an outsized role in what ended up being a weird but ultimately satisfying verdict.
In short, the jury decided in favor of the plaintiffs. They found that all twelve of the white-supremacist defendants and their five white-supremacist organizations had conspired to commit violence and intimidation “motivated by racial, religious, or ethnic animosity.” Those plans, at turns casual and methodical, culminated in the infamous August 11 torch rally at the University of Virginia, the August 12 street riot downtown, and finally co-defendant James Fields’ car attack, which severely injured several of the plaintiffs and killed the counterprotester Heather Heyer.
For all that, the jury awarded the plaintiffs a total of roughly $26.5 million.
It was all, as I said, a bit weird. After four weeks of trial—consisting almost entirely of the plaintiffs mounting irrefutable evidence and the defendants, mostly disgraced former stars of the Trump-era alt-right, putting on what amounted to a live antisemitic podcast in rebuttal—the jury began deliberations. In short order, one of the twelve—an unvaccinated middle-aged white man who had refused to wear his face mask properly the entire trial—was dismissed because his children had been quarantined for possible exposure to COVID. (Co-defendant Chris Cantwell, the “Crying Nazi” of VICE documentary fame, howled in protest, saying he had lost his “personal juror.”)
This was ultimately but a detail. Only six jurors were needed to render a verdict under the rules of the federal civil trial. But of those that remained—four Black, the rest white, none Jewish so far as I could tell from their answers in voir dire—their decisions would have to be unanimous.
Only the jurors, and maybe some of the Marshals guarding them, know what went on in that room for three days. But as deliberations dragged on, some on the plaintiffs’ side began to fear that there were holdouts on the panel, disinclined for whatever reason to hold the neo-Nazis, et al., accountable. With Thanksgiving drawing near, they began to worry that some kind of internal horse-trading might be happening. Perhaps the jurors might decide to hold just some of the defendants accountable and let the rest off, in hopes of getting out of there.
The compromise the jurors actually found is even harder to understand from a legal perspective. They found that the white nationalists had mounted a violent racist conspiracy in violation of Virginia’s hate crime law, but not in violation of the federal Ku Klux Klan Act—the 1871 law the plaintiffs’ lawyers, organized by the nonprofit Integrity First for America, tried to make the center of their case.
This is confusing, because those aspects of the laws are, for all intents and purposes, the same. (“That’s just how juries are,” Alan Levine, a longtime trial veteran and one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, told me.)
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The jury also found that five defendants—Jason Kessler, Richard Spencer, Elliot Kline, Robert “Azzmador” Ray, and Christopher Cantwell—had further racially harassed defendants Natalie Romero and Devin Willis. (Cantwell, who was representing himself, further harassed them both on the witness stand.) Two further claims for damages were found against the incarcerated James Fields, who was already having a very bad week in what will likely be a bad rest of his life.
Technically, the jurors offered no finding on the Klan Act, which could leave the door open for a new trial. Lead attorneys Roberta Kaplan and Karen Dunn seemed open to that possibility in a brief press conference afterward—though, given how much time and expense it took the current trial to come to fruition, a whole other go-round with a whole new jury might be unlikely.
There are still unanswered questions. How much of the $26.5 million will anyone be able to collect? Many of the Nazis, including Cantwell and Richard Spencer, have already been bankrupted by the case. Almost half the damages awarded today are assessed to the broke inmate James Fields—whose attorney in his case was actually his insurance company’s lawyer, who will certainly try to get that number whittled down on his real client’s behalf.
Several defendants never appeared in court at all, perhaps under the misapprehension that the federal court system doesn’t have a collections process. (A separate batch of default judgments have already been entered against seven defendants who refused to participate in the case at all, including Daily Stormer editor Andrew Anglin, who is in hiding and has ignored summonses in another case as well, and the Proud Boys-affiliated “Fraternal Order of the Alt-Knights.”)
That a jury of eleven Virginians could not quickly and enthusiastically agree that a group of admitted Hitler-loving, Jew-hating, n-word-dropping Nazis conspired to commit racist violence in a famous American college town does not exactly fill one with confidence in the state of things in the United States today. On the other hand, in a week when the right is celebrating a teenage vigilante who killed two people and fired wildly at several others at a Black Lives Matter protest, and lawyers in Georgia are defaming a lynching victim based on the condition of his toenails, it is a welcome change.
“This case has sent a clear message: violent hate won’t go unanswered,” IFA executive director Amy Spitalnick said in a press release.
“Using the courts to impact white supremacists’ financial ability to commit further harm is only one of many tools and tactics,” a statement from eleven Charlottesville anti-racist, clergy, and African-American community groups added. “Everyone can participate in this fight.”
Four and a half years ago, the “alt-right” tried to position itself in this town as the streetfighting vanguard of a movement headed by the then-president of the United States. Today, the leaders of the conspiracy that instigated that violence are bankrupt and broken. It’s a start.