Jurisprudence

In Charlottesville, the Nazis Were Finally Held to Account

The ruling didn’t get everything, but let’s see it for what it was: a $26 million win.

This photo shows a make-shift memorial to those injured and to Heather Heyer who was killed when James Fields drove into a crowd of protesters on August 12, 2017. It has three signs that say "heart, Heather."
A make-shift memorial to those injured and to Heather Heyer who was killed when James Fields drove into a crowd of protesters on August 12, 2017. Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

After four weeks of arguments, 36 witnesses, and three long days of deliberations, a federal jury in Charlottesville, Virginia awarded more than $26 million in damages against two dozen white supremacists and violent right wing organizations who had organized the 2017 Unite the Right rally that ended in the death of a counter-protester and injuries to many others. The jurors deadlocked on two federal conspiracies charges rooted in the 150-year-old Ku Klux Klan Act, an 1871 statute that allows parties to sue for damages in response to race-based violent actions, but they did find the defendants had violated Virginia state civil rights laws against racially motivated harassment and intimidation.

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The plaintiffs were nine individuals who had mostly been injured either when the car driven by James Alex Fields killed 32-year-old Heather Heyer on a Charlottesville street, or during a torchlit march on the University of Virginia grounds the night before. The defendants—including white supremacists Richard Spencer and Chris Cantwell—had spent the weeks before the rally amassing foot soldiers to march, making plans to arm themselves with makeshift weapons, and chatting online about the legality of running over protesters with cars. They claimed at trial, two of them ostentatiously representing themselves, that this was all just big performative hilarity and protected First Amendment speech. But as the plaintiffs showed, the far-right groups were always planning for racial violence, and claiming that everyone in a bandana was part of an Antifa plot to entrap them. As one of the organizers, Jason Kessler, put in a text to Spencer: “We are raising an army, my liege, for free speech but the cracking of skulls, if it comes to it.”

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The defendants and defendant groups were ultimately found liable for four of the six claims presented to the jurors, one of which included Virginia’s state conspiracy claim that they had subjected the plaintiffs to racially motivated harassment and intimidation. That these jurors ultimately deadlocked on the federal claims is frustrating for anyone hoping that the Klan Act might serve to protect vulnerable racial and religious minorities by way of federal civil rights law. That’s in part because racially motivated violence appears to be everywhere and yet so rarely named as such, and the KKK Act has recently been invoked against some of the January 6 insurrectionists as well. For that one reason, the sense that there is a huge white hole at the burning center of federal civil rights law seems inescapable today.

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Yet $26 million in damages is a sobering amount. It’s isn’t everything, but it’s a whole lot. While these defendants will seek to have the amounts reduced, the fact is that the jury saw fit to condemn their actions wholeheartedly and substantially. Several of the defendants have already declared bankruptcy and some may be unable to pay. Fields is in jail for the rest of his life and Cantwell will return to prison, where he is serving a term for violent sexual threats against another white supremacist. Spencer is broke and his wife has left him, alleging violent abuse. This isn’t about squeezing blood from a stone. It’s about widespread agreement that the stone sucks.

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If the purpose of this lawsuit was to unearth the web of connections and funding among Nazi groups, it was a resounding success. If the purpose was to tarnish the once fresh-scrubbed flat-front khaki “alt-right” and to reveal them for what they really are, reconstructed Nazis and aging klansmen as boring as the original iterations of white supremacy, it was also a success. The jury sent a $26 million message that the defendants had participated in a conspiracy to commit racially motivated harassment and intimation, and that makes them losers. Spencer himself, on leaving the courthouse, pronounced the “alt-right” to be “long dead and gone.”

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In no small part because the trial was not broadcast—listeners could instead dial in to a line capped at 500 participants—there was no platform to amplify and rebroadcast the Nazism that the defendants sought to display. To be sure, some of the white supremacists did their best to drum up publicity during the trial, appearing on each other’s podcasts and threatening to dox the witnesses, but for the most part, their racism as expressed in court was puerile and dumb (yawn-inducing references to Mein Kampf and dropping the N-word). While some of the defendants tried to liken themselves to Jesus Christ and other free speech martyrs, nobody will walk away from Sines v Kessler with the sense that the jury found them to be first amendment paragons. They were tagged, every one, as cut-rate Nazis, which renders them both unsympathetic, but more importantly, uninteresting. Some of the most shocking days of the defendants’ antics at trial proved to be about as riveting as seventh period health class at a middle school. Even as they mounted a chaotic and undisciplined defense, they unerringly seemed to prioritize personal fame and branding over argument and analysis. In the end they achieved neither fame nor branding nor analysis. The message was ultimately both contained in the theater of public opinion, and condemned roundly by the jury. The jury saw them for what they were: sad little violent white men begging for relevance if nothing else. They failed even at that.

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This lawsuit was a template for how to hold violent white racism to account without giving it a platform, and a guide for how to do so with dignity and decorum and compassion for the hurting and traumatized and the dead. At a time when violent white supremacists seem to be ever bolder, ever more violent, and ever more likely to be centered and forgiven, it’s certainly worrisome that a jury couldn’t make use of a federal civil rights statute deliberately crafted to stop precisely the misconduct of violent white supremacists who believe themselves to be above the law. But in addition to the substantial money damages, the unambiguous jury response here was that racist white men who come to a town that isn’t their home, lay claim to the streets and the media’s gaze, and try to profit from it, will eventually find themselves to be bankrupt not only in the all-important attention economy, but also in real life.

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