Charlottesville Unite the Right trial: jury hears opening statements on whether rally was intended to spur violence

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Lawyers for the plaintiffs, who include townspeople and counter-protesters injured in two days of clashes, presented an overview of their case, which argues that the rally’s organizers are engaged in a conspiracy.

The plaintiffs, represented by a large team of powerful lawyers from the nonprofit Integrity First for America, seek compensatory and statutory damages for the physical and emotional injuries they say they suffered.

“We’re going to show you that the defense came to Charlottesville with a plan of violence with racial and religious hatred,” lawyer Karen Dunn said Thursday, “and that it used racial and religious hatred to motivate others to join us “.

Among the accused are 14 people named, including Fields, rally organizer Jason Kessler, Richard Spencer – the lead organizer of the August 11 torchlight rally – and Christopher Cantwell, who became the face of the rally after being featured in a documentary Vice.

The lawsuit also names 10 white supremacist and nationalist organizations, including Moonbase Holdings LLC, the company that runs the Daily Stormer website; the Southern League, the Nationalist-Socialist Movement and at least two sections of the KKK.

The defendants say they did not initiate the deadly violence that followed; they claim they were exercising their right to protest under the First Amendment. They also say that there was no conspiracy and that the violence stems from the failure of law enforcement to separate opposing groups.

“My presence, my intention to speak boldly – it implies that it led to chaos, that I am somehow responsible for the injuries just by my presence at the event,” Spencer said during his opening statement. “It’s not fair, it’s not exact application of the law and, to be honest, on some level, that’s okay.”

Twelve jurors were selected this week over three days.

Organizers aimed to fuel violence, lawsuit says

Four of the plaintiffs were struck by the car driven by Fields, according to the lawsuit. Others claim to have been kicked, punched or spit up.

Thursday morning Dunn presented the events of August 11-12, 2017, when white nationalists and white supremacists marched through Charlottesville and the University of Virginia campus chanting, “The Jews will not replace us,” “You will not replace us” and “Blood and Earth”, a phrase evoking the Nazi philosophy on ethnic identity. They clashed with counter-demonstrators who gathered to denounce the march.

“White nationalists climbed the steps of the UVA rotunda and descended on 20 to 30 unarmed counter-protesters,” Dunn said, adding, “They physically attacked the counter-protesters. They shouted in their faces and threw liquid in their faces while wielding lighted tiki torches. “

The next day Dunn said: “They were wearing riot gear. They marched in formation, they carried shields which were then used to pierce the counter-demonstrators and they carried flags which were then used as weapons.

Dunn warned that some of the evidence was graphic and contained violent footage, and plaintiffs ‘attorneys released video of Fields’ car driving through a crowd of counter-protesters – a moment Dunn said the defendants celebrated.

Dunn also posted text messages, social media posts and posts which she said showed the defendants planned to make the events violent, using flag poles, shields and even cars as weapons.

“The evidence will show that the leaders of this conspiracy were very proud of what the Battle of Charlottesville accomplished,” Dunn said, adding that the defendants called the events of August 12 “a huge success.”

Organizers of the Unite the Right rally had anticipated a violent confrontation from the start, claimants’ lawyers say. According to the complaint, Kessler, the organizer, applied for the permit in May 2017, saying the event would be a protest against the removal of the statue of Lee, which the city council voted in favor of the removal. (Two Confederate statues that were the center of the violence in 2017 were taken down in July 2021.)

Organizers chose Charlottesville so that the debate and protest around the statues could serve as a catalyst for a racial and religious war, the complaint says. White supremacists, neo-Nazis and groups such as the Proud Boys and Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan were in the city for events in May, June and July 2017.

While Kessler’s permit was only valid on August 12, participants started arriving on August 11 and took part in the infamous torch march which resulted in kicks, punches and spitting at counter-demonstrators near the university rotunda, the complaint said. And the next day – the day Fields drove a car through the crowd – was more violent, with clashes all over town.

Roberta Kaplan, another lawyer for the plaintiffs, described their experience, telling the jury: “No matter what they do and no matter how far they go from Charlottesville, they continue to carry the pain and trauma. of Charlottesville. ”

She alluded to a statement by Dunn earlier, telling the jury to remember “that the defense planned the violence, executed the violence and then celebrated the violence.”

The defendants distance themselves from each other

Spencer and Cantwell represent themselves. CNN has contacted lawyers representing other defendants. Elmer Woodard, counsel for three of them, declined to comment.

Making an opening statement Thursday on his own behalf, Spencer admitted he had “some regrets for attending the rally.”

“But we are now here four years after the event,” he added. “The emotions have subsided and we are able to re-examine the matter, to look at it with clear eyes, and to apply the law with precision and fairness.”

Spencer equated his hate speech with “harsh speech,” saying there was no concerted plan to attack anyone as he tried to distance himself from the other defendants, including Kessler, who , according to him, was the main organizer of the rally. Spencer only agreed to speak at the event, he said, after he obtained a permit and Kessler said the police promised to be there.

He did not deny that the plaintiffs were injured, but claimed that it was “the strategy of the police” that was “ultimately responsible” for their injuries and suffering. (An independent review previously found authorities were unprepared for the event and failed to protect the public).
White nationalist Richard Spencer (center) and his supporters clashed August 12, 2017 with Virginia State Police in Emancipation Park after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia was declared an illegal gathering.

In his own wide-ranging opening statement, Cantwell also argued that he had no role in organizing the rally, saying he did not know the other defendants.

“I didn’t plot to commit racially-motivated violence, and neither did I plot to do this other bullshit,” Cantwell said. If the jurors pay attention to the evidence, he said, “I’m going to win this thing, no contest.”

Cantwell wrote a letter to court last month saying he and his associates applied for a permit “to stage a protest” in 2017. Although they were denied the permit, they sued and were granted the right to protest.

“We have been threatened with violence by the co-conspirators of the Complainants, as we had been countless times before. when the promised protection has not materialized, ”Cantwell wrote, adding that an“ army of Jewish lawyers ”was behind the trial.

Spencer played down the violent protests in a 2018 motion to dismiss the case, writing: “Harsh and bold words, as well as brawls, are simply a reality of political protests, which are by their very nature controversial and controversial . “

Elle Reeve of CNN contributed to this report.


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