The violent rally started with a mob of men brandishing burning torches in the heart of an American city while chanting racist, antisemitic slogans, and it ended with a woman murdered, scarring a nation. Now, more than four years later, a civil trial starting on Monday in Charlottesville, Va., will revisit those unsettling events.
The long-delayed lawsuit in federal court against two dozen organizers of the march will examine one of the most violent manifestations of far-right views in recent history. Since the rally in August 2017, extremist ideology has seeped from the online world and surfaced in other violence, ranging from street clashes between far-right groups and leftists in Portland, Ore., to the storming of the Michigan Statehouse, to the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. The federal government has called the rise of domestic extremism a lethal threat to the United States.
The plaintiffs accuse the organizers of the Charlottesville rally of plotting to foment the violence that left them injured, while the defendants counter that their views constituted free speech, however offensive others might find it, and that the bloodshed stemmed from self-defense.
Using a combination of digital sleuthing and a 19th-century law written to curb the Ku Klux Klan, the lawyers for the nine plaintiffs in the Charlottesville case are hoping that their quest for unspecified financial damages will both punish the organizers and deter others.
The 24 defendants, including 10 organizations, are a collection of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, Klan sympathizers and other adherents of extremist ideology. The case will underscore some of the most divisive fault lines segmenting the United States, including the claim by members of the far right that the existence of the white race is under threat.
“The trial will provide a detailed look into the world of far-right extremism and organization, but that world should not be understood as an outlier,” said Richard C. Schragger, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law. “Though some of the groups and individuals targeted by the lawsuit seem fringe and marginal, their ideas and the wider conspiracy-mongering and propensity to violence that they represent is alive and well in the U.S.”
The Charlottesville march, known as the “Unite the Right” rally, took place over two days to protest the planned removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from a downtown park. Some 600 far-right participants gathered from around the country. The violent clashes that erupted culminated with one participant ramming his car into a group of counterprotesters, killing Heather Heyer, 32, and leaving at least 19 other injured, including four plaintiffs in this lawsuit.
The events further inflamed the country when President Donald J. Trump said there were “very fine people on both sides.”
The trial in the case, called Sines v. Kessler after the lead plaintiff and the lead defendant, is expected to last at least four weeks and involve more than 65 plaintiffs, defendants and attorneys. It has been postponed repeatedly because of the pandemic.
To make their case, lawyers for the plaintiffs are trying to combine online evidence with a somewhat obscure law from the Civil War era.
They are using chat conversations leaked from Discord, a platform for game enthusiasts, as well as a raft of telephone texts, tweets and other social media posts to try to prove that the organizers participated in a conspiracy to foment violence against a racial minority, which is illegal. The posts that will be used overflow with derogatory remarks about Black people, Jews and activists from movements like Black Lives Matter and antifa.
Proving a conspiracy is fundamental to the prosecutors, and their strategy is anchored in a federal law from 1871 that is often called the Ku Klux Klan Act. Designed to prevent the Klan from denying freed slaves their civil rights, its provisions even outlawed moving about “in disguise upon the public highway” in order to deprive others of equal protection under the law.
Once considered obscure, the law has seen renewed popularity in recent lawsuits involving protests. It is one of the few laws that allow people to accuse fellow citizens, rather than the government, of depriving them of civil rights.
A lawsuit is considered an unusual but not unprecedented means to pursue those accused of spreading extremism and intolerance. The lawyers behind the case felt it was their best recourse to hold the organizers accountable, especially after federal and state prosecutors did not bring any charges in the initial aftermath of the rally beyond a few criminal convictions. Criminal cases in federal court on civil rights grounds require proving intent, often a difficult hurdle.
“This movement and these groups only seem to grow and to flourish and to be emboldened,” said Roberta A. Kaplan, a New York lawyer who has shaped the case from the beginning. All the costs of the legal work for the plaintiffs are being donated, while a nonprofit organization called Integrity First for America has raised the other financing needed.
The 16-page questionnaire sent to prospective jurors this month illustrated some of the combustible issues that could emerge during the trial. They were asked to rate their level of concern about racism against both Black and white people, their opinion on the removal of Confederate statues and how familiar they are with groups like Black Lives Matter. Last summer, Charlottesville took down the statue of Lee, as well as one of Stonewall Jackson.
The plaintiffs are a cross-section of Virginia residents — they include an ordained minister, a landscaper and several students. In addition to claiming that a conspiracy deprived them of their civil rights, they are seeking both compensatory and punitive damages for injuries, lost income and severe emotional distress. No sum has been specified.
The defendants and their lawyers have argued in interviews and in court papers that while others might find their views odious, they were exercising their First Amendment right to self-expression, and any prior discussion about violence came in the context of defending themselves.
The 14 individuals and 10 organizations do not have a unified strategy for their defense. Some have ignored the proceedings or destroyed materials requested in discovery, provoking fines, court sanctions or default judgments that already link them to a conspiracy.
A few lawyers withdrew because various defendants stopped paying them and at least one continued to threaten the other side. The defense lawyers still working all either rejected or ignored requests for comment.
Some groups named in the lawsuit have disbanded or tried to rebrand in an apparent attempt to evade the court. At least two prominent neo-Nazis who denounced their pasts prompted accusations that they were trying to wriggle out of the lawsuit. The planners, their organizations and their publications have been banned from multiple social media platforms, severely hindering their ability to raise money.
“Broadly, all the groups in Charlottesville have burned up in the aftermath of the event,” said Michael Edison Hayden, a spokesman for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate and other extremist ideology across the United States. It has attracted widespread ire from the far right, including some plaintiffs, for tracking their activities.
That pattern of dissolving groups has occurred in the past, with far-right groups collapsing under the pressure from successful civil lawsuits, only to have the same hate-filled views re-emerge years later.
The problem, Mr. Hayden and others said, is that the ideology and the money behind it lives on. “The danger is as strong if not stronger than it was in the lead-up to Charlottesville, but it is largely because of what we saw on Jan. 6,” he said. “That is the new problem, that people are doing it in a mainstream way.”
Various defendants in the Charlottesville case have acknowledged that the lawsuit has had an impact, while a few have disappeared entirely.
The defendants include Richard B. Spencer, who epitomized the public emergence of the far right — which he sought to rebrand as the “alt right” — after his notorious “Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory!” speech in Washington in November 2016.
Mr. Spencer is among at least five defendants representing themselves after he told the court last year that the case had been “financially crippling” because so many fund-raising platforms expelled him.
He wrote in an email that he had little contact with most of the other defendants before the rally, maintaining that there was a “glaring absence of evidence” to link him to a conspiracy. He likened his statements such as “Now is the time to dominate the streets” to a comment by an avid sports fan rather than a call to violence.
Jason E. Kessler, another defendant, who is from Charlottesville, saw the rally as an opportunity to prove his leadership in the far right. The march was meant to defend white history, he said, and he blamed the violence on the police, who did not separate the “Unite the Right” participants from counterprotesters.
“No one would have died at the event if the police had done their job,” he said on a far-right talk show in July.
James Alex Fields Jr., a neo-Nazi now serving multiple life sentences in a federal prison for killing Ms. Heyer and injuring others with his car, is also among the defendants. The hundreds of exhibits the prosecution has collected include a picture of his bedroom decorated with a Hitler poster and a copy of “Mein Kampf” on a bedside table.
Others have used the case to continue to espouse extremist views.
Christopher Cantwell, the host of a neo-Nazi talk show online, wrote in court papers that the defendants were basically on trial for being white men, tried to bar expert testimony on white supremacy and has denied the Holocaust. Mr. Cantwell was sentenced to more than three years in prison in early 2021 when he was convicted of extortion in a separate case after he threatened to rape another man’s wife amid a feud among far-right groups.
The lawyers who brought the case are hoping that it will show Americans the continuing danger from the extremist discussions that take place online and out of sight of most people, only to erupt later on the streets. “Some of the tactics, motivations and tools of the violence were very similar between what happened on Jan. 6 and what happened in Charlottesville,” said Karen L. Dunn, another lead lawyer. “The weight of the case is much greater today.”