Home / Breaking News / White supremacists behind violent Charlottesville rally face lawsuit with major implications

White supremacists behind violent Charlottesville rally face lawsuit with major implications

Hearings began on Thursday in a lawsuit targeting the white supremacist organizers and agitators behind the violence at last year’s “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. A federal judge heard arguments from a number of the 26 defendants named in the lawsuit, as well as co-counsels representing the numerous plaintiffs.

The lawsuit, first filed last October and amended in January, is the broadest legal action against the white supremacists who helped lead last year’s rally, where a white supremacist killed Heather Heyer and injured nearly two dozen others with his car. Some 26 defendants are named in total, making it arguably the most notable — and comprehensive — lawsuit filed against white supremacist in years.

It’s also one that, according to the plaintiffs’ lawyers, is off to a strong start.

“The judge spent a long time reviewing the papers — he had read up, he was engaged, he was paying attention, he asked intelligent, smart questions that got to a lot of the core issues,” said Robbie Kaplan, one of the lead attorneys bringing the case on behalf of Integrity First for America. “When you’re litigating a big case like this, that’s exactly what you want from a judge, and that’s exactly what we got today in court.”

In addition to well-known figures like Richard Spencer and Jason Kessler, the lawsuit also targets leaders of the so-called “alt-right” like Matthew Heimbach, who is currently in prison, and Nathan Damigo. The lawsuit further cited a number of groups as defendants, including the neo-Confederate League of the South, Identity Evropa, and Heimbach’s Traditionalist Worker Party.

The plaintiffs in the case represent a broad subset of the counter-protesters at last year’s rally in Charlottesville. As their complaint read, “Plaintiffs in this action are University of Virginia undergraduates, law students and staff, persons of faith, ministers, parents, doctors, and businesspersons — white, brown, and black; Christian and Jewish; young and old.”

The lawsuit alleges that each of the plaintiffs “was injured as a result of the events,” including one who suffered a stroke and two who were struck during the car attack that killed Heyer.

Pointing to Reconstruction-era laws — including violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 — the plaintiffs allege that all of the defendants conspired to commit a range of crimes, from intimidation to assault and battery.

As it is, much of the recent focus on the trial has centered on Spencer — namely, on his inability to land a lawyer to represent him, and the numerous fundraising platforms that have kicked him off of their sites. On Thursday, however, Talking Points Memo reported that Spencer finally hired a lawyer to represent him. The lawyer, John DiNucci, did not return ThinkProgress’ request for comment.

Among the evidence discussed at the arguments Thursday, Kaplan and her co-counsel Karen Dunn presented a series of communications and images of the alleged planning that took place before the rally.

“They were talking about weaponry, violence, running over protesters, what are the best brands of mace,” Kaplan said on a conference call after the hearings. “This was not some loving, peaceful flower-in.” Added Dunn: “And they were talking specifically about how [they] make this appear as if it’s self-defense.” The topics the white supremacists discussed before the rally included “how to make their weapons not seem like weapons for offense, but be weapons for defense,” Dunn said.

The attorneys also presented a chart depicting how the numerous defendants related to one another, with Dunn noting the similarities to a drug ring conspiracy. “That’s an apt comparison,” she said. Kaplan added that it was conspiracy “the likes of which we’ve never seen.”

A slide used in today's hearings against the white supremacists who gathered in Charlottesville.
A slide used in today’s hearings against the white supremacists who gathered in Charlottesville.

While many of the communications, including emails and texts, between the white supremacists have yet to be unearthed, they may not remain private much longer. For instance, a judge ruled last week that former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke — who isn’t actually named as a defendant in the lawsuit, but is rather listed as a “co-conspirator” — must produce any communications related to the rally by next month.

Thursday’s arguments, though, move the case that much closer to trial — and that much closer to revealing any and all coordination between the defendants. “This is really just the tip of the iceberg,” said Dunn.

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