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Hate goes on trial in Charlottesville
Jury selection begins in civil suit against instigators of far-right violence, which resulted in serious injury and a death

Exclusive report from Zach D. Roberts, who filmed the 2017 Charlottesville violence for the Palast Investigative Fund.

[Oct 25, 2021: Charlottesville, VA] Jury selection began today for the civil trial of the organizers of the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. The rally ended with the murder of Heather Heyer and injuries to dozens of other activists. The case was brought by a group of individuals that were attacked during the tiki torch march across the University of Virginia’s Charlottesville campus on August 11, 2017 and the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville the next day.

Unite the Right ralliers prepare to march across the University of Virginia’s Charlottesville campus on the night of August 11, 2017. As they marched they chanted “Jews will not replace us” and the Nazi slogan “Blood and soil.” Photo: © Zach D. Roberts.

If successful, the lawsuit, which seeks large monetary damages, could have wide-reaching repercussions. The plaintiffs hope that it will ultimately bankrupt the hate groups behind the far-right events and bring their activities to a halt.

The plaintiffs named several individuals in the complaint, including Jason Kessler, the Charlottesville native that was one of the main organizers of the deadly rally, as well as a number of far-right and white supremacy groups, including Vanguard America, Identity Europa, League of the South, the National Front, the National Socialist Movement, and the Ku Klux Klan.

Jason Kessler rallies his troops before the tiki torch march across the University of Virginia’s campus. Photo: © Zach D. Roberts.

The case is backed by a non-profit called Integrity First for America, which was formed to fund the lawsuit brought by the nine named persons and a John Doe plaintiff. The complaint, originally filed in 2019, states: “each plaintiff in this action was injured as a result of the events in Charlottesville on August 11 and 12. Four plaintiffs were struck in a car attack.”

A victim of Unite the Right rallier James Field’s car attack on a group of peaceful protesters sits awaiting medical help on August 12, 2017. Photo: © Zach D. Roberts.

Over the last four years, law enforcement agencies and prosecutors, local and national, have taken little action so the activists and lawyers of Integrity First for America began this civil action “to ensure that nothing like this will happen again at the hands of Defendants—not on the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, and not anywhere else in the United States of America.”

Members of the League of the South, one of the organizations named in the complaint, stand with Confederate flags in front of the Charlottesville Police Department building. African-American school teacher DeAndre Harris was assaulted in the police department’s garage. Photo: © Zach D. Roberts.

The Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville was supposed to be about defending statues, such as that of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, under the guise of preserving history. But message board posts, podcasts, and online discussions posted before the rally reveal that the intention was to cause havoc in the otherwise sleepy college town. Attendees of the rally posted racist and anti-semitic memes on websites, including the Daily Stormer, and other far-right online forums. They declared “Next stop: Charlottesville, VA. Final stop Auschwitz”. The named defendants, which include Eli Mosley (of Identity Europa), even boasted that they were planning on saying inciting statements like: “We are going to Charlottesville. Our birthright will be ashes & they’ll have to pry it from our cold dead hands if they want it. They will not replace it without a fight.”

Unite the Right rally participants at the entrance of Emancipation Park. Charlottesville on August 12, 2017. Photo: © Zach D. Roberts.

The defendants and their followers also discussed plans to bring weapons and shields in online discussion threads, stating a “real man knows how to make a shield a deadly weapon” and, “A wrench with a wrist lanyard gets the same job [as a blackjack/billyclub] accomplished.”

Daniel Borden, one of the now-convicted men that assaulted DeAndre Harris, throws his pool cue which he was using as an improvised weapon at me while I was taking photos in Charlottesville on August 12, 2017. Photo: © Zach D. Roberts.

The plaintiffs aren’t just going after individuals, they’re trying to bankrupt the groups that organized, promoted, and attended the events, such as the Ku Klux Klan, the National Socialist Movement, and the neo-Confederate hate group the League of the South.

A man with a swastika tattoo at the entrance of Lee Park (now Emancipation Park), the main rally point for the Unite the Right rally on August 12, 2017. Photo: © Zach D. Roberts.

Other individuals named in the complaint include Richard Spencer, aka “the Dapper Nazi”, who is credited with coining the term “alt-right” and has led the National Policy Institute, a white nationalist organization. One of his colleagues, Milo Yiannopoulos, leaked audio of Spencer going on an anti-Semitic, bigoted rant about the city of Charlottesville following the Unite the Right rally. In the audio, following a string of racial slurs, you can hear Spencer state: “My ancestors f***ing enslaved those little pieces of f***ing shit. I rule the f***ing world. Those pieces of f***king shit get ruled by people like me.”

The leader of League of the South’s Florida chapter, Michael Tubbs (circled) can be seen watching the assault of DeAndre Harris. Photo: © Zach D. Roberts.

Also named in the complaint is Chris Cantwell, aka “the Crying Nazi”, who became notorious thanks to Vice’s televised coverage of the Unite the Right rally. He was billed on the flyer as one of the main speakers at the rally alongside Richard Spencer. Cantwell is described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an “anti-Semitic, Alt-Right shock jock and an unapologetic fascist…” On August 11, 2017 in Charlottesville, he sprayed anti-fascist activists with mace and attacked them with his tiki torch.

Chaos breaks out at the Thomas Jefferson statue on the University of Virginia campus as Unite the Right rally goers carrying tiki torches attack a small group of anti-fascist protesters on August 11, 2017. Photo: © Zach D. Roberts.

The trial is expected to last four weeks. The defendants will likely contend that anti-fascist activists, known as “Antifa”, started the violence. The much-used legal tactic was previously utilized by Jason Kessler, who was named alongside Richard Spencer, Eli Mosley and others in a civil action brought by African-American school teacher DeAndre Harris (DeAndre Harris v. Jason Kessler, et al), who was assaulted by a group of neo Nazis in the Charlottesville Police Department’s garage following the Unite the Right rally. The attack was witnessed and filmed by this reporter, which helped lead to several arrests and convictions.

Judge Norman K. Moon of the Western District of Virginia, presiding over the case, announced today during jury selection that he would not allow such a defense, even while describing “Antifa” as “troublemakers”.

However, during today’s jury selection proceedings, co-defendant Christopher Cantwell continually claimed that one of the plaintiffs was associated with Antifa and that he would like to pursue it as a line of questioning. This calculated conflation and misdirection as to the true nature of Antifa has already proved to be effective, with a juror that had cleared the first round of questioning, stating that Antifa “are all a terrorist organization, they try to hurt people.”

The complaint states, “There is one thing about this case that should be made crystal-clear at the outset – the violence in Charlottesville was no accident.”

Indeed, this reporter, at the scene of the rally and march, witnessed the coordination, the preparedness, the aggression, and the extreme violence of the torch-bearing marchers and rally-goers.

Sign up to the Palast Investigations newsletter for Zach D. Roberts continuing photo reports on the far right.

Zach D. Roberts and Greg Palast discuss Charlottesville on the October 26, 2021 edition of FlashPoints with host Dennis J Bernstein.

Zach D Roberts is an investigative photojournalist who covers far-right extremism and voter suppression in America. He covered the Unite the Right Rally in Chalottesville and his work there helped put four white extremists in jail. He co-produced Greg Palast's films The Best Democracy Money Can Buy and Vigilantes, Inc: America’s Vote Suppression Hitmen (out Fall 2024). Roberts is a Palast Investigative Fund Fellow and Puffin artist grant recipient.

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