Here’s a look back on what led to the Charlottesville ‘Unite the Right’ civil trial
Stephanie Keith/Reuters

Here’s a look back on what led to the Charlottesville ‘Unite the Right’ civil trial

Closing arguments for the civil case involving the organizers of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, concluded Thursday, and a jury must now decide whether the organizers of the rally engaged in a conspiracy to commit violence and other harmful activities.

Fourteen people and 10 White supremacist and nationalist organizations are named in the lawsuit that prompted the trial. The plaintiffs, who include town residents and counterprotesters injured in clashes, are seeking compensatory and punitive damages for the physical and emotional injuries they suffered.

The trial comes four years after the violent clashes that culminated in the death of Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal.

As the trial nears an end, here’s a look back at how we got here:

Debate over statues ignited planning for the rally

Charlottesville was once home to a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in a park named for him. In April 2017, city council voted to remove the statue and two months later voted to rename the park Emancipation Park.

The pair of votes and debate around the statues set off a chain of events that started with “Unite the Right” organizer Jason Kessler applying for a permit for the rally in May 2017, according to the federal lawsuit.

At the time, other Southern cities had already removed dozens of Confederate symbols and monuments from public property after a self-described White supremacist massacred nine Black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015.

Ultimately, the Lee statue was taken down in 2021 and the park was renamed again to Market Street Park. Along with the Lee statue, the Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson statue was also removed from what is now known as Court Square Park. A crowd erupted in applause as both statues came down.

The key players of the rally and trial

Jason Kessler was the lead organizer of the rally. A Charlottesville resident, Kessler said he felt the city had “absorbed these cultural Marxist principles … about blaming White people for everything.” He said he believed there was “anti-White hatred” coming out of the city.

Christopher Cantwell became the face of the rally after being featured in a Vice documentary. He went viral again after the rally in the infamous “Crying Nazi” Facebook video. Cantwell is currently serving a 41-month federal prison sentence for extortion and threatening a person. He is representing himself during the civil trial.

Richard Spencer is a White nationalist who led the torchlight rally on the night of August 11, 2017. He and nine other people were banned from the University of Virginia campus in 2018. Spencer is representing himself in the civil trial.

James Fields drove his car through a crowd of protesters on August 12, 2017, resulting in dozens of injuries and the death of Heather Heyer. He is serving two concurrent life sentences.

The other defendants are also known names in the White nationalist movement, including Identity Evropa leader Elliot Kline and founder Nathan Damigo, Traditionalist Worker Party leader Matthew Heimbach, National Socialist Movement former president Jeff Schoep and Andrew Anglin, who founded The Daily Stormer.

White nationalist clashed with counterprotesters

Kessler’s permit was for only August 12, according to the federal complaint, but White nationalists from all over the country began gathering on the night of August 11 on UVA’s campus.

Throngs of White nationalists walked around the university burning tiki torches and chanting “Jews will not replace us,” “You will not replace us” and “Blood and soil,” a phrase evoking Nazi philosophy on ethnic identity. There were clashes that night, foreshadowing what was to come.

The next day things got even more heated with violent clashes throughout Charlottesville. Then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency in Charlottesville.

The violence culminated when Fields — who joined White nationalists and others opposed to the city’s decision to remove the Lee statue — drove his car through the crowd of counterprotesters.

Rally left some with emotional and physical trauma

Nine people are seeking compensatory and punitive damages for physical and emotional injuries they suffered at the rally.

Some of the plaintiffs say they have been unable to return to work or school, while others experienced fits of crying or developed depression, according to the federal complaint.

A jury is now tasked with deciding whether each defendant is liable for damages. In a civil trial, plaintiffs’ attorneys must show only that a defendant is liable by a “preponderance of evidence,” which means a 50.1% or greater chance of a claim being true, US District Judge Norman K. Moon told jurors.

The jury is expected to begin deliberations Friday.

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