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Our Opinion: Justice in Virginia

Our Opinion: Justice in Virginia

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Unite the Right Rally-Trial

White nationalist demonstrators walk into the entrance of Lee Park surrounded by counter demonstrators Aug. 12, 2017, in Charlottesville, Va. A jury concluded that representatives of five white supremacy hate groups violated Virginia state laws and should pay more than $25 million in damages to nine plaintiffs.

Some “very fine people” were held liable for terrible crimes last week in Virginia. A jury there concluded that representatives of five white supremacy hate groups — all of whom were involved in the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in 2017, in which far-right marchers carrying torches chanted “Jews will not replace us” — violated Virginia state laws and should pay more than $25 million in damages to nine plaintiffs who suffered physical or emotional injuries during the rally.

The jury failed to reach a verdict on whether the defendants were liable under a federal statute — the rarely used so-called Ku Klux Klan Act, which outlaws conspiracies to commit racially motivated violence. But the verdicts on state charges should be enough to put these hatemongers out of business. That’s good news.

This was the first in a series of three last week that also saw a not-guilty verdict for Kyle Rittenhouse in the shooting deaths last year of two protesters in Kenosha, Wis., and the conviction of three white men in the fatal shooting of a black jogger, Ahmaud Arbery, in a coastal Georgia community, also in 2020.

The Charlottesville jury imposed $500,000 each in punitive damages against several defendants, including a few self-professed neo-Nazis and white supremacists, and $1 million each against the right-wing fascist organizations.

James Alex Fields, the neo-Nazi who murdered Heather Heyer by running over her in his car and was subsequently sentenced to life in prison, received a $12 million fine. He’s going to have to stamp out a lot of license plates to pay that off.

The trial itself was something of a circus. Several defendants represented themselves, proving the adage that “a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client.” They include Richard B. Spencer, the creator of the term “alt-right” in an attempt to disguise his Nazi beliefs with a sheen of respectability. These defendants used their court time to harass witnesses and air polemics about the superiority of the white race, the threat of Jews, the greatness of Adolf Hitler and the pleasures of using the N-word.

Most of the defendants tried to separate themselves from Fields and, indeed, blamed him for all the harm done to the defendants — all the broken bones, bloody wounds and emotional injuries suffered during the violent confrontations they initiated with anti-racist protesters who attended the rally.

Though most defendants claimed they were merely exercising their “First Amendment rights,” among the evidence considered were text messages and social media posts leading up to the rally that were liberally laced with antisemitic and racial slurs as well as their desire to “crack some skulls” in what they called “the Battle of Charlottesville.” The posts were packed with “insider language and codes” that expert witnesses said white nationalists use to incite participants.

There’s nothing illegal about being racist or stupid, but the defendants certainly didn’t help their case by livestreaming their testimony — what one called his “spoken-word performance” — to their followers. The large fines will likely financially ruin the organizations they lead, but they’re still heroes to their followers and, now, martyrs to their racist cause.

The decisions were still just.

Following the trial, co-lead counsels for the plaintiffs, Roberta Kaplan and Karen Dunn, said in a statement, “The laws of this country will not tolerate the use of violence to deprive racial and religious minorities of the basic right we all share to live as free and equal citizens.”

That’s an optimistic view, to be certain, especially as we see a continued resurgence of white supremacists who aren’t satisfied to march and be laughed at, but who actively recruit directionless, impressionable young people to their ranks, poisoning their minds against their fellow Americans.

It’s truly sorrowful that the outcome of this trial only affects a sliver of the white supremacist movement that’s been gaining traction in the U.S. A preferable outcome would be for Americans, including our political leaders, both Democrats and Republicans, to more firmly reject discriminatory views that blame minority groups for the country’s problems. Congress should support President Biden’s efforts to increase resources to combat domestic extremism.

Any political violence is wrong, whether it comes from protesters, rioters or militia groups. But the violence that melds itself with and glories in the philosophy that our “greatest generation” went to war to stop is especially onerous. We’ve got to crush it.


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