It took three days of deliberation, on top of four weeks of ugly, sometimes racist arguments, for a federal jury in Charlottesville, Va., to find that the loathsome white supremacists who organized the 2017 Unite the Right rally were indeed loathsome and would have to pay more than $26 million in damages to nine plaintiffs because of their conspiracy to commit violence. The jury deadlocked on two counts of violating federal civil rights law, and instead used a Virginia state law to reach their verdict, but the plaintiffs’ attorneys were jubilant nonetheless. “It’s a resounding victory for our plaintiffs,” Amy Spitalnick, the executive director of Integrity First for America, told me, sitting in the Charlottesville airport on her way home for what should be a happy Thanksgiving.
Neither Judge Norman Moon nor the jury bought the whiny Nazis’ line that their texts, social media posts, and podcasts preaching violence on behalf of creating a white ethnostate was either protected political speech or, as Cantwell claimed, mere “performance” or elaborate satire. There were just too many references to violence. Organizer Jason Kessler posted in May 2017, “I think we need to have a battle of Berkeley situation in Charlottesville and fight this shit out,” after several clashes with protesters purporting to be antifa got ugly in that university town. “They bring everything they’ve got—and we do too.” He later texted coconspirator and “alt-right” founder Richard Spencer: “We are raising an army, my liege, for free speech but the cracking of skulls, if it comes to it.” Notorious “Crying Nazi” Christopher Cantwell texted Spencer: “I’m willing to risk violence and incarceration… but I think it’s worth it for our cause.” Spencer replied, “It’s worth it, at least for me.”
They got at least some of what they wanted. Counterprotester Natalie Romero got her skull cracked when coconspirator James Fields murdered Heather Heyer with his Dodge Challenger, gravely injuring Romero and at least three other plaintiffs. Cantwell got incarceration, although on entirely different charges; he’s currently serving a 41-month sentence for sexual threats against another white supremacist. Spencer got violence—and humiliation. His wife divorced him, after claiming he was violent to her, and he describes himself as financially wiped out.
Legal scholars say it’s unclear why the jury could find a conspiracy to commit violence under Virginia state law but not under the 1871 federal Ku Klux Klan act, which criminalized conspiracies to spread racist violence.
“It’s certainly worrisome that a jury couldn’t make use of a federal civil rights statute deliberately crafted to stop precisely the misconduct of violent white supremacists who believe themselves to be above the law,” Slate’s renowned legal analyst Dahlia Lithwick wrote Wednesday. “That these jurors ultimately deadlocked on the federal claims is frustrating for anyone hoping that the Klan Act might serve to protect vulnerable racial and religious minorities by way of federal civil rights law.” But Lithwick declared the verdict a huge victory nonetheless. “The jury saw them for what they were: sad little violent white men begging for relevance if nothing else. They failed even at that.”
A complicated formula will determine who will pay whom, but for their role in the conspiracy, each of the defendants was ordered to pay $500,000, and five white supremacist organizations were ordered to pay $1 million each. Five defendants who were found to have engaged in racial or religious or ethnic harassment or violence were ordered to pay two plaintiffs $500,000 in compensation for their injuries, plus $1 million in punitive damages. The largest chunk, almost $14 million, was assessed against Fields.
Of course, with some of these guys and organizations already pretty far down on their luck, I had to wonder if the plaintiffs will ever see much money from these sad sacks. “Absolutely!” Spitalnick said immediately. “You collect judgments in a lot of ways.” Spencer himself told reporters he envisioned the men might have wages garnished or liens placed against their homes and property. “They could do all those things,” he said. Meanwhile, some of the larger groups hit by this verdict have assets and operating funds, Spitalnick said.
Spencer left the courthouse after a long four weeks, insisting that his “alt-right” movement, at least, was over, an outcome the plaintiffs had hoped for. “That’s long dead and gone in my opinion,” Spencer told reporters. “It’s buried.” It couldn’t happen to a more deserving racist. At least some of the defendants will appeal the verdict or try to reduce the awards against them. But for now the plaintiffs and their attorneys are celebrating the win. Coming days after a Wisconsin jury acquitted white teenage vigilante Kyle Rittenhouse of murdering two men and injuring another in a 2020 Black Lives Matter protest in Kenosha, and perhaps hours before a Georgia jury rules for or against the three white men who gunned down Ahmaud Aubery while he was jogging last year, seeing violent white men pay for their crimes is exactly what we need right now. Happy Thanksgiving.