US jury awards $25m in damages for Unite the Right violence

White nationalist leaders and groups ordered to pay damages over deadly violence at 2017 rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

White nationalist protesters clashed violently with counter-demonstrators at the entrance to Lee Park in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 [File: Steve Helber/AP Photo]

A jury in the United States has ordered white nationalist leaders and organisations to pay more than $25m in damages for violence that erupted during the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

After a nearly month-long civil trial, the jury in US District Court on Tuesday found the white nationalists liable on four of six counts in a lawsuit filed by nine people who suffered physical or emotional injuries during the two days of demonstrations.

Lawyer Roberta Kaplan said the plaintiffs’ lawyers plan to refile the suit so a new jury can decide the two claims the jury could not reach a verdict on. She called the amount of damages awarded on the other counts “eye-opening”.

“That sends a loud message,” Kaplan said.

The verdict is a rebuke to the white nationalist movement, particularly for the two dozen individuals and organisations who were accused in a federal lawsuit of orchestrating violence against African Americans, Jews and others in a meticulously-planned conspiracy.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs invoked a 150-year-old law passed after the Civil War to shield freed slaves from violence and protect their civil rights.

White nationalist demonstrators gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12, 2017, for the ‘Unite the Right’ rally that turned deadly [File: Steve Helber/AP Photo]

Commonly known as the Ku Klux Klan Act, the law contains a rarely used provision that allows private citizens to sue other citizens for civil rights violations.

Hundreds of white nationalists descended on Charlottesville for the Unite the Right rally on August 11 and 12, 2017, to protest city plans to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E Lee from a public square.

During a march on the University of Virginia campus, white nationalists chanted “Jews will not replace us”, surrounded counter-protesters and threw tiki torches at them. The following day, an avowed admirer of Adolf Hitler rammed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one woman and injuring dozens more.

Then-President Donald Trump touched off a political firestorm when he failed to immediately denounce the white nationalists, saying there were “very fine people on both sides” of the incident.

The driver of the car, James Alex Fields Jr, is serving life in prison for murder and hate crimes. Fields was one of 24 defendants named in the lawsuit funded by Integrity First for America, a nonprofit civil rights organisation formed in response to the violence in Charlottesville.

James Alex Fields Jr is serving life in prison after being convicted of murder and hate crimes for driving a car into counter-protesters in 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia [File: Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail via AP]

The lawsuit accused some of the country’s most well-known white nationalists of plotting the violence, including Jason Kessler, the rally’s main organiser; Richard Spencer, who coined the term “alt-right” to describe a loosely connected band of white nationalists, neo-Nazis and others; and Christopher Cantwell, a white supremacist who became known as the “crying Nazi” for posting a tearful video when a warrant was issued for his arrest.

The trial featured emotional testimony from people who were struck by Fields’s car or witnessed the attacks, as well as from plaintiffs who were beaten or subjected to racist taunts.

Melissa Blair, who was pushed out of the way as Fields’s car slammed into the crowd, described the horror of seeing her fiance bleeding on the sidewalk and later learning that her friend, 32-year-old Heather Heyer, had been killed.

“I was confused. I was scared. I was worried about all the people that were there. It was a complete terror scene. It was blood everywhere. I was terrified,” said Blair, who became tearful several times during her testimony.

During their testimony, some defendants used racial epithets and defiantly expressed their support for white supremacy.

They blamed one another or the anti-fascist political movement Antifa for the violence that erupted that weekend. Others testified that they resorted to violence only after they or their associates were attacked by counter-protesters.

“We were coming to the rescue of our friends and allies that were being beaten by the communists,” said Michael Tubbs, chief of staff of the League of the South, a white nationalist organisation.

Before the trial, Judge Norman Moon issued default judgments against another seven defendants who refused to respond to the lawsuit. The court will decide damages against those defendants.

Source: AP