Unite the Right Charlottesville rally organizers suffered millions in damages

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Jurors could not reach unanimous verdicts on two crucial claims based on a 150-year-old federal law passed after the Civil War to protect freed slaves from violence and protect their civil rights. The Ku Klux Klan Act contains a rarely used provision that allows private citizens to sue other citizens for violations of civil rights.

According to these allegations, the plaintiffs asked the jury to find that the defendants participated in a conspiracy to commit racist violence and that they knew about the conspiracy but failed to stop it from being carried out. Jury members could not agree on these allegations.

The jury found the defendants liable under a conspiracy claim in the state of Virginia and awarded $ 11 million in damages to the plaintiffs under that claim. Jury members also found that five of the meeting’s main organizers were responsible for a claim alleging that they had exposed two of the plaintiffs to threats, harassment or violence motivated by racial, religious or ethnic hostility. The jury awarded the plaintiffs $ 1.5 million in damages for this claim.

A makeshift memorial to Heather Heyer who was killed in the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.

A makeshift memorial to Heather Heyer who was killed in the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. Credit:AP

The last two claims were made against James Alex Fields jnr, an outspoken Hitler admirer who deliberately drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killed 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injured 19 others. The jury found that Fields, who is serving a life sentence for murder and hate crimes, was responsible for an assault or crime claim and sentenced six plaintiffs to nearly $ 6.8 million in damages. The jury awarded the same plaintiff nearly $ 6.7 million on a claim that Fields intentionally inflicted emotional suffering on them.

Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, said the verdict “sends a very clear message that hate speech that is translated into action has consequences”.

“The defendants were convicted in their own words which showed months of planning went into the rally. This was not a spontaneous event,” said Bro, who was not a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

Hundreds of white nationalists went down to Charlottesville for the Unite the Right rally on August 11 and 12, 2017, ostensibly to protest the city’s plans to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. 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.

Then-President Donald Trump started a political firestorm when he did not immediately condemn the white nationalists and said it was “very nice people on both sides”.

A white nationalist protester enters Lee Park in Charlottesville one day after the deadly demonstration.

A white nationalist protester enters Lee Park in Charlottesville one day after the deadly demonstration.Credit:AP

The lawsuit, funded by Integrity First for America, a non-profit civil rights organization formed in response to the Charlottesville violence, accused some of the country’s most famous white nationalists of plotting the violence, including Jason Kessler, the rally’s main organizer; 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 publishing a tearful video when an arrest warrant was issued for his arrest on charges of assault for using pepper spray on counter-protesters.

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Joshua Smith, a lawyer for the accused Matthew Heimbach, Matthew Parrott and the far-right Traditionalist Worker Party, said he would ask the court to reduce the amount of damages against his clients. However, he described the verdict as a “big win” for his clients because of the relatively modest amount of compensatory damages awarded by the jury.

The trial included emotional testimonies from people who were hit by Fields’ car or who witnessed the attacks, as well as plaintiffs who were beaten or subjected to racist insults.

Melissa Blair, who was pushed out of the way when Fields’ car drove into the crowd, described the horror of seeing her fiancé bleeding on the sidewalk and later finding out that her friend Heyer had been killed.

“I was confused. I was scared. I was worried about all the people who were there. It was a complete terror scene. There was blood everywhere. I was terrified,” said Blair, who wept during his testimony.

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During his testimony, some of the accused used racial epithets and defiantly expressed their support for white supremacy. They also blamed each other and the anti-fascist political movement known as the antifa for the violence that erupted that weekend.

As a closing argument for the jury, the defendants and their lawyers tried to distance themselves from Fields, saying that the plaintiffs had not proved that they conspired to commit violence at the meeting.

Before the trial, Judge Norman Moon issued third-party verdicts against seven other defendants who refused to respond to the lawsuit. The court will decide on damages against the accused.

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