Trial of the white nationalists behind the 2017 Charlottesville rally is set to begin

A federal court in Virginia is set to begin the trial of the 2017 Charlottesville ‘Unite the Right’ rally on Monday. Plaintiffs argue that the rally, in which a counter protester was killed, was an unlawful conspiracy while the rally’s organizers say they were exercising their First Amendment rights. Amy Spitalnick executive director of nonprofit Integrity First for America joins.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    A federal court trial begins in Charlottesville, Virginia, tomorrow. At issue, whether the organizers of the deadly 2017 " Unite the Right" march are accountable for what the plaintiffs charge was an unlawful conspiracy–not a spontaneous rally that turned violent.

    Nine residents of Charlottesville injured over two days are seeking financial damages from about two dozen organizers of the right-wing extremists' protest. One of those protesters– who drove his car into a crowd of peaceful counter protester and killed 32-year-old heather heyer was convicted of murder two years ago.

    This civil lawsuit is the first in many years to use a law from 1871 known as the Ku Klux Klan Act which was designed to strengthen protections for victims of racial violence. It charges that the 2017 organizers conspired to harm people of color and jews.

    The defendants in the trial have claimed they were exercising First Amendment rights and that there was no conspiracy but the federal judge overseeing the case ruled that the 1871 act and other state and federal laws do apply.

    I spoke with Amy Spitalnick, executive director of Integrity First for America –the nonpartisan, non profit organization backing the lawsuit.

    Amy, a lot of people will remember the tragedy, but not the lawsuit afterwards. Bring us up to speed, what are you going to court for right now?

  • Amy Spitalnick:

    So many people remember the images of neo-Nazis with tiki torches chanting Jews will not replace us. They remember the car attack that killed Heather Heyer and injured so many others. And what this case illustrates is that first, those incidents weren't just accidents or clashes. They were planned long in advance, meticulously on social media and other communications platforms, and that the story people think they know about Charlottesville is actually so much deeper and darker that motivated, by white supremacy, by antisemitism, by racism, these defendants planned on discord and other social media chats and text messages, in-person meetings and beyond, how they plan to come to Charlottesville commit violence, and then, of course, they celebrated this violence. And in these chats, they discussed every detail from the mundane and banal what to wear, what to bring for lunch. Will mayonnaise spoil on a sandwich if you bring it for lunch? To the violent of violent, how to quote crack commie skulls, use free speech instruments as weapons, and even whether they could hit protesters with cars and claim self-defense, which is, of course, precisely what happened. And so that's not an accident. That's not a clash. That's a racially motivated, violent conspiracy. And our plaintiffs are using a statute known as the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 to hold accountable the two dozen individuals and groups most directly responsible for that conspiracy.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Now, what sort of evidence are you going to be able to present? Because I have heard that several cell phones magically fell down toilets before they could be grabbed by law enforcement?

  • Amy Spitalnick:

    That is correct. So there was a pandemic of cell phones falling into toilets among the defendants at one point in this case. But we have collected over 5.3 terabytes, which is 5.3 million megabytes of digital evidence in this case. Social media chats, text messages, photos, videos, you name it. These defendants likely used those sorts of platforms and forums to communicate and plan this conspiracy.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    What is the defendant's case? Who are the defendants, and why do they think that they stand a chance in court right now?

  • Amy Spitalnick:

    So the defendants are a who's who of the violent white supremacist movement in America. It's people like Richard Spencer, Andrew Anglin, who runs The Daily Stormer, which is one of the most prevalent neo-Nazi websites. Groups like National Socialist Movement, which is one of the largest neo-Nazi groups, Identity Europa, League of the South, certain Klan groups. Our lawsuit specifically takes on the people in the groups who were identified in those chats and otherwise those as most directly responsible for the conspiracy. Their main arguments, or at least that we've heard over the last few years, are that this is somehow protected speech that the First Amendment somehow protects them here. And the court has made clear the First Amendment does not protect violence. If these defendants had simply shown up in Charlottesville with signs and swastikas and Nazi chants and left it there, that would have been acceptable conduct that would under the First Amendment, as abhorrent as we all might have found it.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Is this personal for you?

  • Amy Spitalnick:

    I think this is deeply personal for everyone involved, including me. I'm the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, and if you had asked me five or 10 years ago, will you be suing Nazis professionally in the year 2021, I probably would have thought you were crazy. But that is where we're at right now in terms of the world we're living in. We're living in a moment of rising extremism and hate, and it requires a response. It requires accountability. And so it's deeply personal for me, particularly because so much of the hate that we saw four years ago and in the cycle of violence since has direct echoes of the same hate that claimed the lives of so many of my family members and so many others. It specifically involved comments like next stop Charlottesville, final stop at Auschwitz, and talked about gassing the Jews and so many of the other horrific slurs and hate that we all know too well from the darkest times in our history. It is certainly not an easy time we're living in. It's a scary time, but the fact that we're able to use the tools we have to do something in these moments is powerful.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Amy Spitalnick, Executive Director of Integrity First for America Thanks so much for joining us.

  • Amy Spitalnick:

    Thanks so much for having me.

Listen to this Segment