What the ‘Unite the Right’ trial reveals about white nationalism in the U.S.

A jury in Charlottesville on Tuesday found the main organizers behind the deadly 2017 "Unite the Right" rally liable on one charge but deadlocked on two key charges. Lisa Desjardins explains.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A civil court jury in Charlottesville, Virginia, today found the main organizers behind the deadly 2017 Unite the Right Rally liable on four counts, but deadlocked on two key charges.

    Lisa Desjardins explains.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    A jury in a nearly month-long civil case involving the violent Unite the Right Rally ordered white nationalist leaders and organizations to pay more than $25 million in damages.

    But the jury deadlocked on charges of a federal conspiracy in the lead-up to the rally, which led to the death of a counterprotester, Heather Heyer. The rally was planned in part to protest the removal of a statue of the Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The plaintiffs described emotional trauma, broken bones, and bloodshed during the rally.

    For more, I'm joined by Ian Shapira, an enterprise reporter at The Washington Post who has been covering the trial.

    Ian, the jury decided this after a month-long civil trial. Can you tell us exactly what we know about that decision? What did the jury decide?

  • Ian Shapira, The Washington Post:

    The jury handed down a pretty stinging rebuke to the people who organized this rally. They meted out millions of dollars worth of punishments to participants.

    They awarded a total of $26 million in damages against 12 individual defendants, five white nationalist organizations at the trial. It was a message sent by the jury that this kind of violence cannot happen in today's day and age.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    But, still, what about those federal conspiracy charges that I know the plaintiffs also hoped to prove? Why do you think that those were tougher for the jury? And what does it mean that those were left unaddressed?

  • Ian Shapira:

    That's actually a great question, and that's something the plaintiffs' attorneys want to continue fighting for.

    They told us at the end of today's verdict that — at the end of today's hearing that they plan on appealing those or bringing back those charges again. These are important counts, very crucial to the plaintiffs' attorneys, and to all but advocates who wanted to see real serious reform.

    They were — they had sued the defendants under an old — an old law meant to protect enslaved Black people from the KKK in the late 1800s. And, in that respect, this case was considered kind of like a landmark case under those particular counts.

    The plaintiffs, instead, though, won on state claims instead. So that's where we are right now. It's still a pretty big victory for the plaintiffs and those actors who do not — who wanted to send a message to these white nationalists and white supremacists.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    As you say, the legal proceeding here was very complicated. I know the jury instructions alone were 77 pages' long.

    But this revolves around really a simple and dangerous divide that this country is experiencing right now, in large part over race, over our identity, over the past.

    What did you hear in this trial about where the white nationalist movement is now and if they are standing by racist beliefs?

  • Ian Shapira:

    The white nationalist movement that inspired this particular event has been — has largely cratered. I mean, it's dispersed.

    Many of the finances of these organizations are just nonexistent. Several of the organizations have gone underground. So, for that component of this story, you have seen a real victory for the folks who want to see those forces eradicated and gone.

    But, as we all know, white supremacy and white nationalism still exist very much in the United States. We saw — we see this every day, basically. So, this event — this lawsuit was important in beating back the forces that prompted so much violence, and so — on that day. And it could be used — these kind of lawsuits could be used in the future in other events that might happen.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    This particular case has been watched for years.

    What happens next here? Do we think that the plaintiffs in this case will get this money anytime soon?

  • Ian Shapira:

    It really remains to be seen.

    What's going happen next is defense lawyers will ask the judge to reduce the penalties and the punitive damages. And there are state laws that limit or that actually put a cap on punitive damages, depending on certain cases.

    So they're going to go for that. And it sort of remains to be seen how quickly the money can be extracted. It also remains to be seen how much money these organizations or individuals have at all in the first place. I mean, they could extract future wages, impose liens on their properties. It all just depends. We're all trying to figure this out actually right now.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    One last question.

    You have been there in Charlottesville. I know how tense it has been over the past couple of years. What's the feeling there now after this?

  • Ian Shapira:

    I think the sense in Charlottesville is exhaustion.

    I think they're exhausted with everyone, to be honest. They're exhausted with the story. They are exhausted with the news media, frankly. And they are, of course, exhausted with lawyers and for — white nationalists and the white nationalist themselves constantly showing up in court all the time for various hearings.

    We have gone through so many different criminal cases. This particular civil litigation has dragged on for a while now. And so I think they're quite relieved that at least part of this is over.

    And what we're trying to figure out now is whether the plaintiffs will file a new — file a new lawsuit, trying to win on those two federal claims that they didn't get a verdict on today. So, that remains to be seen.

    But the sense in Charlottesville is that they still have issues that they're dealing with here in terms of race and inequality, and they're just exhausted.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    An at times difficult, but a very important story.

    Ian Shapira, thank you for joining us.

  • Ian Shapira:

    Thanks for letting me be here. Appreciate it.

Listen to this Segment