Experts Describe ‘Surrealistic’ Process Of Putting Charlottesville’s Nazis On Trial

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A four-year civil trial ended on a high note for plaintiffs this week, when a jury awarded more than $26 million in damages.

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The Charlottesville, Virginia, civil trial of a group of white nationalist extremists was not televised—the federal judge assigned the case forbade anyone to audio record the proceedings. Members of the public who wanted to follow along had to dial in an sometimes messy convention line, day after day, for over four weeks, which often turned out to be a bizarre auditory spectacle.

This was especially true when extremist experts brought in to testify for the plaintiffs were cross-examined by the same extremists they studied.

“It was a surreal experience,” Dr. Deborah Lipstadt, an acclaimed Holocaust scholar and Emory University history professor, said Wednesday after appearing at the witness stand earlier this month.

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Lipstadt has spent years advising members of Congress on matters of anti-Semitism and hate speech. In September, President Joe Biden named him to a new, ambassador-level position as special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism. (it is currently confirmed Stalled in the Senate.)

He was also approached by the team of the Charlottesville plaintiffs to weigh in at the “Unite the Right” rally at the center of his civil lawsuit. Dr. Peter Simi, a professor of sociology at Chapman University who studied extremism, also gave his professional stance on the rally and the plan that went into it. each Presented a report good In the rally that was discussed during the trial.

Over two days in August 2017, hundreds of people descended on Charlottesville to protest a proposal to remove a Confederate monument. The vast majority were white people. They carried torches and marched across the campus of the University of Virginia until they turned a watchful eye against a group of defendants who had gathered around a statue of the school’s founder, making threats and obscenities. Was doing. The next day’s events turned into a gruesome scene of violence, when a white youth plowed his car into another group of protestors, killing a woman and injuring dozens.

The trial’s nine plaintiffs scored a major victory Tuesday when, after nearly three weeks of witness testimony and three days of deliberation, a jury awarded more than $24 million in punitive damages and more than $24 million to defendants participating in the case. Found liable for approximately $2 million in compensatory damages. Big money which they have vowed to fight.

On the stand, Lipstadt read aloud some planning messages sent by the event’s organizers. He testified that she was “astonished” The level of anti-Semitism and admiration for Nazi Germany is evident in the discussions.

“On the one hand, I felt like I was in class, teaching about anti-Semitism and its connection to white supremacy,” Lipstadt said of her experience as an expert witness. I told. “It was a call to arms. It was a call for violence. If you read their statements, it’s just overwhelming.”

She was also ready to face the defendants.

“I was very disappointed that Richard Spencer didn’t cross-examine me,” she said.

Spencer, a white nationalist credited with coining the term “alt-right”, was one of two defendants who represented themselves at trial after failing to hire a lawyer. The other was Christopher Cantwell, a racist podcaster currently serving a prison sentence for extortion.

A group of white nationalists carrying torches rally around a statue of Thomas Jefferson on August 11, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia.
via The Associated Press

Cantwell cross-examined Lipstad, though his interrogation ended after he failed to reconcile her about it being a good subject for Holocaust jokes.

“I was ready. I was ready, actually, to go face-to-face with them,” Lipstead said. “I knew they were going to try to poke a hole in everything I said.”

Simi also revealed that she expected some confrontation with Spencer and Cantwell. “But even then the lawyers were, in some cases, no different,” he said. “I would say that Josh Smith is, in fact, his cross-examination – the only word I can describe is ‘unhinged’.”

Smith, who represented the now-defunct Conservatives Activist Party along with white nationalists Matthew Hembach and Matthew Parrott, skated on a variety of topics in his cross-examination, at one point bringing up different aspects of Asian culture. At another point, Judge Norman Moon cut him off, saying: “The question doesn’t make sense.”

Simi also testified about the deceptive “joke” element of white nationalism, explaining that due to the movement’s tendency to doublespeak and deliver messages with irony, tongue-in-cheeks about violence against Jews and people of color. Cheek statements are never really innocent.

He hoped that the case would one day help historians explain what happened in August 2017.

“Sometimes we forget that a legal case in terms of providing a historical record can really help do that,” Simi said. “I think it’s very important to have a healthy, functioning democracy, should you have an accurate historical record.”

Both experts hoped that the Charlottesville jury’s decision would send a scathing message to extremist groups around the country, discouraging them from plotting similar incidents. Amy Spitalnick, executive director of Integrity First for America – the nonprofit that brought the suit – expressed a similar sentiment, saying Wednesday that “violence and hate will have consequences.”

“Certainly this resounding victory for our plaintiff underscores that,” she said.

Attorney Roberta Kaplan, who served as co-principal counsel for the plaintiffs with Karen Dunn, emphasized their intention to ensure that the plaintiffs are actually paid for the damages they caused. In An interview with Law.com After the verdict was pronounced, Kaplan cited his experience working on decision enforcement cases, saying: “I knew how to do it, and we’d have to do it here again if necessary.” Many plaintiffs are under the age of 40, which means the obligation to pay damages could follow for years to come.

Kaplan also told court on Tuesday that the plaintiffs’ legal team is considering whether to revisit the two claims that impeded the jury. Both included the US Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, a now rarely used law that once helped take down the KKK. Retrieval of those claims could cause even more damages to the plaintiff.

Although the case may be seen as a victory, the threat of white nationalism is not easily defeated. Lipstad and Simi both emphasized the importance of being vigilant against racial hatred.

“People fail to take it seriously until someone is murdered,” Lipstad said. “People fail to take it seriously until real damage is done. I would like good, mainstream Americans – regardless of their political outlook – to open their eyes and say: ‘This is dangerous.'”

Simi is also worried about the future. He called the January 6 attack on the US Capitol “a straight line in many ways” from Charlottesville.

“We have elections coming up and we have such people in Congress” [Republican Rep.] Paul Gosari [of Arizona], who speak the same language of those who organized the Unite Right,” he said. “You know, we have people like Tucker Carlson expressing ideas related to substitution theory. So, I mean, we’re in a very dangerous time.”

“When I think about the possibilities of what could happen, I don’t get a good night’s sleep,” Lipstadt said. “It’s not going away.”

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