The Charlottesville march on Aug. 12, 2017, known as the “Unite the Right” rally, was organized to protest the planned removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from a park at the city center. It was the third and by far the largest such protest since the previous May.
On the eve of the rally, about 300 mostly white men staged a torch-lit march on the University of Virginia campus. They chanted racist, antisemitic slogans like “You will not replace us!” and “Jews will not replace us!” The march evoked rallies held by the Ku Klux Klan and by Nazi Germany.
The first clashes between the rally participants and about 30 counterdemonstrators erupted that night. The skirmishing continued the next day as adherents of the far right gathered at a downtown park carrying shields, clubs and various white nationalist flags.
The police did not intervene but eventually declared an unlawful assembly, pushing the protesters out of the city center.
The events culminated with James Fields Jr., then a 20-year-old neo-Nazi, driving his Dodge Challenger into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing Heather Heyer, 32, and leaving at least 19 others injured, four of whom are plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
Four white nationalists were sentenced to up to eight years in jail for beating a Black man in a parking garage during the Charlottesville rally. Police made very few arrests, an independent review of events determined, but several far-right protesters and counterprotesters were convicted on various charges including assault or disorderly conduct for pepper spray and other attacks against the other side.
James Fields Jr. was sentenced to multiple life sentences in federal prison for killing Heather Heyer when he drove his car into the crowd during the Charlottesville protests.
But no larger federal or state cases materialized. In what was taken as a nod of approval, President Donald J. Trump, when asked about the violence, said there were “very fine people on both sides.”
The lawyers and others behind the civil case say they felt that the organizers were not being held accountable for spreading hate.
“Civil litigation allows us to hold those responsible for violence accountable in a way that other tools do not,” Elizabeth Sines, a law student at the time of the attack and the lead plaintiff, wrote in a 2019 email interview. “If you plan and execute violence — toward Jewish people, people of color, diverse communities like Charlottesville — you will be held responsible for your actions.”
To pursue the organizers of the Charlottesville rally, lawyers are relying on 21st-century technology as well as a somewhat obscure law from the Civil War era that has gained popularity in recent years. It is one of the few laws that allows people to accuse fellow citizens, rather than the government, of depriving them of their civil rights.
The federal law from 1871 is often called the Ku Klux Klan Act because it was designed to prevent the Klan from denying freed slaves their civil rights. Its provisions even outlawed moving about “in disguise upon the public highway” in order to deprive anyone of equal protection under the law.
Aside from the Charlottesville case, a federal lawsuit directed at some of the main participants in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot invokes the act.
The law specifies that any violence must be plotted in advance, which is why proving a prior conspiracy is crucial to the Charlottesville lawsuit.
The lawyers say the case rests on chat conversations from Discord, a platform for game enthusiasts, as well as a raft of text messages, tweets and other social media posts that discuss fomenting violence. The Discord chats were published by Unicorn Riot, an alternative media website. The discussions overflow with derogatory remarks about Black people, Jews and activists from movements like Black Lives Matter and antifa.
In the Charlottesville case, Judge Norman K. Moon of Federal District Court cited the Ku Klux Klan Act in rejecting the defendants’ attempt to have the lawsuit dismissed on First Amendment grounds.
The plaintiffs in the Charlottesville rally lawsuit are a cross-section of Virginia residents — an ordained minister, a landscaper, several students. In addition to claiming that a conspiracy deprived them of their civil rights, they are seeking damages for injuries, lost income and severe emotional distress.
Elizabeth Sines, the lead plaintiff, witnessed both the march, with its racist chants, and the car plowing into the crowd of counterprotesters the next day.
“The trauma will never go away,” she said in an interview. “Among other things, I will always be on high alert when I’m in a large crowd and I’ll always have nightmares — of the car attack, of torchlight rallies. I’ll be scared forever. But the events from that weekend have reaffirmed for me how important it is to show up.”
Plaintiffs from the vehicle attack sustained a variety of injuries, according to court papers. Marcus Martin, the landscaper, suffered a broken leg and a badly fractured ankle. The pain has made his landscaping work difficult and he has been unable to resume playing softball.
Some 35 lawyers are donating their time to the plaintiffs, while other costs are being met through the fund-raising efforts of a nonprofit organization called Integrity First for America.
The defendants in the Charlottesville rally civil case are drawn from a range of white nationalist or neo-Nazi organizations, and include far-right figures like Richard B. Spencer, Jason Kessler and Christopher Cantwell.
They and their lawyers have argued in interviews and in court papers that while others might find their views reprehensible, they were exercising their First Amendment right to self-expression. Any discussion before the rally about violence came only in the context of self-defense, they said.
George Rutherglen, a professor at the University of Virginia Law School, cast doubt on the idea that free speech would prove a strong defense. “I don’t think the First Amendment is going to get them very far in defending racially discriminatory confrontations and violence,” he said. “You have no First Amendment right to go out to attack people based on race.”
The 14 individuals and 10 organizations do not have a uniform defense. A few have ignored the proceedings or destroyed materials requested in discovery, provoking fines, court sanctions or default judgments that already link them to a conspiracy.
The defense lawyers either declined or did not respond to requests for comment.
Mr. Spencer drew considerable attention for his notorious “Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory!” speech in Washington, D.C., in November 2016.
Mr. Spencer is among at least five defendants representing themselves. He told the court last year that the case had been “financially crippling” because so many fund-raising platforms booted him off and he could not afford his lawyer.
His lack of contact with other organizers showed a “glaring absence of evidence” linking him to a conspiracy, Mr. Spencer wrote in an email.
Mr. Kessler, who is from Charlottesville, sought to parlay the rally into a leadership position in the far right. He said the march was meant to defend white history and sought to blame the violence on the police for not separating the “Unite the Right” participants from leftist counterprotesters.
Other participants have continued to espouse extremist views. Mr. Cantwell, the former host of a neo-Nazi talk show online, said in court papers that the defendants were basically on trial for being white men and he tried to bar expert testimony on white supremacy and has questioned the Holocaust. Mr. Cantwell was sentenced to more than three years in prison this year, having been convicted of extortion after he threatened to rape another man’s wife amid a feud among far-right groups.
Various groups named in the lawsuit have disbanded entirely or rebranded in an attempt to put Charlottesville behind them. At least two prominent neo-Nazis have denounced their pasts, leading to accusations that they were trying to wriggle out of the suit.
“Broadly, all the groups in Charlottesville have burned up in the aftermath of the event,” said Michael Edison Hayden, a spokesman for the Southern Poverty Law Center.
If the jury awards the plaintiffs substantial damages, the case could follow many of the defendants around for decades. Not even bankruptcy would erase the amount owed.
Both the Department of Homeland Security and the F.B.I. have identified domestic extremism as the greatest current threat to the United States. The case will spotlight how far-right movements thrive online, and how they managed to move offline to stage the Charlottesville rally.
Since then, the event has been overshadowed by the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, but some of the same ideology was at play there, with members of far-right groups like the Proud Boys, street brawlers who call themselves “Western chauvinists,” and the Oath Keepers, a paramilitary organization, accused of playing a prominent role in organizing the attack.
Many Americans are unaware of the threat from the far right because so much of it builds up online, where they do not see it, said Karen L. Dunn, a lead lawyer for the plaintiffs.
“By the time we see it, it has the potential to create tremendous injury and instability, and I think it was true both in Charlottesville and on Jan. 6,” she said.