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A federal lawsuit against the organizers of the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which has rattled hate groups and white supremacist leaders, goes to trial this month.
The suit already has helped to dismantle some of America's most well-known white supremacist groups, and it has financially crippled one leader of the so-called "alt-right," the white supremacist and nationalist movement that came to prominence under President Donald Trump.
"It's very stressful, and very costly," said Richard Spencer, one of the defendants in the lawsuit and the former de facto leader of the "alt-right," in an interview. "This level of pressure is definitely scary."
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Lawsuits have long been used to dismantle or bankrupt the engines of hate in the U.S., including the Ku Klux Klan, the Aryan Nations and the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer.
"We know that civil lawsuits work in holding accountable extremists by going after their finances and their operations," said Amy Spitalnick, executive director of the nonprofit civil rights group Integrity First for America, which is backing the lawsuit. "That has been true for decades."
But even when those groups have been crippled, white supremacists have adapted, going underground and surfacing with new organizations and leaders.
An alleged conspiracy to Unite the Right
The Unite the Right rally, held on Aug. 11 and 12, 2017, was a watershed moment for the white supremacist movement in the United States.
Coming the summer after the election of a president who kickstarted his political career by pushing a racist conspiracy theory, the event put American hatred on full display.
Clean-cut white men marched across the University of Virginia campus carrying tiki torches and chanting, "Jews will not replace us." Neo-Nazis and white supremacists, brandishing shields emblazoned with Nazi symbols, chanted racist and antisemitic slogans as they fought the removal of a Confederate monument.
Fights between white supremacists and counter-protesters broke out. Neo-Nazi James Fields drove his car into a crowd, killing Heather Heyer. Fields was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.
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Integrity First's wide-ranging lawsuit alleges that the leaders of the white supremacist movement engaged in a conspiracy to commit racially motivated violence against nonwhite and Jewish people during the Unite The Right rally.
"The violence in Charlottesville was no accident," the lawsuit states. "Defendants spent months carefully coordinating their efforts, on the internet and in person. They exhorted each other: 'If you want to defend the South and Western Civilization from the Jew and his dark-skinned allies, be at Charlottesville on 12 August' and 'Next stop: Charlottesville, VA. Final stop: Auschwitz.'"
The lawsuit seeks compensatory and punitive damages for the plaintiffs, with the amount to be decided by a jury.
The defendants are a "who's who" of the extremist right: Jason Kessler, a key organizer of the event; neo-Nazi podcaster Christopher Cantwell; Nathan Damigo, a white supremacist who founded the group Identity Evropa; Spencer; and a host of other extremist leaders and groups.
Richard Spencer: Suit has been 'crippling'
Despite briefly rising to prominence at the outset of the Trump presidency, the last four years have proven brutal for the "alt-right," a political movement that mixes racism, white nationalism, antisemitism and populism. That's thanks in part to the pressure of the case, filed in October 2017.
Spencer has no illusions about the state of the movement he helped create. "The 'alt-right' is dead," he said in an interview last month.
Last week, Spencer acknowledged that the Integrity First lawsuit has taken a toll.
Along with the constant stress, the lawsuit has cost thousands of dollars to defend, Spencer said. In June 2020, he told the court that the case has been "financially crippling." Now he's representing himself in court.
The plaintiffs – a minister, students and other Charlottesville residents – have won default judgments against seven of the 24 defendants, with the penalties to be decided by the jury. The court has issued five-figure fines against three other defendants for failing to produce evidence or show up for court hearings or depositions, court files show.
Meanwhile, several of the groups named in the suit have fallen apart.
Vanguard America, the neo-Nazi group that Fields marched with, fragmented after the rally. So did the Traditionalist Workers Party, a white supremacist group. Cantwell is in prison after being convicted of extortion. Identity Evropa rebranded, and in May 2020 defendants Matthew Heimbach and Elliott Kline each were ordered to pay fines of more than $12,000.
At least two defendants are in hiding: Andrew Anglin, who founded the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer and has another multi-million dollar judgment against him from another lawsuit, and his webmaster Robert Ray, who goes by "Azzmador" and disappeared from view last year after the suit was filed.
"This case is about ensuring that these folks are effectively bankrupted and dismantled," Spitalnick said. "The fact that so many of these defendants have already been marginalized in the movement is a testament to how accountability can work."
In that respect, the Charlottesville case follows a long history of using lawsuits to disrupt hate groups.
A compound razed and movements flattened
An extraordinary series of photographs from 2001 shows the demolition of the Aryan Nations compound outside Boise, Idaho. In one, a yellow digger chews into a massive swastika painted on a roof. In another, a guard tower is flattened by the same machine.
The compound was razed after the Aryan Nations was bankrupted in 2000 by a lawsuit brought by an Idaho attorney and the Southern Poverty Law Center.
That case was one of almost a dozen such lawsuits filed by the SPLC against various groups over the last 20 years.
"Every one of our cases led to the dissolution of a group," said Heidi Beirich, who once led the SPLC's Intelligence Project. Now she's co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism. "It's a very effective tactic."
The land that once housed the group is now a public park.
In the 1980s and 90s, the SPLC filed lawsuits against several chapters of the KKK on behalf of plaintiffs who had been intimidated or threatened. The lawsuits caused those chapters to file for bankruptcy or shut down.
Beirich said she applauds Integrity First for bringing such a broad lawsuit against so many defendants. The SPLC cases typically tackled one organization or chapter at a time, she said.
Like the SPLC lawsuits, the Charlottesville case is based on more than the mere speech of hate groups, which is protected, Beirich said. It alleges the defendants engaged in illegal actions, including harassment and assault.
Ku Klux Klan Act invoked in lawsuit over insurrection
The suit against the Unite the Right organizers appears to have opened new legal fronts in the fight against extremism.
In late August, seven officers from the U.S. Capitol Police sued Trump, his longtime adviser Roger Stone and members of far-right extremist groups, alleging they conspired to use violence on Jan. 6 to attempt to prevent Congress from certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election
That lawsuit relies on the same statute used in the Charlottesville case – the federal Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, a Reconstruction-era statute that allows individuals to sue when they are injured by conspiracies.
"Unfortunately, the KKK Act is experiencing something of a renaissance," said Karen Dunn, co-lead counsel on the Charlottesville lawsuitwith Roberta Kaplan. "But we are glad it exists because this is exactly the kind of conduct it is meant to address."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Lawsuit over Charlottesville 'Unite the Right' rally goes to trial