Charlottesville Was Only a Preview

We have never had the national reckoning that we need over the events of August 2017.

White nationalists with torches rally in Charlottesville in 2017
Stephanie Keith / Reuters

The roar was the first thing to reach Natalie Romero. “I just heard loudness, like thunder, as if the earth was growling,” the University of Virginia student later testified. Hundreds of white supremacists were marching toward her, their low dog barks alternating with rhythmic war chants: “Jews will not replace us.” “Blood and soil.” “White lives matter.” As she clutched a homemade protest banner, huddling with a small group of students around the base of a Thomas Jefferson statue, Romero feared for her life. A lit torch landed at her feet. A burst of mace hit her. “I felt like a mouse, trapped,” she said. “I felt like I’m about to be burned at the stake.”

The racist rage that enveloped Romero and other student counterprotesters on the night of August 11, 2017, erupted again the next morning in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia. As white-supremacist groups convened for the “Unite the Right” rally in defense of the city’s Robert E. Lee statue, they marched defiantly into a diverse, boisterous crowd of counterprotesters composed of local clergy, students, activists, and townspeople. They used their flagpoles and riot shields to attack anyone they perceived to be a Jew or a Communist, or to be affiliated with antifa or Black Lives Matter. The rally was swiftly shut down by authorities, and the crowds began to disperse. Two blocks from the park, James Fields Jr., an alt-right foot soldier from Ohio, raced his Dodge Charger down a narrow street and directly into a crowd of people, including Romero, leaving Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal, dead and several others severely injured.

Charlottesville that August offered a preview of the America that we would become: a country in which violently racist sloganeering freely mixes with absurd, carnival antics; a culture in which constitutional principles are treated as cudgels with which to crush political opponents; a society in which gun-toting extremists parade openly in the streets in search of enemies to strike, and then claim self-defense if anyone is injured; and an online ecosphere in which virtual hate escalates before spilling over into real-world terror. None of these nightmarish trends began that weekend, but Charlottesville propelled them into the heart of American public life. And then Donald Trump’s invocation of the “very fine people on both sides” ripped away one of the last remaining rhetorical guardrails separating Christian racial populism from liberal democracy.

Charlottesville’s greatest legacy, however, is its fracturing of a common set of truths. Our national conversation about race and religion has since devolved into a contest of warring slogans and dueling dates. Words fail us; we cannot even agree on the definitions of racism and anti-Semitism.

We have never had the national reckoning that we need over the events of August 2017. The closest we have come is the civil trial against the white-supremacist organizers, which concluded just before Thanksgiving. I spent a month inside the federal courthouse where that trial took place, just a mile down the road from the university where I teach Jewish history. What I heard and saw proved even more disturbing than I had anticipated. For it was not only white supremacy on trial in Charlottesville, but also the law itself, and its capacity to quarantine a virulent ideology from overwhelming our enfeebled, all-too-distracted democracy.

After four years of planning, four weeks of trial, 36 witnesses, and five terabytes of digital evidence, a Charlottesville jury found the defendants liable under Virginia law for an unlawful civil conspiracy to commit racially motivated violence. It awarded damages to the tune of some $26 million. The architects of the trial established an unassailable historical record of the moral trespass that occurred. Yet significant as they are, the verdicts represent only partial victory. The jury deadlocked on two federal conspiracy claims. The sum of the damages it did award will likely drop for technical reasons, and the money may not even be collectible from the defendants.

Of greater concern, however, is the deafening public silence surrounding the trial. Four years ago, Americans were transfixed by Charlottesville. This time around, they all but ignored it. Attention from national media outlets was surprisingly scant or, in the case of conservative outlets, practically nonexistent. Even the city of Charlottesville itself seemed to pretend that the trial was not taking place. The fall college-football games attracted thousands of visitors each week. Meanwhile, the courthouse plaza remained almost completely empty of onlookers and protesters most days of the trial. A legal reckoning works only if society pays attention.

The U.S. Federal Courthouse for the Western District of Virginia is a squat, three-story red-brick building at the far west end of downtown Charlottesville’s pedestrian mall. The courthouse sits on land that once contained Vinegar Hill, a historically Black neighborhood razed in 1964. It is steps from Emancipation Park (still known as Lee Park in 2017, while the statue stood) and Congregation Beth Israel, the town’s historic synagogue. It is also less than a five-minute walk from Fourth Street, where shortly after noon on August 12, 2017, James Fields Jr. drove into the crowd of protesters.

Fields acted alone, but he was hardly a lone wolf. He left his native Ohio for Charlottesville to answer a specific call from the organized white-supremacist movement that had convened the event they officially named “Unite the Right” and privately referred to as the “Battle of Charlottesville.” The organizers had planned the event on a Discord server, where they discussed dress code, equipment, tactics, and theoretical questions such as the legality of driving through protesters on roadways. Yet the main men of the American far right—the alt-right ideologist Richard Spencer, the shock jock Christopher Cantwell, the neo-Nazi Matthew Heimbach, and a passel of other leading neo-Confederates and white nationalists—fled Charlottesville after the rally and have never faced criminal prosecution for their role in organizing the event. (In 2018, Cantwell pleaded guilty to two counts of assault and battery for pepper-spraying counterprotesters.) The Trump Justice Department evinced no interest in federal hate-crimes prosecution.

What finally brought these men back to town and into a courtroom was a lawsuit filed by nine of their victims. The victims were represented by Roberta Kaplan, who argued the landmark 2013 Supreme Court marriage-equality case United States v. Windsor, and Karen Dunn, a former federal prosecutor, who together assembled a pro bono team of expert lawyers backed by a new legal nonprofit, Integrity First for America. The plaintiffs sued the “Unite the Right” organizers and their groups, 24 individuals and corporate entities all told, for monetary damages. Seven of the defendants simply refused to cooperate at all with the legal proceedings, leading to default judgments against them. That left 17 to face trial. They were represented by five different lawyers, except for Cantwell and Spencer, who acted pro se, or in their own defense.

On the opening day of the trial, Judge Norman Moon, an 85-year-old native Virginian appointed to the federal bench by Bill Clinton, laid out the question at the heart of the case: Did the defendants conspire to commit racially motivated violence at the “Unite the Right” rally? Under that heading, he explained to the jurors, the lawsuit grouped a variety of violations of Virginia’s civil-conspiracy and hate-crimes statutes, including assault, battery, intimidation, harassment, and other forms of violence “motivated by racial, religious, or ethnic animosity.” Two more claims were directed specifically at Fields for intentional infliction of emotional distress and assault and battery.

The legal threshold for establishing a civil conspiracy is quite low. The law requires evidence of only a single unlawful act, even if other behaviors and objectives were completely legal (such as a permitted public protest). Individual actions before, during, or after the events in question can be used to adduce intentions. Added to that, the standard of proof in a civil case is not the more familiar criminal-trial phrase “beyond a reasonable doubt” but rather a “preponderance of evidence,” defined as 51 percent favoring the plaintiff’s outcome.

However, torts constitute a double-edged sword. Tort claims allow victims to seek recompense for their personal injuries and mental harms. The costs of litigation and potential punitive damages can bankrupt extremist groups. Monetizing liability sends a huge signal, a proxy for guilt. But a civil suit reframes bodily violence as a property dispute between two equal parties. An uncollectible debt can further deflate the value of punishment. Either way, in the end, no one goes to prison.

To compensate for those potential limitations, the plaintiffs tried an ambitious legal gambit. They drew on the 1871 KKK Act—federal legislation passed after the Civil War to stop white-supremacist terror from disenfranchising newly emancipated Black Americans and derailing the democratic electoral process—adding to the lawsuit two federal claims of unlawful “conspiracy to commit racially-motivated violence” and “failure to stop [said] conspiracy” against “Black or Jewish individuals” and their supporters. A federal civil-conspiracy charge elevated the case to federal court. The move also increased the potential for public awareness and media interest.

Equally important, the federal claims made explicit the symbolic links between our own time and the historical moment when white supremacists embraced racial violence to terrorize Black freedmen and repel immigrants whom they believed to be racially inferior, including Jews from Eastern Europe. The 1870s also saw southern American cities and towns beginning to erect monuments honoring Confederate heroes and perpetuating the false narrative of the Lost Cause. One such statue, of Robert E. Lee, was commissioned in Charlottesville in 1917 and erected in 1924. In April 2017, after years of debate and a lawsuit, the Charlottesville City Council voted to remove the Lee statue, providing the pretext for the “Unite the Right” march four months later.

“We’re raising an army, my liege,” Jason Kessler texted Richard Spencer in early June 2017, adding, “For free speech, and the cracking of skulls if it comes to it.” A few weeks before, Kessler, a recent UVA grad and far-right provocateur, had begun reaching out to noted white-supremacist leaders across the country to get them to rally around the Lee statue. He proposed to “unite the right,” capitalizing on the new momentum the far right felt in the early months of the Trump administration.

The next steps are documented in a stunning archive of digital evidence compiled by the plaintiffs’ legal team—texts, Discord messages, Facebook exchanges, and emails—that reveals how Kessler, Spencer, and others conspired to bait their enemies into a physical confrontation similar to the one that had taken place in the spring at the “Battle of Berkeley,” where the Identity Evropa leader Nathan Damigo punched a female counterprotester in the face. The spectacle of street violence, with the enemy drawn out and then smashed in a triumphant display of white power, was a core goal of the Charlottesville gathering. The months of planning included discussions of such violence, communications strategies, plans for enticing antifa to appear, and endless racist and anti-Semitic rants and memes.

The online talk also included crude juvenile boasts, edgy jokes, and bizarre fantasy scenarios. At the trial, the defendants insisted that this online invective bore no relationship to real-world violence. They had never conspired to do more than show up and speak at a rally. They had aimed to provoke outrage, not violence. It was their political enemies who had responded ferociously; they acted only in self-defense. Their humor was taken out of context, its import exaggerated. Holocaust jokes about gassing “kikes” were a far cry from pepper-spraying counterprotesters. Online fantasies of racial warfare hardly equaled street scrums and body blows with riot shields.

Beyond simply proving the existence of an unlawful conspiracy, the plaintiffs’ lawyers worked hard to overcome the defendants’ argument and expose their fundamental duplicity and deceit. To do so, the lawyers returned time and again to gaps between the defendants’ pretrial depositions and cross-examination testimony on the stand, snatches of online dialogue that suggested awareness of real-world plans, and the underlying ideology of genocidal extermination. The result was a damning portrait of the ugly innards of the American far right.

There were moments when the lawyers caught the defendants in obvious lies. When Spencer spoke of his lofty views on global politics and claimed that his philosophical sincerity proscribed political violence and verbal disparagement of his opponents, they countered with footage of him on the night of August 13 in which he is heard wildly screaming about his anger at “fucking kikes” and “fucking octoroons,” the latter once enslaved by his ancestors, and his desire to return to Charlottesville for more confrontation. “This, ladies and gentlemen,” Dunn remarked, “is the real Richard Spencer.” Most of the time, however, the defendants simply weaved and dodged in response to cross-examination, admitting their prejudices while disclaiming the seriousness of their online rhetoric.

There is something both noble and tragic about these efforts to reveal the true face of white supremacy. Noble because calmly discussing racism and anti-Semitism with racists and anti-Semites is hard, painful work, even in the placid confines of a courtroom. Tragic because doing so reflects the great liberal faith in the power of honesty. If you just expose the lies and hatred, then eventually the liars and haters will come clean about their intentions. Yet the law is supremely challenged by a postmodern racist ideology that deliberately blurs the line between fact and fiction.

In that regard, arguably the trial’s most important line arrived on the 17th day, during the witness testimony by Samantha Froelich, the former girlfriend of the defendant Eli Kline. When she was initiated into the movement, she recalled being told: “Welcome to the alt-right, where the Holocaust never happened and we want it to happen again.” That quote perfectly captures the strangeness of the danger that appeared in Charlottesville four years ago, and the difficulty in reckoning with it in a court of law. The architects of Charlottesville openly espoused genocidal fantasies, yet they also gleefully dissolved the line between role-playing and incitement. Part of this reflects a strategy of desensitization and deception. As the style guide of The Daily Stormer, a white-supremacist website for which many of the defendants wrote, counsels its writers, they should express themselves so that people “can’t know whether we’re joking or not.” Sometimes even the members of the alt-right who are speaking don’t know either. That, too, is the point. Contemporary white supremacists have turned paradox into operating principle, creating a world in which everything can be plausibly denied because nothing is genuine—until suddenly it becomes all too real.

What kind of reckoning, then, did the Charlottesville trial provide? As the verdicts rolled in, audible gasps greeted the announcement of the large damages awarded. Yet observers immediately spotted the wrinkles. The jury awarded $1 each to seven plaintiffs on the charge of violating Virginia conspiracy law, and $0 to two plaintiffs in terms of compensatory damages—for actual harms suffered—but then several million more for punitive damages, intended to punish outrageous conduct and deter other offenders. Yet because of a 2003 Supreme Court ruling that requires a narrow ratio between punitive and compensatory damages, the discrepancy may very well lead to a drastic reduction in the awards.

More puzzling was the jury’s decision to find for the plaintiffs on the state claims but deadlock on the two similar federal civil-conspiracy claims. Why did the jury find liability for racially motivated violence under state law but not federal law? Perhaps it found the statutes confusing, or insisted on a higher level of proof for the federal claims. Perhaps it reached a point of mental exhaustion or internal division, and compromised on a mixed verdict. Perhaps it wished to send some message; perhaps not.

Whatever the jury’s reasons, its decision highlights the sense of a necessary but incomplete victory. The trial is not over. It’s not over because the plaintiffs must still collect the money and may never do so. It’s not over because they have the option to refile the federal civil claims and may yet do so. It’s not over because the transcript and the exhibits remain under court seal, yet to be released as promised. Most of all, it is not over because America has not yet embraced the significance of Charlottesville, for what it represents and what we have become.

At the end of many trial days, those exiting the courthouse were confronted by a single person standing alone, clutching a small protest sign, in the November darkness. It was Rabbi Tom Gutherz of the local synagogue. His lonely vigil was a poignant reminder of how shockingly little attention the town was paying to the trial. Each day, Richard Spencer strolled up and down the downtown mall, retracing his fateful steps during the court’s lunch hour, as life went on around him. Tourists and office workers paid him no heed. If even a single one of the 22,000 students at UVA bothered to visit the courthouse plaza, I did not see them.

Charlottesville was evidently preoccupied with other dramas, such as the turmoil in local government involving the acrimonious departures of the mayor, the police chief, and the city manager. Perhaps apathy and exhaustion kept local activists at home. The fact that Judge Moon had closed the courtroom because of the pandemic surely also had an effect, especially in terms of media coverage.

Or perhaps, just like the rest of America, the people of Charlottesville were more transfixed by the other race-related-murder trials happening in Wisconsin and Georgia. The murderer in Charlottesville, after all, is already serving 30 life sentences for his crime. So much has happened since August 2017: police shootings, street protests and riots, political insurrection. Or maybe what riveted and horrified a nation in 2017 no longer seems all that remarkable. One of the attorneys defending the white supremacists told reporters that he deliberately repeated the word kike in his questioning in order to drain it of any shock value for the jurors. Perhaps the events of Charlottesville themselves have been normalized in the intervening years.

Yet that is precisely why Charlottesville matters. Four years on, the white-supremacist ideologues may have suffered a variety of personal setbacks, organizational failures, and legal struggles. But their ideas have successfully migrated into the mainstream in many obvious ways: the open talk of racial demography and threats to white existence in the conservative media. The moral panic about esoteric legal theories as evidence of a full-blown reverse racism sweeping the land. The frightening demand for a single American religion, Christianity, to replace the creeping atheism blamed on Jews and Communists. The winking calls for violence against political opponents, all too often racial or religious minorities, coupled with the “just joking” defense. The willful desensitization to the malice of hate speech. The skyrocketing FBI statistics about white-supremacist threats and actual episodes of violence. Above all, the unmistakable outlines of January 6, 2021, in the debris of August 11 and 12, 2017.

During the trial, Natalie Romero and the eight other plaintiffs each took the stand to testify about their injuries and experiences. More than one was asked about their motivations for joining the lawsuit. When April Muñiz, a 48-year-old Mexican American Charlottesville resident, began to explain her desire for justice and accountability, Moon quickly cut her off: “It’s not proper to come in and say you have some greater plan than the lawsuit itself.” As a point of law, he was correct. But his remark also reminds us that a trial can provide only a portion of the moral accountability involved in a reckoning. The rest must come from outside, in the work of listening, recording, and remembering.

Justice depends as much on a common public narrative as it does on the pursuit of truth and the authority of the law. We focus so much these days on the distant historical past, on debates about the American founding as an explanation for our present ills. Or we peer anxiously ahead to the elections soon to come. Yet until we can agree on a common understanding of our recent past, we have little hope of repairing our troubled present.

In his final jury instructions, Moon reiterated a theme he had offered at the outset of the trial: “Remember, at all times you are not partisans. You are judges—judges of the facts. Your sole interest is to seek the truth from the evidence of the case.” No words better convey the American faith in the law, and the crucial element of public trust. Law can fix truth, but it cannot do so by itself. The courts will not save us from ourselves, because ultimately, we are the guardians of our own justice. In this perilous moment, we must have the courage to judge ourselves honestly, and completely.