CHARLOTTESVILLE, Virginia — The “both sides” debate crept into the federal courthouse in Charlottesville on Monday, where organizers of the deadly Unite the Right rally are standing trial in a massive civil case brought on behalf of residents.
The ultimate goal of Sines v. Kessler, says nonprofit Integrity First for America, who brought the case, is to bankrupt the organizers of the August 2017 rally and send a clear warning to white supremacists around the country.
Finding prospective jurors who don’t have strong feelings about race, racism, white supremacy—or antifascists, as it turns out— was always going to be a challenge, particularly given the polarized climate in the U.S. This is especially true for Charlottesville, a small college town that made international headlines in August 2017 for the brazen displays of white supremacists marching through its streets, chanting racist slogans like “Jews will not replace us.”
Two panels of prospective jurors were brought in on Monday—26 in total. And it didn’t take long for the selection process to hid roadblocks over whether those who expressed negative views of “antifa” should be seated.
None of the plaintiffs are bona fide members of “antifa,” their lawyers said, but, as many in the courtroom noted, you don’t have to be a card-carrying member to subscribe to antifascism. And lawyers representing the plaintiffs, who are residents of Charlottesville, are worried that prospective jurors who harbor bias against “antifa” could be entrenched in the “both sides” narrative.
“Both sides” was a term that became famous in the aftermath of Unite the Right when former President Donald Trump initially placed equal blame on the far-right and on counterprotesters for the violence that transpired in Charlottesville. (A neo-Nazi was convicted of murder for running down a protester.) Although Trump later walked back his comments, the sentiment echoed and continues to echo throughout his fan base.
Before jury selection started Monday, prospective jurors were asked to fill out questionnaires about their various concerns in relation to the trial, their personal and political bases, and their availability. Both plaintiffs and defendants had access to binders that were full of those questionnaires. Judge Norman K. Moon then quizzed each prospective juror about their familiarity with the case, and whether they thought they could remain impartial.
The only defendants in the courtroom who appeared without representation were Christoper Cantwell (the infamous “crying Nazi” currently jailed for extortion) and white nationalist Richard Spencer. Spencer briefly spoke to VICE News on his way back from lunch (he wore a trenchcoat, a COVID mask, and a flat cap, seemingly to avoid being recognized). Spencer said he was enjoying himself so far, felt like jury selection was going well, and that representing himself was “fun.”
Questions posed by Moon to jurors ranged from whether they believed the “white race was superior to other races,” to if they had concerns about “repercussions” if their identity as a juror was exposed.
“Are you going to be able to set aside preconceived ideas or feelings about any of the parties in the case and be able to decide the case solely on the law or evidence?” asked Moon.
“I would like to think that I could,'' replied the first prospective juror. “I read the paper, I’m a news junkie. I am fairly opinionated, I’d like to think that I could separate it, though.”
He added that, “if you have initial core beliefs in something, it’s kind of hard to change your opinion.” He returned to the same question later. “This whole town was turned on its head by this whole affair.”
“What do you mean by that?” Judge Moon replied.
“I think as a community we want to get it behind us and see justice done,” the juror replied. “I’m sorry, I don’t think I can [do this].”
But even prospective jurors who weren’t self-described “news junkies” seemed hesitant on whether they could remain impartial. One juror said she’d watched news coverage of Unite the Right and wouldn’t want to hang out with any of the defendants, but otherwise didn’t know much about them. She “just thought the whole thing was a tragic nightmare,” she said.
But some prospective jurors were resolute in their belief that “antifa” —a word often invoked by right-wing fearmongerers to conjure up a nebulous boogeyman—are the ones that America really needs to be worried about. Antifascists did show up to counter the white supremacists in Charlottesville that weekend, but none have been accused of conspiring to terrorize racial minorities. (On the contrary: When black-clad antifascists showed up a year later to pay their respects to a memorial to Heather Heyer, who was killed by a neo-Nazi during Unite the Right, many residents clapped and cheered for them).
At least three prospective jurors brought up antifa in their questionnaire. Juror 177 described antifa as “troublemakers.”
“All I hear about antifa is what I hear on TV, it seems like they’re always involving themselves in racial riots and causing a lot of problems with their political beliefs,” he said.
Juror 166 said that antifa was “a terrorist organization.” The plaintiffs’ lawyers asked that she be struck, but Moon denied their request.
Defendants challenged prospective juror 190’s characterization of antifa: They wrote that antifa “fights the far-right movement.” Spencer claimed that was “not a balanced perception of antifa” and was “leaning toward their side.” Judge Moon countered Spencer, and said that he felt like the juror was qualified.
Juror 210 asserted that “there were two sets of extremist groups” who came to Charlottesville. “All I know is that there was violence,” he said. “And bad things happened.”
Meanwhile, defendants were pushing back against prospective jurors based on their views on race.
Juror 159, a Black woman, considered Moon’s question about impartiality carefully. “I hope that I could be fair, to push aside my personal opinions… I know how to be fair.” (She was later dismissed).
But Cantwell, who was very vocal in court on Monday, tried to push back. “She seems to be very concerned about race,” he said. “She is worried about racism in all categories except against white people.”
There’s also logistical issues complicating jury selection. Jurors are being asked to commit a month of their time to this trial, which is how long it’s expected to last, Monday through Friday. One prospective juror noted that he runs his own business selling lawn gear, “a one-man show.” Another said she’s a school bus driver, and noted that there's currently a national shortage of school bus drivers. “In my county, to be gone for a month, it would be taxing to find a replacement” And one prospective juror said he has a farm, and is concerned that his absence for a month would put an undue burden on his wife to take on his share of labor.
Another issue revealed by the questionnaires centered around jurors’ attitudes toward COVID-19. The court warned jurors that they would have to be comfortable wearing a mask in accordance with COVID-19 health guidance. One prospective juror claimed that wearing a mask exacerbated his ADHD. In his questionnaire, he also asserted that wearing a mask conflicted with his identity as a Christian.
Seven jurors were selected Monday. Jury selection is expected to continue through Tuesday, and could even last into Wednesday. Of the seven jurors selected so far, two are Black.
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