CHARLOTTESVILLE, Virginia — Yellow U.S. Marshall tape cordoned off the walkways into the federal courthouse in downtown Charlottesville on Monday morning, which, for the next month will be the focal point of a civil case that could bankrupt a white supremacist movement.
Four years ago, these same streets were the backdrop to one of the ugliest and most brazen displays of white supremacy in recent American history. Hundreds of skinheads, neo-Nazis, khaki-clad white nationalists, white supremacists, and Klansmen banded together here in August 2017 under the umbrella of “Unite the Right.”
Now, many of the organizers of that event have returned to Charlottesville to stand trial in a long-awaited civil case, Sines vs. Kessler, brought on behalf of nine residents of Charlottesville who claimed to have suffered physical injuries and endured psychological trauma as a result of the violent events in 2017.
A small group of media stood outside the courthouse on the cool October morning hoping to catch a glimpse of any “Unite the Right” organizers or their lawyers as they entered the building for jury selection. White nationalists Richard Spencer, who appeared in a herringbone tweed suit, is representing himself, as is Chris Cantwell—better known as the “Crying Nazi”—who was transported to Charlottesville by marshals from federal prison to stand trial in this case. Cantwell is currently serving time for extortion and threat offenses.
The large legal team representing the plaintiffs entered the building quickly, flanked by security guards. One woman with a Black Lives Matter flag showed up to demonstrate outside the courthouse.
The goal of the case, filed by Integrity First for America, a nonprofit under the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act, is to bankrupt the individuals and organizations who they’ve accused of coming to Charlottesville with the specific goal of terrorizing minority residents.
“Defendants brought with them to Charlottesville the imagery of the Holocaust, of slavery, of Jim Crow, and of fascism,” the group’s lawyers wrote in the complaint. “They also brought with them semi-automatic weapons, pistols, mace, rods, armor, shields, and torches. “
Many of the defendants in the suit were at one point key figures in the alt-right who rose to prominence in 2016 around Donald Trump's polarizing presidential campaign. But soon after Charlottesville, those same individuals found themselves deplatformed, and facing a mountain of potentially financially ruinous lawsuits, including this one from Integrity First for America.
The trial is expected to last well into November, but the impacts of the case have already been felt within the far-right movement. At least three of the defendants, Matthew Heimbach (who ran the now-defunct Traditionalist Worker Party), Eliot Kline (who briefly led the now-defunct Identity Evropa), and Vanguard America, a neo-Nazi group linked to the car attack against counterprotesters, have already had to cough up tens of thousands of dollars in sanctions for repeatedly flouting court orders.
Kline was even jailed and held in contempt for refusing to comply with discovery requests.
Michael Hill, the president of League of the South, a racist group that advocates for Southern secession, has complained that the lawsuit has prevented them from fundraising for a new building in Alabama.
And Richard Spencer, a suit-and-tie white nationalist who enjoyed a brief stint as the poster boy for the “alt-right” and was on a mission to radicalize college students into his beliefs, has complained about the lawsuit being “financially crippling.” He’s also found it difficult to book speaking engagements, as venues are concerned about opening themselves up to liability if violence breaks out.
Charlottesville was supposed to bring together the various factions of the far-right. “What brings us together is that we are white, we are a people. We will not be replaced,” Spencer said at a lunch before an earlier event in Charlottesville in 2017, according to court documents.
Defendant Andrew Anglin, who runs the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer (and is currently in hiding while owing millions as a result of other civil suits), declared 2017 “The Summer of Hate.” They targeted Charlottesville, a diverse college town, because of a simmering dispute over the proposed removal of a Confederate statue of Robert E. Lee. Organizers rallied supporters around nebulous, white nationalist concepts like erasure of white identity, history, and “the great replacement theory.”
Even with the clear message the lawyers are attempting to send through this suit —“to ensure that nothing like this will happen again at the hands of Defendants—not on the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, and not anywhere else in the United States of America”– the far-right has since proved itself to be resilient and adaptable.
Preppy, khaki-clad white nationalists, like Identity Evropa, realized that marching alongside neo-Nazis with swastika flags was bad optics and a hindrance to their ultimate goal of getting a foothold in mainstream politics. They sought to distance themselves from the events by rebranding and relying even more heavily on coded euphemisms to signal their racist views. Groups like Patriot Front, which formed in the aftermath of Charlottesville as a spinoff from Vanguard America, incorporated lessons from Unite the Right and took pains to avoid future liability. For example, when Patriot Front rallies in public, they do so flash-mob style, materializing en masse with their faces completely covered, making it very difficult to identify them (as opposed to Charlottesville, where participants were largely unmasked).
The national uncertainty as a result of the coronavirus pandemic provided an opportunity for the far-right to reach a broader swath of the public and radicalize them to anti-government conspiracy theories. The national protest movement that followed the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis was another opportunity for the far-right to reach white Americans, as was the anger around the 2020 election results, which culminated in the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.
Follow Tess Owen on Twitter.