The Charlottesville, Virginia, civil trial of a group of white nationalist extremists was not broadcast on television ― the federal judge assigned to the case forbade anyone from even recording audio of the proceedings. The public could follow the proceedings by dialing in at a sometimes glitchy conference phone line over four weeks for what was often an absurd auditory spectacle.
This was especially true when extremism experts brought to testify for the plaintiffs were cross-examined by the same kind of extremists they’ve studied.
“It was a surrealistic experience,” Dr. Deborah Lipstadt, an acclaimed Holocaust scholar and a history professor at Emory University, told HuffPost on Wednesday after appearing on the witness stand earlier this month.
Lipstadt spent many years as a consultant to Congressmen on anti-Semitism, hate speech and other issues. Her nomination by President Joe Biden to the new ambassador position of special envoy to combat and monitor anti-Semitism was made in September. Her confirmation is still being sought. stalled(In the Senate.
She was also approached by the Charlottesville plaintiffs’ team to weigh in on the “Unite the Right” rally at the center of their civil lawsuit. Professor of sociology at Chapman University, Dr. Peter Simi also gave his professional opinion on the rally’s planning and execution. Every participant submittedYou can find more information at reportThe rally was also discussed during trial.
In Charlottesville, hundreds descended upon the city over two days in August 2017 to protest plans to take down a Confederate memorial. The majority of those present were white men. They brought torches and marched in formation across part of the University of Virginia’s campus until they squared off against a group of counterprotesters gathered around a statue of the school’s founder, chanting threats and yelling obscenities. The following day’s events devolved into a gruesome scene of violence when a young white man plowed his car into another group of counterprotesters, killing one woman and injuring dozens of people.
The suit’s nine plaintiffs scored a major victory on Tuesday when, after about three weeks of witness testimony and three days of deliberation, a jury found the defendants participating in the case liable for more than $24 million in punitive damages and about $2 million in compensatory damages ― hefty sums that they have vowed to fight.
On the stand, Lipstadt read aloud some of the planning messages sent by the event’s organizers. She testified that she was “taken aback”By the anti-Semitism level and praise of Nazi Germany in these discussions.
“On one hand, I could feel like I was in the classroom, teaching about anti-Semitism and teaching about its connection to white supremacy,” Lipstadt told HuffPost about her experience as an expert witness. “This was a call to arms. It was an appeal to violence. If you read their statements, it’s just overwhelming.”
Her willingness to stand up for the accused was evident.
“I was deeply disappointed that Richard Spencer didn’t cross-examine me,” she said.
Spencer, a white nationalist credited with coining the term “alt-right,” was one of two defendants who represented himself at trial after failing to hire an attorney. Christopher Cantwell is a racist podcaster who is currently in prison for extortion.
Cantwell attempted to cross-examine Lipstadt. But, his questions ended after he failed in his attempt to get agreement from Lipstadt about Holocaust jokes being an appropriate subject.
“I was prepared. I was prepared, really, to go head-to-head with them,” Lipstadt said. “I knew they were going to try to punch holes in everything I said.”
Simi also told HuffPost that he’d expected some sort of confrontation with Spencer and Cantwell. “But then also the attorneys, in some cases, were not any different,” he said. “I’d say Josh Smith, actually, his cross-examination ― the only word I can describe it as is ‘unhinged.’”
Smith was a representative of Matthew Parrot, a white nationalist, and Matthew Heimbach of the Traditionalist Worker Party. In his cross-examination Smith covered a wide range of subjects, including various aspects of Asian cultures. At another point, Judge Norman Moon cut him off, saying simply: “The question makes no sense.”
Simi also testified about the misleading “joking” element of white nationalism, explaining that because of the movement’s penchant for doublespeak and layering messages with irony, seemingly tongue-in-cheek statements about violence against Jews and people of color are never really innocent.
His hope was that historians would eventually be able to understand the events of August 2017.
“Sometimes we forget that a legal case can really help do that, in terms of providing a historical record,” Simi said. “I think that it’s so important for a healthy, functioning democracy, is you have to have accurate historical records.”
Both experts hoped that the Charlottesville jury’s verdict would send a sharp message to extremist groups around the country, discouraging them from plotting similar events. Amy Spitalnick, executive director of Integrity First for America ― the nonprofit that brought the suit ― expressed a similar sentiment, telling HuffPost on Wednesday that “violence and hate will have consequences.”
“Certainly this resounding win for our plaintiffs underscores that,” she said.
Roberta Kaplan served as the co-lead attorney for the plaintiffs with Karen Dunn. In an interview with Law.com after the verdict was handed down, Kaplan cited her experience working on judgment enforcement cases, saying: “I knew how to do it then, and we’ll have to do it again here, if necessary.” Several of the plaintiffs are under age 40, meaning the obligation to pay damages may follow them around for years to come.
Kaplan also said in court Tuesday that the plaintiffs’ legal team was considering whether to retry two claims that deadlocked the jury. These two cases involved the U.S. Ku Klux Klan Act 1871. This law, which is now rare but still very useful, was once used to dismantle the KKK. These claims can be retried to award plaintiffs even greater damages.
Although the outcome may seem positive, white nationalism can’t be defeated easily. Simi and Lipstadt both stressed the need to remain vigilant against racism.
“People fail to take it seriously until someone is killed,” Lipstadt said. “People fail to take it seriously until real damage is done. I would love good, mainstream Americans ― irrespective of what their political outlook is ― to open their eyes and say: ‘This is dangerous.’”
Simi is also worried about the future. He called the Jan. 6 attack at the U.S. Capitol “in many respects a direct line” from Charlottesville.
“We have elections coming and we have people in Congress like [Republican Rep.] Paul Gosar [of Arizona], who speak the same language of those who organized Unite the Right,” he said. “You know, we’ve got folks like Tucker Carlson expressing ideas related to replacement theory. So, I mean, we are in a very dangerous time.”
“When I think about the possibilities of what could happen, I don’t sleep well at night,” Lipstadt said. “This is not going away.”