‘I saw the bodies of my fellow protesters – the brave, smiling, resolute comrades…fly through the air like shrapnel’.
Marcus Martin and his then-finance, now-wife Mirza Blair were walking with a jubilant crowd of counter protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, when neo-Nazi James Alex Fields rammed into the crowd with his car.
Martin pushed Blair out of the way, probably saving her life. He was struck and thrown in the air over the car, breaking his leg. Their friend, Heather Heyer, was killed. The car’s driver, Fields, an admirer of Adolf Hitler, is serving a life-sentence in prison.
Martin is now one of nine plaintiffs in a US civil trial that opened on Monday seeking damages against the white supremacist organisers of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville on August 11-12, 2017.
Jury selection began on Monday in the lawsuit filed four years ago by civil rights lawyers based in New York and funded by a non-profit group. US District Judge Norman Moon has scheduled a month for the court proceedings.
Former President Donald Trump had notoriously sought to wave-off the Charlottesville attacks at a news conference by saying, “you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides”.
Neo-Nazis and white supremacists had gathered in Charlottesville to protest the city’s planned removal of a large bronze statue of the top Confederate commander Robert E Lee. The incident sparked a wave of racial protests in the US and attacks on Confederate monuments.
The suit was filed under an 1871 federal law known as the “Klu Klux Klan Act” passed by Congress after the US Civil War to provide legal avenues to address organised violence against Blacks by white gangs in the South.
The Klu Klux Klan is a white supremacist hate group that targeted Blacks, Jews and other minorities beginning in the wake of the US Civil War, in which forces of southern states had fought to preserve slavery.
It seeks damages against rally organiser Jason Kessler and Richard Spencer, who coined the term “alt-Right”, and other defendants including leaders of prominent white supremacist groups whose members attended the rally; Vanguard America, the Traditionalist Worker Party, the League of the South, the Nationalist Front and Knights of the Klu Klux Klan.
“The evidence in our case makes crystal clear that this violence, the violence that took place over August 11 and 12th, 2017 was not an accident,” said Amy Spitalnick, executive director of Integrity First for America, a non-profit group formed to fund the lawsuit.
Lawyers for the defendants say they are protected by the US Constitution allowing free speech and gun rights.
Invading the campus of the University of Virginia, neo-Nazi protesters carrying tiki torches surrounded a small group of counter-protestors, kicking and punching them, according to the complaint.
Among the injured was Devin Willis, an African American man who was a student at UVA at the time and Elizabeth Sines, then a second-year law student. Both are now plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
Other plaintiffs include people injured in the car attack that occurred the next day such as Natalie Romero, whose skull was fractured, and others – Reverend Seth Wispelwey a Christian minister who organised clergy to counterprotest against the neo-Nazis was assaulted.
“It was not a clash, but rather it was planned in great detail on social media,” Spitlanick said in a video statement posted on the Integrity First website.
“These extremists descended on Charlottesville from around the country, with a clear intent to violently attack people based on their race, their religion and their willingness to defend the rights of others,” she said.
The case is built on a vast collection of chat room exchanges, social media postings and other communications in which the defendants use racial epithets and discuss plans for the demonstrations, including what weapons to bring, The Associated Press news service reported.
The plaintiffs’ lawyers sid they have amassed 5.3 terabytes of digital communications by the defendants, including many on the online platform Discord initially leaked by Unicorn Riot, a left-leaning media collective.
The lawsuit alleges there were “countless exhortations to violence” on Discord, including one by a defendant who allegedly wrote, “I’m ready to crack skulls,” and another who wrote: “It’s going to get wild. Bring your boots.”
While the suit itself does not specify the damages it will seek, “We are planning to ask the jury for large financial judgments against these defendants multimillion-dollar judgments,” Spitalnik said in a video Monday.
But the white nationalists named as defendants have claimed that talk of weapons and combat was meant only in the event they had to defend themselves from counter-protesters. They have argued their communications were protected by the First Amendment.
“You can say any nasty thing you want about any person or group you want and that is protected by the First Amendment. That is not me saying that, that’s the Supreme Court,” W Edward ReBrook IV, a lawyer for Jeff Schoep, a former longtime leader of the neo-Nazi group the Nationalist Socialist Movement and one of the defendants, told the AP.
Spencer, whom the Southern Poverty Law Center calls “a suit-and-tie version of the white supremacists of old”, told the AP, the lawsuit amounts to “scapegoating” and he is looking forward to telling his story to the jury, noting emotions still run high over the events in Charlottesville.