The Charlottesville Trial Against 'Unite the Right' Revealed the True Essence of White Supremacists—One Year Later, the Threat Is Still Real
One year ago, the jury reached a verdict against the white supremacists that organized the racist, deadly rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017. The war on white supremacy must continue on all fronts: in politics, on the airwaves and social media, and in the courts.
This past year has seen horrific, violent attacks by white supremacists. The Buffalo shooter, who was expressly motivated by replacement theory, recently pleaded guilty to a domestic act of terrorism motivated by hate, among other charges, for his racist massacre.
Within the last month, we have seen Nazis publicly demonstrating and threatening counter-protesters in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In the last couple weeks, a man was arrested in Seattle, yelling antisemitic slurs and performing Nazi salutes. Replacement theory continues to receive substantial airtime from mainstream mouthpieces, like Tucker Carlson.
Equally concerning, right-wing extremists continue to enjoy the proximity to power that was accelerated by the election of former President Donald Trump. In 2022 more than 100 right-wing extremists ran for elected office nationwide. Many of those candidates lost, but not all of them. Trump not only announced his candidacy for president, he then met with one of new young leaders of the white supremacist movement, Nick Fuentes. And of course, Ye (formerly known as Kanye West) subsequently announced his own intention to run in 2024, and then quickly and publicly professed his love for Adolf Hitler.
One year ago, our clients won a significant judgment against the white supremacists that organized the racist, deadly rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017. The trial was a cause for celebration. Our clients, each of whom testified, stared down their tormentors, the literal face of hate in this country, and won. A jury of our clients’ peers—a diverse array of representatives from the very community so deeply traumatized—issued an unmistakable clarion call that violent hate has no place in Charlottesville.
The trial revealed the true essence and desires of white supremacists. The defendants who came to Charlottesville were not solely interested in spreading a hateful message. They were willing to kill for it. A year later, where are we now and what have we learned?
The trial reinforced that the seeds for what took place at Charlottesville were sown much earlier. As preeminent sociologists, professors Kathleen Blee and Peter Simi, put it in their expert report, “The white supremacist movement in the United States has consistently utilized, supported, and glorified violence as a strategy to promote its message and secure white supremacy.” The Charlottesville rally, they concluded, “was organized to promote the agenda of the white supremacist movement.” That agenda includes combatting a perceived “international Jewish conspiracy that has essentially orchestrated an effort to eradicate the white race.” The lawsuit highlighted that this so-called “replacement theory” is not just an idea, it is in fact a rallying cry for white supremacist violence. Defendant Richard Spencer testified at trial that in 2017, during the lead-up to Unite the Right, “I felt like I was part of a movement.”
While this movement and its violent ideology has pervaded our country for centuries, it was unquestionably emboldened by the election of Trump. Shortly after the election, Spencer famously went viral with a speech that ended with “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!” That refrain, which is the English translation of the Nazi phrase “Sieg Heil,” was enthusiastically cheered with Nazi salutes from a throng of Spencer’s boisterous followers. As Spencer subsequently noted, “There is no question that Charlottesville wouldn’t have occurred without Trump. … He changed the paradigm and made this kind of public presence of the alt-right possible.”
If sunlight is the best disinfectant, the lawsuit temporarily disinfected the alt-right. After trial, Spencer stated that the “alt-right movement” was “long dead and gone in my opinion. And it’s buried.” He called the lawsuit “financially crippling.” Other defendants “renounced White supremacy and stopped organizing White power activity in public.” As far as we are aware, none of the Charlottesville defendants participated in the events of Jan. 6, where many of their ideological counterparts gathered and committed more violence.
The individual defendants we sued, once the most powerful and prominent white nationalists in the country, have unquestionably receded into the shadows. The Southern Poverty Law Center recently conducted a five-year retrospective concerning the white supremacists who attended Charlottesville. They concluded, “Five years after white supremacists descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, the statue they came to protect is gone, and the ‘alt-right’ coalition they embodied has imploded. At the same time, the existential threat that far-right extremism poses to the U.S. has arguably never been more severe.” The leadership void in the white supremacist movement created after Charlottesville has been filled with fresh, but equally dangerous, faces. Our lawsuit reaffirmed that litigation, and the accountability that comes with it, can be an effective tool to counter rising extremism in this country. But the events of this past year have only reaffirmed that there is much more work to be done.
The war on white supremacy must continue on all fronts: in politics, on the airwaves and social media, and in the courts. Many will remember August 2017 as the time that white supremacists marched on Charlottesville and wreaked havoc. But Charlottesville and the litigation that resulted should be remembered for something far more enduring: that a diverse group of University of Virginia undergraduates, law students and staff, persons of faith, ministers, parents, doctors and businesspeople--the plaintiffs—stood up and spoke out against the leading white supremacists in this country and peacefully drove them into the darkness. In the end, it is their example that should guide us in this ongoing fight.