Charlottesville trial will be a verdict on white supremacy in America

OPINION: What is particularly noteworthy about the civil suit regarding the Unite the Right rally is the federal law it invokes, the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871

More than four years after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, the victims of the white supremacist mob are seeking justice. And the lawsuit they filed against the individuals and organizations who were responsible for that deadly rally is important to the future of American multiracial democracy.

While this trial may bring monetary compensation to the plaintiffs, more importantly it is part of the process of deciding whether white domestic terrorism and racial violence are an acceptable form of free speech, and if white criminality will go unpunished. This nation must now decide if it will allow organized white supremacist violence to run the show.

Jury selection and opening arguments have been made in the trial of Sines v. Kessler, a civil case filed on behalf of members of the Charlottesville community against 14 men and 10 far-right groups accused of waging the violence in Charlottesville on Aug. 11 and 12 in 2017. The Unite the Right protest, which focused on the removal of the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, culminated with James Fields, a Hitler admirer, plowing his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer, 32, and injuring dozens more. Among the defendants are high-profile white supremacists and neo-Nazis, such as Andrew Anglin, Christopher Cantwell, Nathan Damigo, Matthew Heimbach, Jason Kessler, Elliot Kline, Jeff Schoep and Richard Spencer among others. 

The statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee stands behind a crowd of hundreds of white nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the “alt-right” during the “Unite the Right” rally August 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Cantwell was reportedly inspired by Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who promotes the Great Replacement Theory, a white supremacist theory that elite liberals, Democrats and progressives want to replace white Americans with nonwhite immigrants. Once embraced by fringe elements, the Great Replacement Theory is now a mainstream belief of the Republican Party. The tiki torch-wielding Nazis who shouted “Jews will not replace us” and “You will not replace us” in Charlottesville were referring to that theory.  

Integrity First for America, a nonprofit organization, filed the lawsuit. The plaintiffs seek compensatory and statutory damages for physical and emotional injuries they sustained over the two-day period.

What is particularly noteworthy about this civil suit is the federal law it invokes. The plaintiffs have sued under the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, which was passed by Congress to enforce the 14th Amendment, protect the rights of 4 million formerly enslaved Black people and eliminate vigilante violence that terrorized Black folks and threatened the Republican Party’s Reconstruction efforts in the South following the Civil War. The law authorized the president to intervene by declaring martial law, sending in the Army and inflicting heavy penalties against terrorists when the former Confederate states refused to protect Black people and their White allies and attempted to deny “any person or any class of persons of the equal protection of the laws, or of equal privileges or immunities under the laws.” At a time when Black people were almost exclusively sided with the Republican Party, the legislation found opposition among Democrats as well as moderate and conservative Republicans because it targeted private individuals and not just government officials.    

Today, in a nation where the Republican Party now breaks bread with domestic terrorists and relies on Jim Crow tactics, political violence, coups and insurrection to maintain white power, the Ku Klux Klan Act is as relevant as ever.

Earlier this year, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and the NAACP filed a lawsuit against former President Doanld Trump, his lawyer Rudy Giuliani and white hate groups for conspiring to storm the U.S. Capitol on January 6 in attempt to stop the Electoral College vote of of the 2020 presidential election in violation of the Ku Klux Klan Act. After being selected to chair the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, Thompson said in July that he dismissed his claim in the lawsuit “to avoid the appearance of a conflict.”

The tragedy in Charlottesville foreshadowed the Capitol insurrection when rightwing militias, neo-confederates, Oath Keepers, Proud Boys, Three Percenters, Qanon cult members and others — with apparent support from some GOP officials — stormed the Capitol and attempted to take over the government for Trump after his election loss to now-President Joe Biden. Other events such as the mass murder at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston and the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh point to white supremacist violence as the most pressing terrorist threat in America today.  

Meanwhile, as the nation witnesses the bubbling of white rage and violent white supremacist ideology, people wonder what is coming next. And some of us wonder if America is going to make it. The nation formed through slavery and genocide is about to be consumed by the white mob — the forces of racial violence it refused to reckon with.      

The Confederacy lost the Civil War, but is winning the long game. After all, they never went away; they only changed names, and were never held accountable for their actions. The Charlottesville trial is important because this could be the first step to shutting down these white terror groups and putting them out of business. This is a test to see if America will hold white supremacist violence accountable in order to save itself.

Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove

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