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Three White Supremacy Trials: Dahlia Lithwick on Charlottesville, Rittenhouse & Arbery Murder Case

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Jurors in Charlottesville, Virginia, are hearing closing arguments today in a civil trial that seeks to hold white supremacists accountable for organizing the deadly “Unite the Right” rally there in 2017 and conspiring to commit racially motivated violence. Two of the white supremacists have been defending themselves in the courtroom: Richard Spencer and Christopher Cantwell. They took the stand Tuesday and tried unsuccessfully to have the judge dismiss the case for lack of evidence, even as they used racial slurs during the trial. Jurors are expected to begin deliberations Friday. Both Spencer and Cantwell have “failed utterly to take responsibility for the roles they played,” says Slate legal correspondent Dahlia Lithwick, who lived in Charlottesville during the 2017 rally and is reporting on the trial, which is not being broadcast. She also discusses the homicide trial of white teenage gunman Kyle Rittenhouse and the broad use of the “self-defense” argument by white supremacists on trial.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, joined by Democracy Now! co-host Nermeen Shaikh. Hi, Nermeen.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Hi, Amy, and welcome to our listeners and viewers across the country and around the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, jurors in Charlottesville, Virginia, are hearing closing arguments today in the civil trial that seeks to hold white supremacists accountable for organizing the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in 2017 and conspiring to commit racially motivated violence. Several hundred white supremacists marched with tiki torches at the time across the University of Virginia, chanting “You will not replace us,” “Jews will not replace us,” and “White lives matter.” The next day, self-described neo-Nazi James Alex Fields slammed his car into a crowd of antiracist counterprotesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring dozens more. He was sentenced to life in prison for murder and hate crimes and lost an appeal this week.

Two of the white supremacists have been defending themselves in the courtroom: Richard Spencer and Christopher Cantwell. They took the stand Tuesday and tried unsuccessfully to have the judge dismiss the case for lack of evidence, even as they used racial slurs during the trial. When Cantwell cross-examined one of the witnesses, Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt, he asked her, quote, “There’s no such thing as an innocent antisemitic joke?” After today’s closing arguments, jurors are expected to begin deliberations Friday.

For more, we’re joined by Dahlia Lithwick, senior editor and senior legal correspondent. She’s been covering the trial, lived in Charlottesville during the Unite the Right rally. Her recent piece is headlined “Why the Nazis Are Treating Their Trial in Charlottesville Like a Joke.”

Dahlia, welcome back to Democracy Now! We’re in this key moment of three, one might argue, white supremacist trials. This one is a civil one, you’ve got Rittenhouse, and then you’ve got the case of the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. But we’re going to start with Charlottesville. Talk about the uniqueness of this trial, that it’s civil, and what has been said, and the fights between the white supremacists who are representing themselves.

DAHLIA LITHWICK: One of the — sorry, Amy. One of the things that is really striking about this trial is the extent to which we all thought that the defendants were going to be somewhat organized. They were going to present a kind of coherent front. They were going to at least attempt to prove to the world that what they did was innocent. What we’ve seen instead is just chaos.

The plaintiff’s case was airtight, so much documentary evidence, reams and reams of testimony, compelling testimony. And then, when the defense kind of got up to try to present its case at the beginning of this week, it was infighting, catfighting. At one point, Richard Spencer was questioning Jason Kessler, the local organizer, about why he thought he was a psycho. As you said, the N-word was being dropped. Chris Cantwell, the so-called crying Nazi, was literally standing up and replaying video of himself assaulting people.

And so, one of the real lessons of this trial, to me, is that when given four years to prepare a defense, these entities and people, all they could come up with was performance art, showmanship and a little bit of what you heard about Paul Gosar — just, “This is a joke. It’s fun. This was hilarious. Don’t you agree?”

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Dahlia, you mentioned the plaintiffs, their testimony. What most struck you about what they said?

DAHLIA LITHWICK: I think it’s hard not to be moved by the trauma. You had one plaintiff after another, some of whom sustained life-changing injuries, some of whom have sustained the kind of post-traumatic stress that has rendered them almost incapacitated — really unbelievably tragic trauma. And when you heard them talk about what they sustained that day, how it has informed and affected their lives and really made them terrified, and then to see them being cross-examined, again, by the Chris Cantwells of the world, the Richard Spencers of the world, trying to imply that they were part of some nefarious antifa plot and that this was a trap laid by anti-fascists in order to discredit the white supremacist movement, I think the thing that has struck me most is just the discordance, again, between the genuine life-altering suffering of the plaintiffs and the sense that this is just kind of a comedy tour, that it is neither serious nor sober nor warranting of action on the part of the defendants.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Dahlia, could you explain: Who is Richard Spencer, and who is Cantwell?

DAHLIA LITHWICK: Well, Richard Spencer rose to fame shortly after Donald Trump was elected. He was for a moment the poster boy of the freshly scrubbed preppy new face of white supremacy. He’s credited with inventing the term “alt-right,” which was supposed to be freshly scrubbed Nazi. And you may remember, right after the election, he led a sort of victory party where people gave the Nazi salute and shouted Nazi slogans. That’s Richard Spencer. I should note, he’s fallen from grace. He’s now representing himself. His wife left him, with allegations of terrific abuse. And he’s penniless.

Chris Cantwell, I think, rose to fame around the same time as a shock jock, as an entertainer. He mentions, every opportunity that he can in this trial, that he has an entertainment product, this podcast, that he’s just a funny, funny guy who happened to show up in Charlottesville armed and who — after he was pepper-sprayed as part of the violence, there was a video of him that went viral of him sobbing and crying about turning himself in to the police. So I think, in a sense, both of them are iterations of this face of what tried to be kind of cool, hip, Proud Boy-era, funny, entertaining Nazis who a little bit got caught up in their own rhetoric and really failed utterly to take responsibility for the roles they played in leading this movement and possibly — well, the jury will tell us — leading to some of the violence that day.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Dahlia, what do you think the broader significance of this case are? And also, the closing arguments, as they’re set to begin today, what are you watching out for?

DAHLIA LITHWICK: So, one of the things I want to really note is that this trial was not televised. In order to listen in, you have to call a 1-800 number that takes you into the courthouse. So it actually has been a really fascinating study in how to cover Nazism without amplifying it. Certainly some of the defendants who have been deplatformed have been going on one another’s podcasts, but one of the things that’s been really striking is the extent to which it has contained some of the worst rhetoric, the dropping of the N-word, the joking with one another about which Holocaust jokes are funny. All of that has been kind of hived off from public view.

And I think, in a sense, for me, one of the lessons of this is how you can have accountability — and again, it will be left to the jury, starting this afternoon when they begin to deliberate, if they want to have accountability — but to have accountability without amplifying the really hateful, hurtful message. I think it’s been a really powerful lesson in how you do that, how you don’t, in some sense, give attention to the worst elements of this.

In terms of the closing statements, I think one of the things that I’ve found really interesting in the last two days is the extent to which the defendants simply don’t understand conspiracy law. There was an attempt on Tuesday — they wanted the case dismissed. Richard Spencer and Chris Cantwell said to the judge, “We have nothing to do. There was no agreement. There’s no evidence that we were in a conspiracy.” And Judge Moon, who’s this 84-year-old very Southern gentleman who’s been really unfailingly fair to both sides, basically said, “You don’t understand anything about conspiracy law,” and walked them through the evidence and more or less said, “That alone could lead the jury to find conspiracy.” So I think whether the defendants fully understand the law and fully understand the extent to which they are on the hook is going to be the thing that I’m going to look for in the closings.

AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, before we move on to the Rittenhouse homicide trial, the murder trial, explain how this case is different. They are not on trial, for example, for killing Heather Heyer. This is a civil trial. They’re not going to go to jail. So, what is the point? Who are the plaintiffs that brought this?

DAHLIA LITHWICK: The plaintiffs were nine people who were injured in the events of August 11th and 12th in Charlottesville. And it’s a civil trial, in some sense, because the Trump Justice Department didn’t stand up and didn’t in any way attempt to bring to justice the folks who were involved in organizing and performing this rally. And so, I think that the plaintiffs in this case, and they’re led by really masterful attorneys, Robbie Kaplan and Karen Dunn and their teams, what they essentially said was, “We will be the stand-in for the DOJ. We will bring a civil rights action that says if you, based on racial animus, deprive people of their civil rights” — this is rooted in the KKK Act, a 150-year-old statute — “we will effectuate your rights in a civil trial.”

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about the homicide trial of the white teen gunman Kyle Rittenhouse, where jury deliberations have entered a third day. Judge Bruce Schroeder has yet to rule on two mistrial requests from the defense but said he may still do so. He said he could rule on this even after a verdict is rendered, so if there was a guilty verdict, he could move to vacate it. Dahlia Lithwick, you’re a Slate senior legal correspondent and have another piece out headlined “When Everything Is 'Self-Defense': And everyone gets a gun.” It seems to me that could apply as much to the Arbery murder trial, where Travis McMichael, the son of the former police officer, and his father and the other man, Bryan, are also on trial for murdering, in this case, Ahmaud Arbery, and they are contending self-defense. But talk about Rittenhouse and self-defense.

DAHLIA LITHWICK: I think you made this point in your lead-in, Amy, that we have now reached a moment where people are claiming self-defense when they bring their own weapon, in Rittenhouse’s case across state lines, a weapon he was not legally entitled to own — they bring their weapon into a public setting, and then they claim self-defense because they feel that their weapon was going to be used against them. And you cited the Arbery case for that, but Rittenhouse, too, is laying a claim to this idea that he was in danger and entitled to shoot all these people in the span of 120 seconds because they were going to wrest his weapon from him and they were going to kill him with it.

And the point I was trying to make — and I think this is really connected to the U.S. Supreme Court hearing oral argument just a few weeks ago in a case that would probably strike down New York’s licensing law — is that if everybody has a weapon and everybody feels that their weapon can be used against them, and then forward a self-defense claim, everybody will be reasonable. It is entirely reasonable in a world where everybody is armed and everybody thinks that they are vulnerable because someone else will shoot them with their own gun, that everyone will shoot first. It doesn’t seem like a civil society; it seems like the O.K. Corral to me. And really, in a deep, deep sense, the Rittenhouse jurors have to confront the fact that it may have been perfectly reasonable for him to feel that he was under threat because his own weapon could be used against him. But what does that say about a world in which everyone will use that as a claim of self-defense?

AMY GOODMAN: Thank you for being with us, senior editor, senior legal correspondent. We will link to all your coverage.

When we come back, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Wengrow and the late David Graeber. Stay with us.

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“The Dawn of Everything”: David Wengrow & the Late David Graeber on a New History of Humanity

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