A federal jury has ordered a group of white supremacists to pay over $26 million in damages for their role in organizing the deadly 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. “Is bankrupting these organizations, is bankrupting these individuals enough to actually stop the growing threat … of white supremacy and Nazism in the United States?” asks Slate senior editor Nicole Lewis. “I don’t think so.” Lewis also discusses the Ahmaud Arbery murder case and why claims of self-defense from armed white people serve as a “racist dog whistle.” She says it’s inevitably a one-sided trial when “the McMichaels are the only ones [surviving] that get to claim they’re scared.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, Democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman in New York, joined by Democracy Now! co-host Juan González in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Hi, Juan.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Hi, Amy. Welcome to all of our listeners and viewers across the country and around the world.
AMY GOODMAN: A federal jury in Virginia has ordered a group of white supremacists to pay over $26 million in damages for their role in organizing the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. The jury found the organizers guilty of violating a Virginia state conspiracy law but jurors deadlocked on two federal conspiracy charges ncluding violating the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act. In August 2017, several hundred white supremacists marched with tiki torches 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 counterprotestors, killing Heather Heyer and injuring dozens of others.
On Tuesday, Fields, who is already serving a life sentence, was ordered to pay $12 million in punitive damages. Prominent white supremacists Richard Spencer, Jason Kessler and Christopher Cantwell and eight other defendants were also ordered to each pay over half a million dollars in punitive damages. While it is unclear how much money the men will actually pay, many observers are crediting the civil lawsuit with helping to bankrupt numerous far-right institutions.
We are joined now by Nicole Lewis, Senior Editor of Jurisprudence at Slate. Nicole, welcome to Democracy Now! In a moment we are also going to go to Georgia with you to talk about the Ahmaud Arbery murder trial, but right now talk about the significance of this civil suit, of the jury finding these men guilty and what $26 million means.
NICOLE LEWIS: The lawyers for the plaintiffs said that this judgment, this amount of money really sends a message to other people who might think that they want to show up and commit violent acts in cities, that they can’t get away with it, that they won’t get off scot-free, that there will be some repercussions. Twenty-six million dollars is a lot of money, but there is a big question about will these defendants be able to pay it. Chris Cantwell and James Fields are already incarcerated so they are not earning a ton of money. Many of the other defendants are already destitute from all of the pre-investigation leading into this trial, the fact that they are not able to work, that they are now publicly known as white supremacists and neo-Nazis who are unemployable in a lot of industries and institutions.
So I think there is just this big outstanding question of how much money will they actually be able to come up with and what strategies do they have to be able to extract money from these folks—liens on houses, garnishing wages, things like that. But I think the bigger picture here is that they came into Charlottesville with the intention to create and start a race war and that the criminal justice system hasn’t found any liability but in a civil system we say, “You cannot get away with this.”
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In terms of the organizations that these men belong to, many of them are either going to declare bankruptcy and then reorganize under other names, or what is your sense of what has happened to the organizations?
NICOLE LEWIS: That’s an excellent question. I think it’s the question that we are all grappling with or dealing with, to say, is bankrupting these organizations, is bankrupting these individuals enough to actually stop the growing threat, the rising threat of white supremacy and Nazism in the United States? We know that there are a number of young men who feel disaffected and displaced and they’re gathering every day in chat rooms to share ideas, to commiserate, to strategize. So there is a high likelihood that the organizations that exist now become defunct, they turn over whatever assets they may have on hand, and then new organizations are started and new people come together in chat rooms to plan for this kind of thing. So I think it is just the open question of we don’t yet know.
I think it is important to point out that this was the strategy used to try to take down the Ku Klux Klan in the Jim Crow era and through the Civil Rights Movement. There was some effectiveness there, but again, looking back in time and moving forward, we see that one hateful group, one white supremacist group just morphed into new factions and new iterations of the same ideology. Is bankrupting them actually truly enough to stamp out hate? I don’t think so. I think there are many people who study hate and extremism who know just how extraordinary the threat is and that financial damages just simply won’t be enough to do that.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In October, You co-wrote a piece with Dahlia Lithwick titled Three Trials in America: The conversations playing out in courtrooms in Kenosha, Charlottesville, and Georgia are revealing. What do you find revealing and the connections between all three of these?
NICOLE LEWIS: Every few years we get a series of cases that people look to, to say, will the ruling, will the outcome here finally be an indication that we have made progress in terms of race and racial relations and racial justice? The case in Kenosha, the case in Georgia, the Charlottesville case, I really don’t think you could get three bigger and more significant cases. One, Charlottesville, about the rise of extremism, Nazism, our First Amendment rights. What right do you have actually to create violence in public spaces? The trial in Kenosha about whether or not the Second Amendment, our gun rights, are more important than our ability to peaceably assemble. Then we have the case in Georgia that really reflects this long legacy of racial violence in the South. The three defendants are white. Ahmaud Arbery, the young unarmed jogger was Black. So they just encapsulate all these different components, all these different issues happening in our country right now.
What Dahlia and I were trying to point out is that the criminal justice system, even the civil system–the Charlottesville case is not a criminal case—is simply just ill-equipped to deal with these extraordinary questions of race. It is the same system that disproportionately sends Black and Latino men to prison at extraordinary rates. So when we bring white defendants into the system and ask it to litigate and say, “Let’s find justice here,” many of us watching know that it won’t be able to do that. I think the Rittenhouse verdict for many was devastating for that reason. People did not expect that he would be treated the way that he was, that he would be acquitted.
There is another component here. When Dahlia and I watched the jury selection in many of these cases, we could not help but notice just how much the defense attorneys in particular treated racism like an open question. Any juror who believed that racism is real, that Black Lives Matter is not a terrorist organization, that in fact it emerged in response to state-sanctioned violence against Black people, anyone who believed those things to be true was struck from the jury. It was read as somehow not being neutral and not being objective, of not having an open mind, when we know that these are settled and established facts. So I think we just saw the extraordinary limitation here to say, “What can we do if the jury pool is now comprised of people whose minds are not made up about Nazism, whose minds are not made up about the horrors, the violence and the evil of white supremacy?” That’s just another extraordinary limitation and something that we saw, a thread throughout all three trials.