Hate on trial in Virginia, four years after deadly extremist rally A violent march in Charlottesville by far-right extremists in 2017 showed how well organized the far-right had become. A trial targeting those associated with the march is seen as a bellwether case.

Hate on trial in Virginia, four years after deadly extremist rally

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NOEL KING, HOST:

The people who organized the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017 are going on trial. Jury selection starts today. This is a civil trial, not a criminal one. The plaintiffs want to dismantle these extremist groups by bankrupting them. Here's NPR's Odette Yousef.

ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: Violence motivated by hate has always been a part of America's history - so, too, has been a failure of the criminal justice system to deal with it effectively.

KATHLEEN BELEW: For reasons ranging from ingrained problems in our legal system that have to do with long histories of white supremacy to all kinds of procedural problems that have derailed justice in one way or another.

YOUSEF: That's Kathleen Belew, author and historian at the University of Chicago. She says that as a result, the civil courts have been important. In the '80s and '90s, the Southern Poverty Law Center won several landmark cases on behalf of plaintiffs against the KKK, Aryan Nations and white Aryan resistance. The million-dollar judgments ended up putting many of those groups and individual extremists out of business. Scott McCoy is a lawyer with the SPLC.

SCOTT MCCOY: They had property, physical land, and they had buildings and bank accounts that could be seized and taken. It's harder now in the digital age because a lot of these groups don't have those kind of assets.

YOUSEF: McCoy speaks from firsthand knowledge here. He and his team have been trying to collect on a $14 million judgment they won two years ago. It was on behalf of a woman in Montana whose family was targeted by an anti-Semitic harassment campaign. The defendant, Andrew Anglin, runs a neo-Nazi website. He's also one of those named in the Charlottesville lawsuit. McCoy says the difficulty collecting from Anglin illustrates one new modern-day challenge to the classic playbook of suing extremists out of business.

MCCOY: Their assets are in cryptocurrency, and it's much harder to find and get at and attach those kind of assets.

YOUSEF: Still, there's no doubt that these civil cases can disrupt extremists' activities. Richard Spencer has said as much. He's the white nationalist who coined the term alt-right and is among the defendants in the Charlottesville case.

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RICHARD SPENCER: I - look; this lawsuit that I'm facing is just totally detrimental to what I'm doing.

YOUSEF: Spencer said that on a far-right YouTube channel. He was talking about why he didn't accept an invitation to speak at a conference.

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SPENCER: Look; if we can just simply be sued if anyone on the other side gets hurt, I - we can't do anything publicly.

YOUSEF: People were more than hurt in Charlottesville four years ago. One woman was killed, and the nine plaintiffs in this case say they continue to struggle with physical, psychic and emotional damage. Whatever judgments they win in this case may never make up for that. But Karen Dunn, one of their lawyers, says that's not her client's only goal. The fact is, the deadly events in the summer of 2017 were actually the second time that year that white nationalists and neo-Nazis had descended on Charlottesville.

KAREN DUNN: One of the most striking facts to me in this case is that Charlottesville was really Charlottesville 2.0. That's what it was called. It was called that because there was a Charlottesville 1.0 and because there was every intention for there to be a Charlottesville 3.0, which did not happen in part because of this case.

YOUSEF: Regardless of whether a single dollar can be recovered, experts and lawyers say winning substantial judgments in this case is crucial because this is the trial that will set the narrative about what happened in Charlottesville four years ago and reinforce a norm that Americans will not tolerate hate-motivated violence on their streets.

Odette Yousef, NPR News.

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