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Opening statements begin in 'Unite the Right' rally trial

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Opening arguments began today in the civil trial against far-right extremists associated with the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally. The long-awaited trial in Charlottesville, Va., is four years in the making. It's been held up by the pandemic and also the struggle to collect evidence from unwilling defendants. Whittney Evans is with Virginia Public Media. She followed today's proceedings and joins us with more. Hi, Whittney.

WHITTNEY EVANS, BYLINE: Hi.

MCCAMMON: So what has today been like?

EVANS: To be honest, it's been so difficult to sit through these opening arguments. They played audio and video of all of the events of August 11 and 12. And it may be difficult to hear, but I'm going to describe some of it now. Extremists are screaming, chanting racist phrases and slogans like, Jews will not replace us. And when they broadcast a recording of avowed neo-Nazi James Alex Fields driving his car into protesters, you could hear the sound of bodies hitting the hood of the car. I had to take a break from this.

MCCAMMON: So awful. Remind us, Whittney, how all of this began.

EVANS: Back in 2016, Charlottesville was considering taking down Confederate statues, and these white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups started filtering into the city to protest their removal. And it all came to a head in August of 2017 when violence broke out in the streets. Fields killed one woman and injured others with his car. A group of those residents who were injured filed a lawsuit against the organizers. They claim they conspired amongst each other in violation of state and federal law to commit that violence.

MCCAMMON: And can you tell us more about this case? What kind of case are the plaintiffs making?

EVANS: Well, they say they have ample evidence to prove the defendants - which includes Richard Spencer, who's known for coining the term alt-right, and the Ku Klux Klan and Vanguard America - planned and promoted the violence. They've been collecting evidence over the last four years and have constructed sort of a web to show how the defendants, of which there were more than 20, are all connected to each other and also connected to the violence. For at least one longtime local activist, this case is clear-cut. Jalane Schmidt, who is also a professor here at the University of Virginia, says it was obvious when many of these far-right groups began gathering in town long before the infamous rally.

JALANE SCHMIDT: To me, it seems obvious that this was a conspiracy, meaning they were planning this, you know, for months. We saw it here in Charlottesville. We saw it in our streets - a very steady escalation. So yeah, I think there's plenty of evidence.

MCCAMMON: OK. And so what is the defense saying?

EVANS: Attorneys for the defendants say these people may not be likable, that their language in chat forums may have been violent and hateful, but that they're, quote, "knuckleheads" who couldn't have known what was going to happen in Charlottesville. High-profile defendants, including Richard Spencer and neo-Nazi Christopher Cantwell, are actually representing themselves in this trial. Cantwell was hauled in from federal prison, where he's serving time on unrelated charges.

MCCAMMON: Yeah. What has that been like?

EVANS: It's made for an unusual sight. The defense is still making their case. But earlier today, Spencer addressed the jurors, telling them, this case isn't about whether you stand with the, quote, "angels or the Nazis." It's about whether you can defend the right of someone you vehemently disagree with - to, quote, "give the bad guy a fair shake." Ultimately, these 12 jurors - for these 12 jurors, this isn't about deciding whether they're bad people but whether they're - whether they violated the law.

MCCAMMON: Whittney Evans of Virginia Public Media. Thank you.

EVANS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.