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White nationalists must pay $25 million in damages for their part in deadly Va. rally

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A jury is ordering far-right groups and individuals to pay more than $25 million in damages for their part in the deadly Unite the Right rally in Virginia that happened back in 2017. Roberta Kaplan represented the plaintiffs who sued white nationalists.

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ROBERTA KAPLAN: No one will ever bring violence to the streets of Charlottesville, Va., ever again because they now know what will happen if they do.

MARTIN: The jurors concluded that all of the defendants conspired under Virginia civil law. Five of them were found responsible for violence. NPR's Odette Yousef covers domestic extremism, and she joins us now. Odette, thanks for being here. All the plaintiffs in this case said that they suffered some kind of injury or long-standing pain from that day and that night in 2017, right?

ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: That's right, Rachel. You'll recall that this was the largest convening of white nationalists and neo-Nazis that this country has seen in many decades. You'll remember some televised images of a torchlight march, as young white men were chanting, the Jews will not replace us, and then violence at the rally the next day, where ultimately one neo-Nazi ran a vehicle into a crowd of counterprotesters and killed Heather Heyer.

The retelling of all that at the trial, I'm sure, must have been very challenging for the plaintiffs. Some were injured by that car or traumatized by what they witnessed that day. But with this verdict, you know, they're finally feeling tremendously relieved that justice has been served and, you know, feeling that perhaps now healing can really begin.

MARTIN: So far-right violence has been increasing in this country. And as a result, this case has really been seen as a kind of bellwether. What has been the reaction to this verdict from civil rights lawyers, others who have been paying close attention to this?

YOUSEF: Overwhelmingly, they've been heartened by this verdict. You know, each of these individual defendants has been assessed at least half a million dollars in damages to pay. One of them, the man who drove his vehicle into the crowd, was assessed $12 million in damages. As one civil rights lawyer put it to me, Rachel, these amounts are high enough that they can't just chalk it off as a cost of doing business as a white nationalist. You know, these are amounts that they will be paying down for the rest of their lives.

But I would note, Rachel, that in the world of extremism, these groups largely lost their significance after the Charlottesville events. You know, today, we're continuing to see extremism rising, but with different groups at the fore.

MARTIN: So when we think about this tragedy that unfolded in Charlottesville, what did we learn from the trial about the way that white nationalists operate?

YOUSEF: It was fascinating, Rachel, because this trial ended up being almost like an extremism 101 crash course for jurors. One person who spoke to me about this was Amy Spitalnick. She's executive director of the - of Integrity First for America, which is the civil rights nonprofit behind the lawsuit. She told me that this educational mission was absolutely one of the most important functions of the trial.

AMY SPITALNICK: We had expert witnesses who explained not just to the jury but to the world who was following along how these extremists use tools and tactics like plausible deniability, like optics, the fact that they claim that they're joking so often as part of a very deliberate strategy that is central to their violence.

YOUSEF: So to explain that a bit, you know, experts were able to get into how these defendants normalize discussions of violence against, say, Jewish and Black people by using internet memes, so this idea of trying to make something horrific look kind of like a joke so that they could deny intent to do harm. But the underlying intent was always understood. You know, another example - explaining the anti-Semitic roots through this trial of something like replacement theory, which today has crept even more into the mainstream and onto cable news.

MARTIN: There hasn't been a public trial of extremists like this in many years. What did we learn about how prepared the system is to take on these kinds of cases?

YOUSEF: I think the biggest lesson here is that, you know, these extremists reject the validity of America's court system. They see the courts as part of a conspiracy and as a joke, so they don't always enter courtrooms in good faith. People I spoke to said there may be lessons here about how judges and lawyers might be educated to know that these parties are not showing up in good faith.

MARTIN: NPR's Odette Yousef, thank you.

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