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Activists Injured In 2017 Charlottesville Rally File Civil Lawsuit Against Organizers

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

An update now on the legal fallout from the deadly rally of white nationalists in Charlottesville two years ago. A handful of organizers face criminal charges; the rest, impunity. Now, as NPR's Hannah Allam reports, an unusual lawsuit is trying to change that.

HANNAH ALLAM, BYLINE: There are certain memories Liz Sines can't get out of her head from the weekend hundreds of white supremacists converged on Charlottesville.

LIZ SINES: We're standing on the lawn. It's completely dark. The only thing that you can see are the Nazis' faces when they get up closer to you, and the torchlight is how you can see it. And they're chanting, blood and soil, and, you will not replace us, and, Jews will not replace us.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) You will not replace us.

ALLAM: Sines watched in terror as the extremists kicked and punched student activists. The next day, violent clashes continued until, finally, authorities shut down the rally. Sines said it felt like they'd reclaimed their town.

SINES: We're still chanting. It's still this incredible moment. And that's when the car came down the hill.

ALLAM: Sines narrowly escaped the car ramming that killed 32-year-old Heather Heyer and wounded 30 others. The driver of the car eventually got life in prison. For months after the attack, Sines experienced nightmares, fear and anger. The violence that weekend took place in the open. She asked, why weren't others held responsible?

SINES: They were so openly proud to be there. They just truly didn't seem like they could have any repercussions for doing anything like this.

ALLAM: Two years later, Sines is in the middle of a legal battle demanding accountability. She and nine others injured in the violence filed a federal civil suit against two dozen extremist and hate groups they say planned the rally. The defendants are leaders in the white power movement, and the ultimate goal of the suit is to put them out of business.

SINES: The message is that if you conspire to attack innocent people, to attack innocent people of color, to attack Jewish people, then you will be held accountable.

AMY SPITALNICK: What happened in Charlottesville wasn't an accident. It was not spontaneous.

ALLAM: That's Amy Spitalnick, executive director of Integrity First for America, a civil rights nonprofit backing the lawsuit. She says the chaos Sines described was organized months in advance on the social media platform Discord.

SPITALNICK: And they talked about everything from what to wear, what to bring for lunch. For instance, they speculated whether mayo would spoil in the sun.

ALLAM: And they planned for violence.

SPITALNICK: They talked about which weapons to bring, cracking skulls and even whether they could claim self-defense if they drove cars into protesters, which is, of course, exactly what happened.

ALLAM: To make their case, the legal team is dusting off a 19th century post-slavery law. It was originally intended to protect newly emancipated black people from the KKK.

SPITALNICK: A hundred and fifty years after it was first passed, it's stunning that we need to use it, still. But it is exactly relevant here.

ALLAM: What happened in Charlottesville is the kind of racist violence Congress was trying to prevent with the KKK Act, says Jack Beermann, a law professor at Boston University. The only problem, he says...

JACK BEERMANN: The Supreme Court has never allowed a case like this involving private racial violence.

ALLAM: Beermann says the suit faces a, quote, "uphill climb" on the legal side if it hinges on the KKK law. But whether or not the plaintiffs win, he said, this case is important.

BEERMANN: This lawsuit has served to show that what we have is a very organized, very cohesive and very dangerous group of white supremacist organizations in the United States.

ALLAM: For now, the judge has ruled the suit can proceed to trial. Attorneys for the defendants didn't respond to NPR's request for comment. Only one defendant - Kyle Chapman, representing himself - sent a response, denying involvement.

Liz Sines, the plaintiff, is now 25 and just graduated from law school. She's starting a new life in a new town she prefers not to name for security reasons. Since the attacks, she's spent a lot of time thinking about the law - its possibilities and its limitations.

SINES: We're using laws that are, you know, over a century old to take down white nationalists again.

ALLAM: This time, she hopes, for good.

Hannah Allam, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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