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Lawyers for 'Unite the Right' rally organizers prepare their defense

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The trial against the white nationalists who organized the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., is about to enter its next phase. Attorneys for the organizers - more than 20 white nationalists and their affiliate groups - are preparing to lay out their defense in the week ahead. Whittney Evans of member station VPM has been covering the trial, and she's with us now. Whittney, thanks so much for joining us.

WHITTNEY EVANS, BYLINE: Thank you.

MARTIN: This was such a traumatic and terrifying event that it's hard to believe people don't remember it, but I'm still going to ask you to remind us what this case is about.

EVANS: Sure. In 2017, white nationalist groups flocked to Charlottesville, where the University of Virginia is located, to protest the removal of Confederate monuments in the city. They carried lit tiki torches and chanted racist and antisemitic phrases, like Jews will not replace us. And as they moved through campus, anti-racist protesters - counterprotesters, rather, were there to greet them. That meeting did not go well. Violence erupted in the streets, and one woman was killed when James Alex Fields drove his car into a crowd. Now, some of those counterprotesters, who were also residents of Charlottesville, are suing these groups in federal court for conspiring in violation of state and federal law to commit racially motivated violence.

MARTIN: So, Whittney, you've been there for most of the trial. What's it been like?

EVANS: First, I have to point out that it's been difficult to sit through. There's been no shortage of racist, really reprehensible language. The courts endured references to gassing Jewish people, comments about the intelligence of Black people and injuring and killing protesters. The plaintiffs introduced depositions, videos and online chats of the organizers discussing violence and talking about their veneration for Adolf Hitler. And there's been no effort by the defendants to discredit or walk any of this back.

But the jury isn't deciding whether they're racist, right? They're - they have to be convinced that this language constituted specific arrangements to commit violence on the streets of Charlottesville on August 11 and 12.

MARTIN: How are the defendants responding to all of this? There have been reports that the trial has gotten unruly.

EVANS: It has. One of the defendants, Christopher Cantwell, has used the trial as sort of a platform to air all of his conspiracy theories. Cantwell is an avowed neo-Nazi and also a podcast and radio host. And sometimes, it feels like he's performing for an audience. He's accused plaintiffs of being antifa. He's used cross-examinations to badger witnesses and glean information about their friends. And this past week, he launched into a diatribe about critical race theory. Meanwhile, these plaintiffs are taking the stand and sobbing while they rehash one of the worst days of their lives.

I spoke to one of the defense attorneys, Joshua Smith, who made some flippant claims about Cantwell's demeanor in the courtroom, and this kind of speaks to how these defendants aren't really taking this case seriously.

JOSHUA SMITH: I think that he's probably one of the most entertaining people to watch in the courtroom. So, you know, chances are one of the reasons he's needs to go on for a long time and the judge doesn't mind is because the judge actually enjoys it.

EVANS: That's a stretch. But Cantwell is representing himself. He's not an attorney, so the court gives him some deference. In this way, he's able to make his case in a way that attorneys can't.

MARTIN: Well, as you mentioned, this is a lawsuit. It is not a criminal trial. So what remedies are the plaintiffs seeking or penalties for that matter?

EVANS: The plaintiffs are asking for unspecified money damages. They want to bankrupt these groups, and they're asking the judge to bar the defendants from future civil rights violations. Now, it might seem like the latter punishment is somewhat nebulous and difficult to enforce, but it's worked in the past to stamp out KKK violence in the South, for example. Really, this case is about making sure the public understands how dangerous these people are and preventing them from recruiting and spreading their messages.

MARTIN: That is Whittney Evans of member station VPM. Whittney, thank you so much for joining us.

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