Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, (@fridaghitis) a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a weekly opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
For those of us who are growing increasingly worried about the prospect of even more deadly political violence in the United States, Tuesday’s verdict by a Charlottesville jury – which held extreme far-right leaders and groups that organized and participated in the violent 2017 rally liable for more than $26 million in damages – came as very welcome news.
The defendants were found liable on state conspiracy and other claims, though the jury said it could not reach a verdict on two federal conspiracy claims. Still, it’s a good day when some of the worst people in the country are held accountable and slapped with potentially crippling financial penalties.
The threat is far from over. But even if defendants don’t come up with the millions the jury assessed against them, or the damages are reduced by the court, the trial and its outcome sent a signal that in America, there will be accountability after all for those awful summer days, a message that has been much too scarce since political violence started surging in the past few years.
The money may never come, and the ideology will not disappear. But this trial should accomplish at least two important goals. First, it should make others planning to make such a brazen public display of the horrifying views think twice.
Second, it establishes clearly and incontrovertibly that what occurred in Charlottesville in 2017, a landmark moment in US history, is an affront to the country’s values, enlarging Americans’ understanding of the violent threat posed by right-wing extremism, by making clear what the violence in Charlottesville was all about.
That event was not the first far-right attack in the US, but it opened the gates further and in a new way to displays of armed political radicalism, a threat that has been growing and accelerating, culminating in the January 6 attack on the Capitol, a coup attempt, in my view.
The events in Charlottesville on August 11 and 12, 2017, are seared in the minds of many Americans. It was the first year of a presidency that had excited far-right extremists. The march through the grounds of the University of Virginia looked and sounded like something out of 1930s Nazi Germany, with tiki torches and shouts of “Jews will not replace us,” “Blood and soil,” and stiff-armed Nazi-style salutes.
The moment seemed to confirm our worst fears. The day after that spine-chilling march, violent clashes between racists and anti-racists turned deadly when one of the defendants rammed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing one and injuring several of the people now turned plaintiffs in this lawsuit.
After the Unite the Right rally, Americans – and the rest of the world – heard the former president speak out of both sides of his mouth, struggling to criticize the extremists among his supporters to the delight of neo-Nazis. He finally managed to condemn them, but not without declaring that there were “some very fine people on both sides.”
During the trial, jurors came face-to-face with the repugnant views of the defendants. These views are protected by the First Amendment, but the Constitution does not permit violence or conspiracy. “This is going to be a violent summer,” texted the once-far-right icon Richard Spencer two months before the rally. (Spencer has said the trial has been “financially crippling.”) On a far-right message board, a man calling himself “JUDENJAGER,” Jew Hunter in German, wrote, “we are gonna see some serious brawls at cville and we’ll see blood on some of these white polos lol.”
In these proceedings, some of the defendants spoke admiringly of Hitler and repeatedly uttered the n-word. One of the attorneys deliberately used the word k–e, an antisemitic slur, in an effort to “desensitize the jury,” he explained.
The evidence was overwhelming. The jury found that five far-right groups should pay $1 million each, and a dozen defendants should pay $500,000 apiece, in punitive damages for participating in a civil conspiracy.
America – and the world – need to hear the message of accountability this jury has sent. After Charlottesville, far-right extremists became even deadlier. The next year, a man shouting “All Jews must die!” burst into a synagogue in Pittsburgh and opened fire, killing 11 people. The year after that, a man who police say told them he was targeting Mexicans allegedly shot and killed 23 people in a Walmart in El Paso, Texas.
Before long, armed militias were everywhere, protesting pandemic restrictions and demonstrating in support for former President Trump’s bogus claims about the election. Militia members planned to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
The FBI says racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists (RMVES) pose the greatest terrorist threat to the nation, and it found that January 6 “demonstrates a willingness by some to use violence,” to achieve political goals.
America is also awash in weapons, and many of those weapons are in the hands of far-right militants ready to use them for political purposes. “When do we get to use the guns,” asked an activist during a recent event by the right-wing youth group Turning Point USA. “I mean, literally, where’s the line?” he asked again, “How many elections are they going to steal before we kill these people?”
If this is not frightening enough, consider what we have seen during this very unusual week.
In an odd coincidence, three separate trials all dealing with the tensions and the violence that have erupted in this country in recent years, reached a climax. In addition to Charlottesville, there’s the conviction of three White men in Georgia for the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed Black man they chased down. And then there was the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, the teenager who showed up at an anti-racism protest armed with an assault rifle, which he used to kill two protesters in what he said was self-defense, a claim the jury accepted in their acquittal of him on all charges.
There’s no evidence that Rittenhouse was an extremist, but this is a young man who – let’s say this again – shot and killed two people. And despite the tragic outcome of his actions, Rittenhouse has become a hero in the eyes of many. His apotheosis included a meeting with the idol of the right, former President Donald Trump, at Mar-a-Lago. In a normal, stable society, he would have gone home and kept quiet, counting himself lucky not to spend the rest of his life in prison. His backers surely would have breathed a sigh of relief and perhaps tried to change the subject.
His actions, using a firearm in the middle of a political protest, are being touted as inspiration. Members of Congress are competing to bring him onto their staffs. One of those members, Rep. Madison Cawthorn, told his followers after Rittenhouse’s acquittal: “You have a right to defend yourselves. Be armed, be dangerous and be moral.”
The threats posed by extremist rhetoric and violence have not vanished, but in an environment like the one we’re living in, the Charlottesville victory was important. Coming just before Thanksgiving, it gives one more reason to celebrate, however cautiously, during these perilous times.