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U.Va. community shows solidarity with plaintiffs in trial against “Unite the Right” organizers

Students, faculty and staff at the University expressed support for the plaintiffs and called out the University for remaining silent in response to the trial

University President Jim Ryan sent a University-wide email Wednesday morning reflecting on the events of Aug. 11 and 12 and the courage of the plaintiffs in the trial.
University President Jim Ryan sent a University-wide email Wednesday morning reflecting on the events of Aug. 11 and 12 and the courage of the plaintiffs in the trial.

Members of the University community organized to express support for victims of the events of Aug. 11 and 12, 2017 amid the civil trial filed against organizers of the “Unite the Right” rally. 

Following the jury’s verdict Tuesday — which ruled in favor of the plaintiffs for four out of six claims — University President Jim Ryan sent a University-wide email Wednesday morning reflecting on the events of Aug. 11 and 12 and the courage of the plaintiffs in the trial. 

“Those were tragic and terrifying days at U.Va., and in Charlottesville, as anyone present — or anyone, like myself, who watched from afar — could attest,” Ryan wrote. “I admire the bravery of the people who brought this lawsuit, several of whom were U.Va. students, who stood up to the white supremacists who organized this rally and the organizations they represent.” 

The trial centered around the events of Aug. 11 and 12, 2017, when white supremacists convened in Charlottesville to protest City Council’s vote to remove the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. On Aug. 11, protestors gathered around the Thomas Jefferson statue on the North side of the Rotunda and shouted racist and anti-semitic chants. A confrontation ensued between the group and counter-protesters, leaving several counter-protestors injured. The following day, the “Unite the Right” rally protest held on the Downtown Mall turned deadly when white supremacist James Fields drove a car through a crowd of counter-protesters, killing Charlottesville local Heather Heyer and injuring nineteen others.

The trial involved nine plaintiffs, all of whom suffered psychological trauma, physical injuries or both as a result of the rally. The 24 defendants included several organizers of the rally and prominent white supremacists, including Jason Kessler, Richard Spencer and Fields, as well as various white supremacist groups including National Front and two chapters of the Ku Klux Klan.

In a verdict delivered Tuesday afternoon, the jury held all defendants responsible under Virginia state law for four out of six claims that included conspiracy to commit violence, assault and battery, racial harassment and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The jury ordered the defendants to pay more than $25 million in damages.

Jurors were unable to reach a verdict on two federal conspiracy claims — conspiring to commit racially-motivated violence and knowing of a conspiracy to commit racially-motivated violence. 

Ryan acknowledged that there remains much work to be done for Charlottesville and the University to become more inclusive communities, noting that the verdict “cannot completely erase the hate and bigotry” that drove rally organizers and perpetrators to “sow such destruction.”

“It is nonetheless encouraging that our system of justice worked in this case, and the people who came to this area with the intentions of provoking violence now have to answer for the harm they caused,” Ryan said.

Up until Wednesday morning, the administration had remained silent surrounding the trial, leading to over 300 University students, faculty, staff and alumni to sign a letter in support of the plaintiffs and criticizing the administration’s silence. 

“We recognize and honor the courage of the plaintiffs publicly, energetically,” the letter reads.

Andrew Kaufman, associate professor of Slavic Languages and Literature, said he signed the letter because he “deeply respects” the plaintiffs for taking the burden upon themselves in telling their painful stories.

“In doing so, they are modeling the sort of moral and personal courage that our democracy requires in this tumultuous moment,” Kaufman said. 

The letter states that members of the University community have stories to tell that can remind them to offer “emotional, social and financial support to the plaintiffs, beyond whatever the institution can do.”

David Singerman, assistant professor of history and American Studies, said he signed the letter because the plaintiffs “put their lives on the line for all of us.” 

“They were brave and farsighted enough to see how much was at stake at the Nazi rally, and how much would be jeopardized if nobody stood up to hatred,” Singerman said in an email statement to The Cavalier Daily. “A lot of people who weren’t so brave or farsighted have never forgotten their example.”

Singerman added that he hoped University leadership would also not forget the example the plaintiffs had set out.   

Current undergraduate students, graduate students and alumni from multiple schools also left their names on the letter, including first-year College student Owen McCoy, who said signed for two reasons — because he believes defendants should face consequences for their actions and because silence would signal that racism and anti-semitism are acceptable. 

“That's why I had to add my name — to join in sending a clear message that we're going to keep pushing for racial equity and pushing back against racism,” McCoy said in an email statement to The Cavalier Daily. 

Booker Johnson, third-year College student and chair of the Black Student Alliance’s political action committee, said he believes that signing the letter is the bare minimum that he and others should be doing to show support for the victims. 

“In times like this, when an outcome can have a significant impact on many individuals who were harmed during the events of A11/A12, it is critical that we show and exhibit community support with the victims,” Johnson said in an email statement to The Cavalier Daily. 

Johnson said he thinks the University’s silence indicated a lack of support for those affected by the events of Aug. 11 and 12. 

“Silence is violence,” Johnson said. “Electing to be quiet during a time that is so personal and impactful to many University students and community members shows the complicity that the University has surrounding the situation.“

In an addendum to the document containing the letter posted Nov. 23, Rose Buckelew, assistant professor of sociology and faculty fellow at the Center for Teaching Excellence and David Edmunds, associate professor and director of global developmental studies, thanked all signatories and updated them on the letter’s status. 

Buckelew and Edmunds said the letter was shared with a few of the plaintiffs and their legal team on the night of Nov. 22 and sent to University administration including Ryan, Provost Liz Magill, Kevin McDonald, vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion, deans of schools and others. 

“[The letter] demonstrates our collective commitment to supporting the plaintiffs, which we hope will motivate University administration to do the same and more,” Buckelew and Edmunds wrote.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

Buckelew and Edmunds urged community members to contribute to the Congregate Charlottesville flash fund, a fundraiser that aims to support anti-racist community members with ongoing needs arising out of the events of Aug. 11 and 12. Congregate Charlottesville is a local grassroots organization dedicated to the liberation of the community through faith-based anti-racist education and community support. Donations to the fund will be accepted through Dec. 31 and disbursed January.  

Buckelew and Edmunds noted that in conversations with some of the plaintiffs, the plaintiffs identified two pressing needs that have arisen —  mental health counseling and professional support.

“This fundraiser should not be the end of our support,” Buckelew and Edmunds said. “Let’s be creative and generous.”

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