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Editorial: Holding extremists accountable

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Defense attorney William ReBrook (middle) and defendant Richard Spencer (right) wait to enter the Charlottesville Federal Court on Oct. 28 for the Sines v. Kessler civil trial.

The violent 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville was a sickening and awful ordeal that no community should have to endure. The sight of neo-Nazis and white supremacists marching at the University of Virginia and clashing in the streets with counterprotesters won’t soon fade from memory.

While no amount of money can bring back Heather Heyer, the 32-year-old woman killed that day, or speed the healing for so many injured or traumatized that weekend, last week’s jury verdict against the rally organizers serves as a measure of justice for the harm they inflicted.

In cheering that decision, we are reminded that the threat posed by violent extremism is real. It should prompt us to commit considerable effort to rooting out dangerous ideologies, fighting lies with facts, and replacing anger and alienation with hope and purpose.

It’s hard to believe that four years have passed since that terrible weekend, when white supremacists and others in the so-called “alt-right” movement converged on Charlottesville. Ostensibly the rally was meant to protest the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue, but it was also intended as a show of strength and power — a twisted, violent ideology enjoying a moment of prominence in the national discourse.

They marched across the U.Va. grounds with torches on Friday night, chanting “Jews will not replace us,” and attacked protesters who objected to their sickening display. It was striking that, unlike the Ku Klux Klan rallies of old, these white supremacists made no efforts to conceal their identities, proud of the fear they intended to provoke.

That was a prelude to a morning and afternoon of citywide violence that scarred that community. Dozens of people were injured in the street fighting that consumed Charlottesville that day, and two Virginia State Police troopers died in a helicopter crash that afternoon, adding to a weekend of tragedy.

But nothing was more shocking, more traumatizing or more nauseating than the car attack that claimed the life of Heyer, a Charlottesville paralegal.

She was killed when James Alex Fields Jr., a member of a white supremacist group, drove his car into a crowd of protesters. Fields was convicted on state charges, including first-degree murder, in 2018 and pleaded guilty to federal hate crimes in 2019, receiving a life sentence.

There were other criminal charges and convictions as a result of that weekend’s violence, but the organizers of the event — including neo-Nazi leader Richard Spencer; Jason Kessler, who was the driving force behind the march; and Christopher Cantwell, a neo-Nazi podcaster who is serving time in federal prison for extortion and issuing threats — had escaped legal penalty for their actions.

The jury decision, the result of a civil suit brought by nine Charlottesville residents, including four injured in the car attack, holds them to account. Members of the jury found 12 individuals and five white supremacist organizations responsible for a conspiracy to commit violence that weekend, awarding the plaintiffs more than $26 million.

Set aside the fact that the perpetrators of the Charlottesville violence, according to their lawyers, cannot pay those sums. A major portion of the penalty, some $12 million, was ordered to come from Fields, who will spend the rest of his life behind bars.

But it does throw down a marker in Virginia, that those determined to foment racial violence or engage in acts of domestic terrorism that there are no rewards awaiting them in the commonwealth — only the prospect of jail time, financial ruin and a miserable future.

Perhaps that will help turn some impressionable young people away from extremist ideologies. However, social media and other networking platforms mean that radicalization will continue to be a problem in America.

We should work tirelessly to provide hope to the disaffected, and to show them that there is no future in hate — and message that the jury in Charlottesville admirably and powerfully delivered last week.

—The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot & (Newport News) Daily Press editorial board


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