Victims Sue Organizers of Violent Charlottesville Rally Under 150-Year-Old Ku Klux Klan Act

In a civil trial, lawyers for some of those hurt during violence at a "Unite the Right" rally plan to invoke a 150-year-old law used to shield freed slaves from violence and protect their civil rights in court.

Hundreds of white supremacists and demonstrators went to Charlottesville, Virginia, on an August weekend in 2017 to protest the removal of a Gen. Robert E. Lee statue.

The protest escalated into a violent affair with altercations between those groups and counterprotesters, with fighting in the streets and a Hitler admirer ramming a car into a crowd, killing a woman and injuring others.

Now, the four plaintiffs who were injured in the incident must prove the defendants plotted to commit racially motivated violence in advance.

"It's the only case that really takes on the leadership and organization of the white supremacist movement," said Karen Dunn, one of the lead attorneys in the lawsuit.

The attorneys are relying on the commonly known Ku Klux Klan Act, enacted after the Civil War to allow private citizens to sue other citizens for civil rights violations.

The Charlottesville lawsuit is funded by Integrity First for America, a nonprofit organization formed to disarming the instigators of the Charlottesville violence through litigation, and accuses rally organizers of a "meticulously planned conspiracy" to commit violence against Blacks, Jewish people and others based on race, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation.

The case is being built around online chat room discussions between racists, social media engagement, and talk of weapons to bring to the rally.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Richard Spencer
FILE - In this Dec. 6, 2016, file photo, Richard Spencer, who leads a movement that mixes racism, white nationalism and populism, speaks at the Texas A&M University campus in College Station, Texas. A trial is beginning in Charlottesville, Virginia, to determine whether white nationalists who planned the so-called “Unite the Right” rally will be held civilly responsible for the violence that erupted. AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File

The plaintiffs' attorneys say they've amassed 5.3 terabytes of digital communications by the defendants, including many on the online platform Discord initially leaked by Unicorn Riot, a left-leaning media collective.

The lawsuit alleges there were "countless exhortations to violence" on Discord, including one by a defendant who allegedly wrote: "I'm ready to crack skulls," and another who wrote: "It's going to get wild. Bring your boots."

A third allegedly wrote: "There is rapidly approaching a time when in every white western city, corpses will be stacked in the streets as high as men can stack them."

But the white nationalists named as defendants claim talk of weapons and combat was meant only in the event they had to defend themselves from counterprotesters. They argue their communications are protected by the First Amendment.

"You can say any nasty thing you want about any person or group you want and that is protected by the First Amendment. That is not me saying that, that's the Supreme Court," said W. Edward ReBrook IV, an attorney for Jeff Schoep, the former longtime leader of the neo-Nazi group the Nationalist Socialist Movement and one of the defendants.

Spencer, whom the Southern Poverty Law Center calls "a suit-and-tie version of the white supremacists of old," joined fellow white nationalists at the University of Virginia on Aug. 11. Participants carried tiki torches and marched to a statue of Thomas Jefferson, chanting "Jews will not replace us."

The plaintiffs allege the defendants and their co-conspirators surrounded counterprotesters, kicked and punched people and climbed atop the statue, yelling "Hail Spencer!" "Hail Victory!" Spencer told the crowd: "We own these streets!"

Spencer, who is representing himself at trial, told the Associated Press he did not help plan the event and took no part in any conspiracy to commit racially motivated violence. He said he is looking forward to telling his story to the jury, noting emotions still run high over the events in Charlottesville.

"I feel also that people don't have a sense of closure about Charlottesville so in some way they want to achieve a certain kind of purging a bad feeling, they want to engage in what is effectively scapegoating," Spencer said.

Charlottesville
FILE - In this Aug. 12, 2017, file photo, a vehicle drives into a group of protesters demonstrating against a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va. A trial is beginning in Charlottesville, Virginia to determine whether white nationalists who planned the so-called “Unite the Right” rally will be held civilly responsible for the violence that erupted. Ryan M. Kelly/The Daily Progress via AP, File

Elizabeth Sines, the lead plaintiff, said she's still haunted by the violence she saw that weekend, including Fields plowing his car into the crowd.

"It has changed who I am forever," Sines said in a statement released by her attorneys. "The organizers of the Unite the Right rally robbed me of my ability to feel safe, feel secure, feel at ease — even in my own home."

The lawsuit seeks unspecified monetary damages and a judgment that the defendants violated the plaintiffs' constitutional rights.