Can You Bankrupt White Supremacy? Jury Holds Charlottesville Organizers Liable for $26M in Damages


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, Democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman in New York, joined by Democracy Now! co-host Juan González in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Hi, Juan.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Hi, Amy. Welcome to all of our listeners and viewers across the country and around the world.

AMY GOODMAN: A federal jury in Virginia has ordered a group of white supremacists to pay over $26 million in damages for their role in organizing the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. The jury found the organizers guilty of violating a Virginia state conspiracy law but jurors deadlocked on two federal conspiracy charges ncluding violating the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act. In August 2017, several hundred white supremacists marched with tiki torches across the University of Virginia, chanting “You will not replace us,” “Jews will not replace us,” and “White lives matter.” The next day, self-described neo-Nazi James Alex Fields slammed his car into a crowd of antiracist counterprotestors, killing Heather Heyer and injuring dozens of others.

On Tuesday, Fields, who is already serving a life sentence, was ordered to pay $12 million in punitive damages. Prominent white supremacists Richard Spencer, Jason Kessler and Christopher Cantwell and eight other defendants were also ordered to each pay over half a million dollars in punitive damages. While it is unclear how much money the men will actually pay, many observers are crediting the civil lawsuit with helping to bankrupt numerous far-right institutions.

We are joined now by Nicole Lewis, Senior Editor of Jurisprudence at Slate. Nicole, welcome to Democracy Now! In a moment we are also going to go to Georgia with you to talk about the Ahmaud Arbery murder trial, but right now talk about the significance of this civil suit, of the jury finding these men guilty and what $26 million means.

NICOLE LEWIS: The lawyers for the plaintiffs said that this judgment, this amount of money really sends a message to other people who might think that they want to show up and commit violent acts in cities, that they can’t get away with it, that they won’t get off scot-free, that there will be some repercussions. Twenty-six million dollars is a lot of money, but there is a big question about will these defendants be able to pay it. Chris Cantwell and James Fields are already incarcerated so they are not earning a ton of money. Many of the other defendants are already destitute from all of the pre-investigation leading into this trial, the fact that they are not able to work, that they are now publicly known as white supremacists and neo-Nazis who are unemployable in a lot of industries and institutions.

So I think there is just this big outstanding question of how much money will they actually be able to come up with and what strategies do they have to be able to extract money from these folks—liens on houses, garnishing wages, things like that. But I think the bigger picture here is that they came into Charlottesville with the intention to create and start a race war and that the criminal justice system hasn’t found any liability but in a civil system we say, “You cannot get away with this.”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In terms of the organizations that these men belong to, many of them are either going to declare bankruptcy and then reorganize under other names, or what is your sense of what has happened to the organizations?

NICOLE LEWIS: That’s an excellent question. I think it’s the question that we are all grappling with or dealing with, to say, is bankrupting these organizations, is bankrupting these individuals enough to actually stop the growing threat, the rising threat of white supremacy and Nazism in the United States? We know that there are a number of young men who feel disaffected and displaced and they’re gathering every day in chat rooms to share ideas, to commiserate, to strategize. So there is a high likelihood that the organizations that exist now become defunct, they turn over whatever assets they may have on hand, and then new organizations are started and new people come together in chat rooms to plan for this kind of thing. So I think it is just the open question of we don’t yet know.

I think it is important to point out that this was the strategy used to try to take down the Ku Klux Klan in the Jim Crow era and through the Civil Rights Movement. There was some effectiveness there, but again, looking back in time and moving forward, we see that one hateful group, one white supremacist group just morphed into new factions and new iterations of the same ideology. Is bankrupting them actually truly enough to stamp out hate? I don’t think so. I think there are many people who study hate and extremism who know just how extraordinary the threat is and that financial damages just simply won’t be enough to do that.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In October, You co-wrote a piece with Dahlia Lithwick titled Three Trials in America: The conversations playing out in courtrooms in Kenosha, Charlottesville, and Georgia are revealing. What do you find revealing and the connections between all three of these?

NICOLE LEWIS: Every few years we get a series of cases that people look to, to say, will the ruling, will the outcome here finally be an indication that we have made progress in terms of race and racial relations and racial justice? The case in Kenosha, the case in Georgia, the Charlottesville case, I really don’t think you could get three bigger and more significant cases. One, Charlottesville, about the rise of extremism, Nazism, our First Amendment rights. What right do you have actually to create violence in public spaces? The trial in Kenosha about whether or not the Second Amendment, our gun rights, are more important than our ability to peaceably assemble. Then we have the case in Georgia that really reflects this long legacy of racial violence in the South. The three defendants are white. Ahmaud Arbery, the young unarmed jogger was Black. So they just encapsulate all these different components, all these different issues happening in our country right now.

What Dahlia and I were trying to point out is that the criminal justice system, even the civil system–the Charlottesville case is not a criminal case—is simply just ill-equipped to deal with these extraordinary questions of race. It is the same system that disproportionately sends Black and Latino men to prison at extraordinary rates. So when we bring white defendants into the system and ask it to litigate and say, “Let’s find justice here,” many of us watching know that it won’t be able to do that. I think the Rittenhouse verdict for many was devastating for that reason. People did not expect that he would be treated the way that he was, that he would be acquitted.

There is another component here. When Dahlia and I watched the jury selection in many of these cases, we could not help but notice just how much the defense attorneys in particular treated racism like an open question. Any juror who believed that racism is real, that Black Lives Matter is not a terrorist organization, that in fact it emerged in response to state-sanctioned violence against Black people, anyone who believed those things to be true was struck from the jury. It was read as somehow not being neutral and not being objective, of not having an open mind, when we know that these are settled and established facts. So I think we just saw the extraordinary limitation here to say, “What can we do if the jury pool is now comprised of people whose minds are not made up about Nazism, whose minds are not made up about the horrors, the violence and the evil of white supremacy?” That’s just another extraordinary limitation and something that we saw, a thread throughout all three trials.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to that trial in Georgia right now, which is now in jury deliberations. Of course this is the trial of the three white men, a father and son, the father a former police officer, and their neighbor, who hunted down and killed 25-year-old Black jogger Ahmaud Arbery. You recently wrote a piece entitled Why are Ahmaud Arbery’s Killers So Scared?. First I want to go to the prosecutor Linda Dunikoski during the trial questioning Travis McMichael.

LINDA DUNIKOSKI: At this point in time when you first see him on Burford, he is not reaching into his pockets?

TRAVIS MCMICHAEL: No, ma’am. Not running, no ma’am.

LINDA DUNIKOSKI: And he never yelled at you guys.

TRAVIS MCMICHAEL: No, ma’am.

LINDA DUNIKOSKI: Never threatened you at all.

TRAVIS MCMICHAEL: No, ma’am. Not verbally.

LINDA DUNIKOSKI: Never brandished any weapons?

PERSON: Sorry, he was trying to finish his answer.

TRAVIS MCMICHAEL: Yeah, he did not threaten me verbally. No, ma’am.

LINDA DUNIKOSKI: All right. Didn’t brandish any weapons?

TRAVIS MCMICHAEL: No, ma’am.

LINDA DUNIKOSKI: Didn’t pull out any guns?

TRAVIS MCMICHAEL: No, ma’am.

LINDA DUNIKOSKI: Didn’t pull out any knife?

TRAVIS MCMICHAEL: No, ma’am.

LINDA DUNIKOSKI: Never reached for anything, did he?

TRAVIS MCMICHAEL: No.

LINDA DUNIKOSKI: He just ran.

TRAVIS MCMICHAEL: Yes, he was just running.

AMY GOODMAN: Clearly a key moment in this trial. On Tuesday, prosecutor Linda Dunikoski delivered her closing argument.

LINDA DUNIKOSKI: They started it. They do not get to claim self-defense. And then of course provocation. You can’t force someone to defend themselves against you so you get to claim self-defense. This isn’t the Wild West.

AMY GOODMAN: That again the prosecutor delivering her final closing arguments, and now the jury is deliberating today for the second day. Nicole Lewis, again this piece that you wrote Why are Ahmaud Arbery’s Killers So Scared?. Why do you think they are?

NICOLE LEWIS: My central thesis for this piece is that fear on the one hand is often just a very convenient argument just to claim self-defense. “I was scared. I was scared for my life so I had to take action.” But at the same time, it is also very clearly a racist dog whistle. What I mean by that is it sends a message to anyone watching, to white America, to say “You understand why I was so scared interacting with this young Black man.” I quoted Travis McMichael to say that “Ahmaud Arbery was overpowering me and it was so clear that if I didn’t act and if he got my gun, that he would kill me.” We have no way of assessing Ahmaud Arbery’s intentions, no way of knowing if he would have taken that gun and shot Travis or just taken it to say, “Don’t shoot me.” No way of intoning what would have happened there. And yet the McMichaels claim that they were terrified even though Ahmaud Arbery was outnumbered, even though he had been running for miles before the altercation.

So I really wanted to shift the frame and get us to try to think about Ahmaud’s fear. He is being hunted, stopped by a truck full of two white men with guns with Confederate license plates. He’s not sure what’s going to happen. It is a terrifying moment. It’s a terrifying end to somebody’s life. But the McMichaels are the only ones who get to claim that they are scared. This is a defense that we see time and again from private citizens as well as police officers, who have all stood trial for shooting unarmed Black people, that they were about to be overpowered, that they were scared even though they provoked these incidents. I think that is what the prosecutor was trying to get at, that you don’t get to create a situation in which someone has to defend themselves against you and then claim that you were terrified and had to act.

AMY GOODMAN: Nicole Lewis, we are going to link to your piece. Nicole is the Senior Editor of Jurisprudence at Slate, her latest piece, Why are Ahmaud Arbery’s Killers So Scared?.

When we come back, we look at a highly disturbing story about rapes near Buffalo, New York, where a judge has sparked outrage after ruling it is inappropriate to jail a young serial rapist from a prominent white wealthy family who pleaded guilty to raping and sexually assaulting four teenage girls aged 15 and 16. We will speak with one of the survivors who was in the courtroom during the sentencing. Stay with us.



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