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American Antisemitism and Nationalism in the Charlottesville Verdict

On November 23, 2021, a federal jury in Charlottesville, Virginia, held five organizers of the 2017 Unite the Right march responsible for injuries inflicted on nine people when the march turned violent. The jury awarded the plaintiffs in Sines v. Kessler more than $25 million. Many Americans greeted the verdict as a clear condemnation of hate speech.

This civil case stood in for criminal prosecutions that fizzled when judges held the relevant statutes unconstitutional. The sole criminal prosecution was of the man who drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing Heather Heyer. Thus, even though the Sines verdict came as a relief, it served only partial justice. The financial penalty seems insufficient, and the defendants are pleading poverty. Further, those responsible for the protest raise and launder their money online, making it much more difficult for the courts to strip them of physical assets, an approach used against the Ku Klux Klan as recently as 2008. If the defendants are eventually made to pay, nothing stops them from continuing to raise money in the shadow of the law; they prefer contributions in untraceable Bitcoin. Meanwhile, counterprotesters will cope with physical and psychological injuries for years, if not for the rest of their lives.

A marriage of racism, white Christian nationalism, and antisemitism fueled the violence in Virginia. The rioters came to Charlottesville to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from a city park. As they invaded the University of Virginia grounds the night before, however, they chanted “Jews will not replace us.” Their antisemitism was not ancillary to their racism. Rather, it was a cornerstone of their plans to upend American society to, among other things, prevent the Jewish takeover they fear—baselessly—is coming.

Sines v. Kessler rings the same bells we have often heard in the past century when victims used the legal system to confront hate-mongering. This is in part because US law has a strange relationship to speech. We prefer a hands-off approach up to the moment speech incites violence or property damage. But once it crosses that boundary, once it is clear that a particular utterance or protest has become actionable before the law, the legal remedies available don’t sufficiently address the injuries to individuals and society alike. Despite guilty verdicts in these cases, the incentive for those who would espouse hate to weaponize speech remains.

Read entire article at Perspectives on History