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The trial of the Charlottesville 'Unite the Right' organizers is underway


Jury selection began this morning in a civil trial in Charlottesville, with two dozen defendants involved in the deadly Unite the Right rally there in the summer of 2017. That rally was the largest public gathering of white nationalists and neo-Nazis from across the country in recent history. The display of hate and extremist violence stunned Americans, and many experts say there's a line that can be drawn from those events to the violence at the nation's Capitol this past January. Here to talk about this is NPR's Odette Yousef.

Welcome, Odette.


MCCAMMON: Before we get into jury selection, take us back to the rally in Charlottesville four years ago, if you would. Just remind us what happened.

YOUSEF: Sarah, the events four years ago were organized by groups in the so-called alt-right. You'll remember some of the imagery from it - you know, people carrying tiki torches in the dark night, chanting, the Jews will not replace us. And then the next day, one neo-Nazi drove a vehicle into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring dozens of others - and then President Trump in the aftermath saying there were fine people on both sides. So now in this federal trial, plaintiffs are hoping to show that the defendants took part in a conspiracy that intended to commit racial violence.

MCCAMMON: You listened in this morning to some of the jury selection. What did you hear?

YOUSEF: Well, frankly, I heard just how much more polarized we are today than we were four years ago. You could hear some of this in the answers that some of the potential jurors gave. One example is around narratives on antifa that have been heavily promoted in right-wing media these last few months. So one of the potential jurors that was questioned in voir dire today said that antifa were troublemakers. But also around things like the politics of masking - while in the courtroom, masks are going to be required for the duration of this trial - and the implications that that might have for a potential juror's feelings in this case. But there was one potential juror who perhaps voiced what many people in Charlottesville were feeling today, which is that residents have been waiting years for this day to come. This individual said, as a community, we want to get it behind us and see justice done. He also said that he didn't think he could set aside his preconceived notions and, for that reason, was struck from the jury pool. But, you know, finding a jury for this is going to take some time. Around 200 people filled out questionnaires, and those who've been flagged for further questions are being called in one at a time.

MCCAMMON: In some ways, the events in Charlottesville feel like a lifetime ago, especially when you think about the magnitude of the riot at the Capitol in January. You spoke to many people about that connection. What did you hear?

YOUSEF: You know, across the board, people told me that they see a line connecting what happened in Charlottesville four years ago to the events at the Capitol in January. One person that spoke to me about this was Amy Spitalnick. She's the executive director of Integrity First for America. That's the civil rights nonprofit organization that's behind the lawsuit. Here's what she said to me.

AMY SPITALNICK: It's become very clear that Unite the Right was really a preview or a harbinger of the violence that's followed. And there are both direct connections between the attacks in which each inspires the next.

YOUSEF: And Amy wasn't just talking about a connection between what happened in Charlottesville and January 6 but also about all of those dots in between - you know, things like the tragic shootings that occurred in El Paso, at the Tree of Life synagogue and also just the general rise in hate crimes.

MCCAMMON: But the groups that participated in Charlottesville were white nationalists and neo-Nazi groups. They weren't really involved in the Capitol riot. In fact, many people at the riot weren't formally affiliated at least with any extremist organization, right?

YOUSEF: That's right. And that's really what's most concerning to people that watch extremism. What we saw in Charlottesville was the use of false narratives to draw into violence and extremism, and that's just become even more common since then. I spoke with Oren Segal of the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism. And he says it's these grievances or fears that something's going to be taken away, whether it's status as white Americans or guns or freedoms or rights - all that is animating people who may never even have heard of some of the extremist groups that operate today.

MCCAMMON: That's NPR's Odette Yousef.

YOUSEF: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Odette Yousef
Odette Yousef is a WBEZ reporter covering immigration, race and class.
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