Community members who experienced the white supremacist violence of Aug. 11 and 12 of 2017 want the community to stay vigilant in the fight against racism and extremism.
Integrity First for America, an anti-extremism legal organization representing the plaintiffs in the Sines v. Kessler lawsuit, held a virtual event called “A Call to Justice: Four Years After the Charlottesville Attack” on Tuesday night.
The federal suit was filed on behalf of a slew of Charlottesville-area residents against organizers and participants of the deadly 2017 rally and is headed for a multi-week trial in October.
Susan Bro, whose daughter Heather Heyer was killed in a car attack on Aug. 12, 2017, called upon white people to pay attention to and speak up against racism and white supremacy.
“I dread this week every year … but it is survivable because I know that Heather’s death was not in vain. It was a calling out to white America to say, ‘Snap out of it. You are not that special. Hate will come for you, as well.’ I’m embarrassed to admit … that white America in general was not paying attention. And so here we are,” Bro said.
Bro is president of the Heather Heyer Foundation, which provides scholarships to students pursuing social justice work.
“I’m very pleased to see that this trial is happening. The leaders need to be held accountable for their actions. Those who were injured besides Heather need compensation for ongoing surgeries, ongoing trauma, ongoing difficulties caused by this … I hope that the full depth and range of the planning and organizing and the very roots of this movement of white supremacy in our country will be revealed through this trial,” Bro said.
Elizabeth Sines, the first named plaintiff in suit, talked about witnessing the riots as a University of Virginia student.
“Four years ago, I watched in horror as Nazis swarmed my campus spewing hatred and inflicting violence upon any UVa student or Charlottesville resident they found in their path. The next day, I watched as they continued this terror throughout downtown Charlottesville. The memories from those days will undeniably haunt me for the rest of my life. I will never forget what it was like to watch Nazis march on a campus that I called home,” Sines said.
Sines said she is often asked why she showed up to counter-protest Unite the Right and why she eventually signed on to the lawsuit.
“I believe that the organizers of the Unite the Right rally must be held accountable for the harm they’ve inflicted … not just because we deserve justice, not just because Charlottesville and the community as a whole deserve justice, but because we have seen time and time again that without accountability, the cycle of violence, hatred and misinformation continues and grows,” she said.
Jalane Schmidt, an activist and UVa professor of race and religion, said the organizers of Unite the Right must be held accountable, as many participants also have taken part in other violent attacks.
“These are self-described fascists … they meant to do violence,” Schmidt said. “And some of those very assailants who assaulted African Americans at Trump rallies in 2016 were on our streets in 2017 at Unite the Right … and some of those folks were at the Capitol building attack on Jan. 6.”
Other speakers included local religious leaders and the attorneys representing the Sines plaintiffs, as well as Joanna Mendelson, associate director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.
Amy Spitalnick, executive director of Integrity First for America, said it’s important to recognize the impact that Unite the Right has had on the climate of white supremacist violence across the country.
“Not only is it important for the Charlottesville community to see that accountability and justice at a trial that will happen in two months, but it’s also important that the country recognizes what happened four years ago and that it’s contextualized and seen in the broader rise of violent extremism that has really hit crisis levels,” Spitalnick said in an interview.
She said if the rally’s organizers are held accountable, it could deter future violent acts of extremism.
“At a moment where the crisis of extremism is so clear, it’s important to make clear consequences. It’s important to make clear that there will be accountability, and that accountability matters,” Spitalnick said.