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In Charlottesville, a civil trial against white supremacists gives a nightmarish view of a deadly car attack — and the racist ideologies that fueled it

A day after the attack in 2017, Marcus Martin and Marissa Blair visited the memorial built at the place where Martin was injured and 32-year-old Heather Heyer was killed when a car plowed into a crowd protesting the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va.Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Marissa Blair and Marcus Martin married on a breezy, sunny day in May 2018 under an arbor draped with purple and lavender wisteria, the colors chosen in tribute to the friend they had lost nine months earlier.

At the time, they saw their union as an act of resistance, a tender coda to the hate and horror that shook the nation and their lives when, on Aug. 12, 2017, a self-avowed white supremacist intentionally plowed his car into social justice protesters, killing their friend Heather Heyer and injuring 35 people, including Martin.

But since that spring wedding, their marriage has unraveled as they wrestled with the lasting trauma and physical effects of the car attack, they told jurors last week in a federal civil trial unfolding here against two dozen white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and organizations behind the deadly “Unite the Right” rally.

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The victims of that bloody weekend — marked by protests for Confederate and white supremacist causes and counterprotests for Black lives and social equality — are seeking unspecified monetary damages from defendants including James Alex Fields Jr., who is serving life in prison for the vehicular assault that killed Heyer. The plaintiffs allege rally organizers and participants conspired to incite violence, motivated by racial and religious animus.

The deadly attack in Charlottesville, a Globe review found, has since become emblematic of a rising trend across the country: people using their vehicles as weapons against demonstrators. And over the past three weeks of testimony in a sometimes bizarre trial, witnesses have painted a harrowing picture of the 2017 car attack’s toll. They’ve also provided a glimpse into the racist, far-right ideologies dehumanizing Jews, Black people, and left-wing protesters that have proliferated online, seeping into the mainstream political discourse, and continuing to fuel partisan violence in the United States.

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Even now, Blair and Martin fight flashbacks of the moment when Fields drove into the crowd. When it happened, Blair had been live streaming the protest on Facebook from her phone, and Martin managed to shove her out of the way before he was struck by the vehicle and thrown into the air.

“It was a complete terror scene. It was blood everywhere,“ Blair testified, who has suffered from panic attacks and depression. “My emotional scars were way worse than my physical ones.”

Martin, who shattered his left leg and ankle that day, found out months later that he had also sustained a brain injury. He struggles to concentrate. He can no longer play basketball or softball or drive for long stretches or put too much weight on his lower body.

He still feels sharp pain coursing through him at times.

But worse have been the anger issues that have stemmed from the assault, and the way people seem to not want to be around him anymore. The wreck changed him, he testified.

“It pushed one of the best things that ever happened to me out of my life,” he told jurors. It pushed away Blair.

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People fly into the air as a vehicle drives into a group of protesters demonstrating against a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017.Ryan M. Kelly/Associated Press

The spike in car rammings across the country came after a police officer killed George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020, reawakening a national social protest movement for Black lives and against civil rights abuses by law enforcement. It also spurred a backlash.

The Globe analysis found that at least 139 people have driven their vehicles into demonstrations between Floyd’s death and Sept. 30, 2021, causing 100 injuries, three deaths, and a fatal shooting. Less than half of the drivers faced charges, and three states passed laws giving some legal immunity to the people behind the wheel in such cases.

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Although some rammings may have been unintentional, at least nine meet the parameters of domestic terrorism as defined by the Center for Strategic and International Studies — deliberate violence or intent to commit violence by everyday people to achieve political goals. All but one were committed by far-right extremists, according to the center’s data.

Plaintiffs in the Charlottesville case, which is funded by the nonprofit Integrity First for America, say they aim to hold the leaders of an anti-Democratic and dangerous white power movement accountable. They have produced a vast cache of texts, social media posts, and messages in which defendants and their followers denigrated Jews, Black people, and anyone not white, coordinated logistics and uniforms for the 2017 rally with their members — and encouraged rally attendees to use flagpoles and cars to attack left-wing protesters.

Defendants have sought to portray themselves as persecuted by the far left and social media companies, arguing that the rhetoric their opponents call hateful and racist is free speech and that online messages promoting violence were hyperbolic and discussing self-defense.

The case is playing out in a crucial moment in American politics, as courts across the country are grappling with domestic extremist violence that researchers say has escalated in recent years on both ends of the political spectrum but has been much more pronounced among far-right vigilantes and white power groups. Counterterrorism researchers and national security officials say white supremacist extremists have been emboldened by racist and divisive political rhetoric that has festered in the far reaches of the Internet — and has been amplified by mainstream conservative outlets and former president Donald Trump and his Republican allies.

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In Kenosha, Wis., Kyle Rittenhouse, 18, is on trial for homicide after he arrived in that city in August 2020 armed with an AR-15 rifle and killed two people and wounded another protesting as part of the Black Lives Matter movement amid the unrest over the wounding of Jacob Blake, a Black man, by a white police officer. In Brunswick, Ga., three white men — Greg and Travis McMichael and a neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan — are on trial for chasing down and killing Ahmaud Arbery, 25, a Black man, in February 2020. The cases are unfolding as hundreds of far-right extremists and white supremacists are facing criminal prosecutions in the deadly Jan. 6 assault on the US Capitol.

Among the Charlottesville defendants are white supremacists Richard Spencer, who gained national notoriety for headlining neo-Nazi rallies and leading antisemitic chants in celebration of Trump’s 2016 election; Jason Kessler, the “Unite the Right” rally’s lead organizer; and Christopher Cantwell, who became known as the “crying Nazi” when he posted a video of himself weeping after he learned he faced an arrest warrant for pepper spraying Charlottesville counterdemonstrators.

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The plaintiffs, who include four people struck by Fields’s car and other victims, have grounded their case on the seldom-used 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act, passed after the Civil War in an attempt to prevent the newly formed terror group from capturing and inflicting cruelties on freed slaves in the South. It contains a provision that allows private citizens to sue each other over civil rights abuses. Successful lawsuits under the statute have tended to bankrupt or slow down white supremacist organizations amid surges of racism and antisemitism.

In her opening statement late last month, Karen Dunn, a co-lead attorney representing the Charlottesville plaintiffs, told jurors their case was not against the white nationalists and Confederate activists who peacefully protested in a city park and were protected under free speech laws.

“It is against the leaders who coordinated the violence, and the most violent foot soldiers who carried it out,” she said.

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Protest signs outside the federal courthouse in Charlottesville on Tuesday.Ellie Silverman/The Washington Post

The first whiff one gets upon entering the federal courtroom in Charlottesville where Fields and other white supremacists are on trial is a musty smell. It is tired, aging space, familiar with controversy, near the center of a city coming to grips with its past as a place where slaves were sold by auction. The floor is decked with a worn, emerald green carpet, and a portrait of a late longtime federal judge hangs from one of the high, drab brown walls.

The testimony has at times teetered on the strange and veered into the outright hateful as defendants have often used their time to publicly air their ideologies, praise Adolf Hitler, and spew conspiracy theories. Spencer and Cantwell are defending themselves, and more than once, federal Judge Norman Moon has had to instruct them on how to properly ask questions — sometimes asking the appropriate questions for them himself.

Cantwell, who is serving time for federal extortion and threat charges and is shuffled into and out of the courtroom in handcuffs, delivers his questions with the style of a far-right stand-up comic or radio personality — and has been reminded by Moon that he is not conducting a podcast. He has used a lot of his questioning to play up fears of Antifa, a left-wing, anti-fascist, and anti-racist political movement mostly concentrated in the upper Pacific Northwest. During the George Floyd protests, some of which turned into riots, Trump falsely blamed the group for the chaos and clashes with police. But the FBI and other law enforcement agencies found it was criminals — not Antifa — who caused the vast majority of the violence.

On the stand and in recorded depositions, other white supremacists have attempted to downplay their racism or their ties to the rally. And nearly all have said the most damning messages posted as they prepped for the possibility of violence and discussed the legality of striking protesters with their cars were jokes and hyperbole. But audio surreptitiously recorded at a meeting among Spencer and other defendants after the Charlottesville car attack captured Spencer viciously ranting about the supremacy of white people over Jews, Black people, and people of mixed races.

Those pieces of [expletive] [expletive] get ruled by people like me. They look up and see a face like mine looking down at them. That’s how the [expletive] world works,” he shouted in the recording. On the stand, Spencer argued he was ashamed of those sentiments and said they did not reflect his beliefs.

But Spencer had often spoken of an impending race war and corresponded with other defendants about other rallies that turned violent in Sacramento and Berkeley, Ca., before he engaged in a campaign in Charlottesville led by Kessler to denounce the planned removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Witnesses said white supremacists saw the August 2017 rally in Charlottesville as a chance to consolidate their movement.

Reams of messages and content have provided a rare insight into some of the groups’ inner workings and efforts to promote the creation of a white ethnostate, in which “Jews and their dark-skinned allies” — which one white nationalist testified meant anyone not white — would be excluded or huddled into “reservation”-like settings. Members of white supremacist groups also discussed ways to “trigger” counterprotesters into violence and later claim self-defense, the evidence showed.

Samantha Froelich, a former member of white supremacist extremist group Identity Evropa and ex-girlfriend of its former head and defendant Elliott Kline, said the joking was only a cover.

“They wanted to look presentable,” she said. “I would say that it was like being wolves in sheep’s clothing.”