The University of Virginia’s Student Council is calling on the university to give $1 million to support victims of violence at the 2017 Unite the Right rally and to apologize for its lack of response during the rally’s torch-light march through Grounds.
The council approved a resolution at a Nov. 30 meeting, just a week after the Sines vs. Kessler lawsuit in which plaintiffs, who were victims of rally violence, sued the organizers for purposefully planning and putting on a violent demonstration.
“The [Student Council] calls on the UVa administration to acknowledge its complacency in the events by drafting a formal letter of apology to those impacted, with specific interest in those students, faculty, staff, and community members who were physically or emotionally harmed,” the resolution states.
“The [Student Council] calls on the University of Virginia to further support the plaintiffs of the civil trial and the survivors of the Aug. 11 and 12 white supremacist attacks by allocating aside $1 million dollars that would go to them directly,” the resolution states.
Council also called on itself to donate $700 to support the plaintiffs of the civil trial and other survivors of the rally and urged students to also support the plaintiffs and survivors through donations being collected by Congregate Charlottesville, a non-profit, religious-based organization working for social justice and helping those in need.
UVa officials said they are aware of the resolution and that it is being discussed. They noted that President Jim Ryan “directly acknowledged the ways in which the university could have handled these events better, and apologized, in one of his first acts as president.”
The resolution recounts confusion among UVa administrators and police as to how and when they first heard that the neo-Nazis and supremacists were going to march through the Grounds. Few school administrators are left from 2017, and the university’s president and top tier administrators have all changed since then.
“I think this resolution came out of a frustration for the way the previous administration handled the events of Aug. 11 and Aug. 12 and how the current administration has failed to address it,” said Gabriela Hernandez, a member of the council’s executive board and one of the resolution’s authors.
“In my own personal opinion, I believe they are partially responsible for the events. In regards to Aug. 11, I believe that there was no attention to safety. If [university police and administrators] knew a few days beforehand, why did they not mobilize in the best interest of students?”
Hernandez said it’s easy to understand why the supremacists chose UVa to hold their torch parade and rally.
“UVa isn’t just a regular university. UVa has a long deep history, much of which is rooted in racism, bigotry, and violence and a history which feeds into white supremacist ideology,” she said. “It is very easy to see why they chose UVa to march through and why it would have been incredibly important that the UVa administration would have taken action to ensure the safety of students and permanent community members.”
The resolution also calls for support of plaintiffs in the Sines v. Kessler trial that took more than four weeks after spending four years working its way through the federal legal system. The lawsuit sought to hold nearly two dozen white supremacist and neo-Nazi leaders and organizations responsible for their role in the deadly and violence during the preceding UVa torch march.
In total, the jury awarded around $26 million in damages with all but about $1 million of those damages being punitive rather than compensatory. Punitive damages are meant to punish defendants for wrongdoing whereas compensatory damages are meant to compensate a plaintiff for physical, emotional or psychological injury.
There’s no guarantee that money will actually make it to the plaintiffs because most of the defendants have few assets, legal observers say.
Although the university was not directly involved in the lawsuit or the rally, it was well represented at both. Lead plaintiff Elizabeth Sines is a 2019 University of Virginia School of Law graduate and other plaintiffs have connections to UVa, including Rev. Seth Whispelwey and Tyler Magill, as a UVa employee.
Defendants Jason Kessler and Richard Spencer, considered the driving forces behind organizing the Aug. 12 rally, are both UVa graduates. They are among 11 persons involved with the rally that were banned in 2018 by UVa from Grounds through trespass warning notices.
U.S. District Court Judge Norman K. Moon, a 1962 alumnus of the Law School, presided over the trial.
Also involved in the events, but not the lawsuit, was UVa education professor Walt Heinecke, who was with students at the Rotunda counter-protest on Aug. 11 and helped organize counter-protests on Aug. 12
The Student Council resolution notes that during the Aug. 11 torch parade, which closely resembled German Nazi Party rallies and parades in Nuremberg and Berlin during the 1930s, white supremacist and Neo-Nazis verbally and physically assaulted counter protesters, including students, faculty, and local residents.
The resolution points out several contradictory statements by then UVa President Teresa Sullivan regarding when administrators and UVa Police were made aware that the Neo-Nazis planned a march.
A year later, Ryan took over the university’s helm and quickly apologized for the university’s role in not protecting the grounds.
“We must have the courage to acknowledge the gaps that still exist. It means we must acknowledge that mistakes, including those made [in 2017], understanding and trusting that mistakes in times of crisis are inevitable,” Ryan said.
“We do nothing more than to recognize our common humanity to say to those who were attacked around the statue last year, I am sorry. We are sorry,” he said.
The Student Council resolution recognizes Ryan’s apology. It also recognizes a statement Ryan made supporting the Sines plaintiffs after the Nov. 23 ruling.
“President Ryan’s statement, however, did not acknowledge the large role UVa played not only in facilitating and allowing the violence of Aug. 11 and Aug. 12,” the resolution states, adding that UVa continues “to uphold its legacy as an institution founded by a slave holder and constructed by enslaved laborers, that did not admit women or minorities until the 1970s, and in many ways has historically upheld white supremacy.”
“As a current third year student, I was not present when the events of Aug. 11 and 12 took place. From the university, I’ve only ever heard one administrator talk about the events and it was very brief,” Hernandez said.
“My biggest hope is that this resolution is able to see the material support of the plaintiffs and survivors,” she said. “Four year later, many of them are still experiencing hardships ranging from physical difficulties and emotional ones as well.”