Everything You May Have Missed About the Trial That Could Bankrupt the Far-Right

Everything You May Have Missed About the Trial That Could Bankrupt the Far-Right
The federal courthouse in Charlottesville, Virginia, as seen on Nov. 12, 2021. (Photo: Tom McKay / Gizmodo)

Gizmodo has been following ongoing court proceedings in Sines v. Kessler, the federal civil rights case brought by those harmed by the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. This page may be updated to reflect further developments in the case.

At a glance:

  • What’s this trial about? Plaintiffs claim the organisers of the deadly “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally in August 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, conspired to intentionally set off the violence.
  • When will the verdict be announced? Anytime now.
  • Where is the trial? The federal courthouse for the Eastern District of Virginia in Charlottesville.
  • Why is the trial important? It’s already inflicted serious costs on and could potentially bankrupt a rogue’s gallery of the most prominent white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and fascists operating in the U.S. today, dealing a hammer blow to the far-right movement.

There are a lot of big trials going on these days. What was the “Unite the Right” rally again?

In 2017, a horde of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, Klansmen, skinheads, and other neo-fascists descended upon the city of Charlottesville, Virginia, to stage a massive rally called Unite the Right (UTR). They claim they were there to protest the planned takedown of a Confederate statue, but in reality, they planned to use the event as a show of force and opportunity to attack anti-racist protesters.

On the night of Aug. 11, a march with tiki torches on the University of Virginia campus ended with attendees encircling, beating, and macing a group of protesters. The next day, Aug. 12, UTR broke out into full-scale rioting, staging waves of attacks on protesters with shields, clubs, flagpoles, and other improvised weapons. The event culminated in the declaration of a state of emergency and a terrorist attack carried out by James Alex Fields Jr., who rammed a car into a crowd, killing anti-racist activist Heather Heyer and wounding numerous others. The rally made it crystal clear that the white power movement’s efforts to rebrand as the cleaned-up “alt right” was a facade, and that it remained populated by violent fascists capable of killing people and committing real acts of violence. The event also struck an ominous chord in an era of surging Republican radicalism and the presidency of Donald Trump, whose response that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the incident was widely taken as an endorsement of the white supremacists.

Survivors of the rally, ranging from a minister who says white supremacists assaulted him while he linked arms with other clergy outside a park to a law student who only narrowly avoided being hit by Fields’s car, are now suing.

OK, so what’s the “Unite the Right” trial about?

In 2017, Integrity First for America (IFA), a group representing the plaintiffs, sued the most prominent supremacists at UTR using the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871. That law establishes civil claims for damages against two or more people who conspire to deprive others, directly or indirectly, of their civil rights. In this case, IFA claims the supremacists engaged in a racially motivated conspiracy to cause violence in Charlottesville.

Conspiracy claims are relatively easy to prove in court, which is why they’re such a common tool of prosecutors in criminal cases. In this case, plaintiffs need to demonstrate that the co-defendants illegally conspired to cause violence in Charlottesville, motivated by animus against Black or Jewish people (or supporters of racial equality). Each co-conspirator can be held equally liable for the whole conspiracy regardless of the extent of their involvement, including the reasonably foreseeable actions of other members. Because this is a civil case, the plaintiffs only need to meet the standard of a “preponderance of evidence” (sometimes explained as a 51% chance of guilt), though they can independently rule on the liability of each co-defendant.

Key figures behind UTR, many of whom considered themselves digital influencers, left behind a massive trove of digital evidence. While some were organisers, some were foot soldiers, and not all of them were involved in the violence, IFA argues, all were part of the conspiracy.

In particular, the plaintiffs can cite extensive public social media histories, emails obtained via discovery, podcasts and livestreamed videos, and logs from Discord servers run by the defendants. One of the key pieces of evidence is logs from a Discord server named Charlottesville 2.0, where several of the defendants acted as administrators and had a private leadership channel. Charlottesville 2.0 was filled with exhortations towards violence in the lead-up to the rally, like tips about weaponry and questions about the legality of running over protesters in the street. The contents of the server were leaked by media collective Unicorn Riot, which infiltrated Charlottesville 2.0 and posted over 35,000 messages to an online database. Unicorn Riot also leaked logs from numerous other online far-right networks that have become important to understanding how UTR came to be.

Who’s being sued?

The list of 24 defendants reads like a who’s who of the nation’s far-right goons. Jason Kessler, the named defendant in the title of the case, ran the Charlottesville 2.0 server alongside the then-leader of Identity Evropa, violence-idolizing white supremacist Elliot Kline. Richard Spencer, one of the architects of the hate movement’s rebranding as the “alt-right,” is another of the high-profile defendants, as is Andrew Anglin, owner of the prominent neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer.

So too are Matthew Heimbach, former leader of the now-defunct Traditionalist Worker Party (TWP); Christopher Cantwell, an imprisoned podcaster widely known as the “Crying Nazi”; Jeff Schoep, the former commander of the National Socialist Movement (NSM) who claims to have since left the movement; League of the South founder Michael Hill; Daily Stormer contributor Robert “Azzmador” Ray; and Fields, now a convict for life. Defendant organisations include hate groups such as NSM, Identity Evropa, a faction of the Proud Boys called the Fraternal Order of the Alt-Knights, Klan chapters, TWP, and Vanguard America, the group which Fields marched with on the day of the attack. IFA is also suing the Nationalist Front, an umbrella organisation of far-right organisations started by Heimbach, Hill, and Schoep.

For their part, the defendants have tried to claim that if any conspiracy existed, it was by anti-fascists, and local authorities failed to prevent the violence.

Since the case was filed, it has caused financial strain and other real costs for many of the defendants. Vanguard America, Identity Evropa, and the TWP have splintered, and Heimbach and Kline have been ordered to pay $US12,000 ($16,559) fines. Spencer has referred to legal costs as “financially crippling.” Kessler and Spencer are representing themselves. Spencer’s racist think tank, the National Policy Institute, has fallen apart.

“NPI is essentially defunct,” Michael E. Hayden, a senior investigative reporter and spokesperson for the Southern Poverty Law Centre, told Gizmodo. “Nearly all the defendants have been reduced to a fraction of their influence as it stood before UTR. Spencer is the most clear example of that. Once a household name, he’s become almost a figure frozen from a different era.”

So, what’s the gist of what happened in the trial?

While the far-right was briefly allied for UTR, the fallout of the disastrous rally once again splintered into a maze of feuding organisations, sub-factions, and personalities. Not only did the defendants try to throw each other under the bus, but many of them seemingly went out of their way to treat the trial as a shitposting session — an opportunity to promote racist propaganda and rally their remaining fanbases.

Seven defendants have already faced default judgments, including Anglin, who was absent and claims to live abroad in fear of his life (ignoring not only the summons here, but allegedly a $US14 ($19) million judgment in a separate harassment case). Others who received default judgments include the Alt-Knights, two Klan groups, and the Nationalist Front.

Kline, whose lawyers have abandoned the case, has refused to cooperate and at one point was thrown in jail for contempt. Ray is a fugitive being sought out by the U.S. Marshalls both for evading the summons in Sines v. Kessler and macing a protester at the rally. Both have faced court sanctions called “adverse inferences,” instructions to the jury that they should assume the existence of a racially motivated conspiracy as fact. Several other defendants have faced such inferences, such as the NSM, which is accused of destroying evidence. Schoep, its former commander, reiterated his explanation in court on Nov. 12: “I have a phone that fell in the toilet.”

Cantwell’s opening statement signalled how this case would go: he suggested the jury read Mein Kampf, bragged about his supposed celebrity status, dropped the N-word, and asked jurors to subscribe to his podcast.

Spencer and Heimbach have testified that violent and racist rhetoric spewed on venues like the Charlottesville 2.0 Discord server was superficial and exaggerated. Spencer told the court Nazi salutes and jokes about portable ovens were part of a “subcultural thing of being outlandish and stupid.” Heimbach said they merely meant to “troll and create outrage in the media and get reaction… They absolutely fell for it.”

Along the way, the defendants went on lengthy ideological tangents on matters ranging from the Holocaust and ethnostates to the work of anarcho-capitalist theorist Murray Rothbard. Heimbach testified his first thought upon seeing his newly born infant son was of Adolf Hitler, while neo-Nazis apparently following Kessler on messaging app Telegram hijacked the conference line to spew slurs. Pro se defendants Cantwell and Spencer, whose legal knowledge is limited, have been slow-motion trainwrecks.

Some coverage of the trial has come close to implying that the case has provided a platform for white supremacists. Of course, given who’s on trial here, it’s hard to imagine how this could go any other way. As Slate observed, this all revolves around the founding ethos of the alt-right: ego, outrage, and a twisted online subculture that tries to claim it’s just kidding around while promoting hate and explains away its actions as mere attempts to “trigger” liberals. The only way for the public to listen to the trial was a conference line limited to 500 people. Court orders prohibited its recording or broadcasting, meaning that most following the trial did so via media coverage.

Most of the co-defendants had every incentive during the trial to push propaganda, promote themselves, and exaggerate the perceived effectiveness of their arguments in court. This case and the fallout of UTR, in general, has already inflicted serious costs on them. For many, playing up their notoriety is one of the few marketing tools they have left.

“Our Charlottesville plaintiffs have provided overwhelming evidence that UTR was never intended to be peaceful protest — rather, it was a meticulously planned weekend of racist, antisemitic violence,” Amy Spitalnick, the executive director of IFA, told Gizmodo in a statement.

“It’s unsurprising that the defendants continue to try every trick in the book to avoid accountability and spread their extremism,” Spitalnick added. “This only affirms the urgency of holding these extremists accountable and sending a clear message: there will be real consequences for violent hate.”

Judge Norman K. Moon, the federal justice overseeing the case, at times seemed openly frustrated with both parties. When plaintiffs’ attorneys objected to Cantwell’s plan to play hours of video to the court, Moon quipped, “You’re not nearly as concerned as I am with getting this case over with.”

What did the plaintiffs show?

The plaintiffs offered extensive testimony supporting their claims that UTR attendees arrived intent on violence and did lasting harm to them and the Charlottesville community.

Elizabeth Sines, a plaintiff and then-law student who barely avoided being hit by Fields in the car attack, testified on Nov. 12 that she suffered extensive psychological injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. Sines, who described the beating of protesters at the torchlight march as systematic, also offered a chilling account of the car attack:

It sounded like you took a metal baseball bat and slid it across a wooden fence. Thuds. Screaming. The crowd parted. I don’t know, I can see it in slow motion. I’m sorry. You can see a car flying down the road and hit a larger group and crash into another vehicle at the bottom. I thought it was an accident. I couldn’t believe someone would do that. Then he reversed and drove over people he hit. We knew then — I knew he was trying to kill as many people as possible.

Dr. Nadia Webb, a neuropsychologist and expert on PTSD, testified she evaluated the medical records of plaintiffs Natalie Romero, Marcus Martin, Chelsea Alvarado, and Devin Willis. Webb told the court all four “met the criteria for severe PTSD.” Dr. Webb testified that the condition “[poisons] the part of the brain that turns off the fight or flight mechanism,” and three of the four met the criteria for traumatic brain injury. The plaintiffs showed total estimated lifetime medical costs running into six figures.

Expert witnesses Peter Simi, an associate professor of sociology at Chapman University, and sociologist Kathleen Blee testified on a 63-page report they compiled on UTR organisers. They testified as to the differences between “front-stage” behaviour, or how the organisers presented themselves to the public, and “backstage” behaviour, where the co-defendants were explicit about their violent intent in private. Simi’s testimony on Dec. 14, as Slate wrote, highlighted the tactics by which white supremacists try to generate plausible deniability.

What have the defendants argued?

Schoep argued that an NSM after-action report celebrating the violence at the rally was “rhetoric and marketing.” But the plaintiffs challenged him on Nov. 12 with emails between him and Hill praising violence at the rally, showing Hill had written in advance he hoped counter-protesters would “try to crash our party.” They also showed logs of phone and text messages that Schoep hadn’t presented in discovery; when he claimed not to remember whether he used an auto-deletion function on messaging app Signal, they pointed out he’d already admitted doing so in his deposition.

Judge Moon had already ruled that Schoep’s claims to have left the movement aren’t a defence to the conspiracy claims but might be considered by the jury when assessing damages. Since 2017, the NSM has collapsed into disorder. A Black man named James Stern, who presents himself as a community activist and minister, talked Schoep into turning over control of the NSM to him, saying it might help shield him from the civil lawsuit. (Stern died last year amid unresolved legal battles over the ownership of the NSM, and Schoep is obviously still on trial.) Schoep has worked with a group called Light Upon Light that claims to help people exit the hate movement, and he’s appeared at a number of police events billing himself as an anti-extremism expert, but his lack of cooperation during the trial has drawn scepticism about the authenticity of his conversion.

A lawyer for Schoep said his client was too busy to talk with Gizmodo outside the federal courthouse in Charlottesville on Nov. 12.

Kessler, the rally’s permit holder, laid low and deleted his Twitter account in the months before the trial, but apparently decided he couldn’t resist posting and tweeting running commentary on the proceedings as they commenced. On Nov. 12, Kessler once again deleted his Twitter, claiming the plaintiffs had forced him to do so because his commentary was too damaging to their case. On the 15th, however, IFA attorney Dunn introduced one of Kessler’s mid-trial tweets (in which he accused someone of being antifa) as evidence, suggesting that the real reason for the deletion was legal blowback. Kessler has resumed tweeting again as of Monday.

Kessler has used Telegram to attack the credibility of witnesses and some of his co-defendants, particularly Spencer. He’s also offered rosy assessments on his defence, writing days before his testimony that “I know all the facts of this case. Its time to cram like never before,” adding it was “basically Final Exams with the fate of innocent men, including myself, hanging in the balance.”

But when Kessler took the stand on Nov. 15, he faced a mountain of digital evidence contradicting many of his claims. Dunn grilled Kessler on posts from the Discord and messages on Facebook, including one where Kessler wrote, “We need a new way to tip off antifa when we want them to show up somewhere” because he wanted to “play these people into our hands Saturday in Charlotteville.” Another Discord message showed Kessler advising other users that if they want to “crack some antifa skulls in self defence,” they shouldn’t openly carry firearms.

In another message, Kessler appeared to instruct his supporters to lowball projected attendance figures to the police so their “enemies [would] underestimate us”; he also put these lower figures on his rally application. While Kessler claimed that Kline and Ray had staged a “mutiny” to take control of the rally from him, photos and a live stream showed him chumming with both during UTR. Kessler testified he deleted the Charlottesville 2.0 server because he was disgusted by posts mocking Heyer’s death, but archived messages showed he actually believed it was “compromised,” and after the rally he tweeted Heyer was a “fat, disgusting Communist” whose death was “payback time.” Heimbach previously testified Kessler told him to invite violent skinhead groups, like the Confederate Hammerskins and Blood and Honour.

Spencer, meanwhile, tried to distance himself from the other plaintiffs, effectively arguing he just showed up. Yet he attended and gave a victory speech after the Aug. 11 torch march. In a leaked video recorded the night of Aug. 12, Spencer screamed he would be “coming back here like a hundred fucking times,” claimed to be the ruler of Charlottesville’s “little fucking octaroons,” and promised, “We are going to destroy this fucking town.” (Spencer testified the video was “childish” and “not my sincerely thoughtful beliefs.”)

Kessler testified the video was evidence Spencer is a “sociopath,” prompting Spencer to accuse him of riding his coattails in counter-examination. Spencer also forced Kessler to disclose that Dave Reilly, a Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, radio host who resigned after being videotaped at the rally and more recently has been trying to run for school board in Idaho, leaked the video. The two sparred over who was the real “sociopathic narcissist,” with Spencer demanding to know whether Kessler had ever been diagnosed with mental illness.

Exchanges between Spencer and Cantwell, who obviously have little respect for each other, were also testy. Samantha Froelich, a former membership coordinator for Identity Evropa and Kline’s ex-girlfriend, testified earlier in the trial that Kline had said he “was willing to make an army for Richard.” She also testified Kline had plans to eventually murder Spencer so he could command it.

Several defence lawyers have treated the trial more as soapboax than legal proceeding. James Kolenich, a longtime ally of white nationalists and attorney for Kessler, Identity Evropa, and its founder Nathan Damigo, inaccurately argued in court that “no matter how violent the rhetoric, it’s protected by the First Amendment” and claimed the 14 words, a white supremacist slogan, are a call for a peaceful “political revolution.” Josh Smith, a lawyer for Heimbach and the TWP who has previously issued thinly-veiled references to the Jewish heritage of one of IFA’s attorneys, accused Simi of believing “every race should have their own ethnostate except for whites”.

Anglin has received disproportionately little attention during the trial, despite the Daily Stormer’s outsized role in promoting the rally. At one point, the plaintiffs presented a leaked style guide for Stormer contributors that stated, “the undoctrinated should not be able to tell if we are joking or not,” adding “this is obviously a ploy and I actually do want to gas k*kes.” Ray posted on another Discord server called Latveria about rallying Daily Stormer affiliates from Dallas Fort Worth to attend with shields and banners. In messages to Anglin not long before UTR, Ray wrote, in “the last 3 days I must have spent 50 hours networking with various groups within and without the organisation..”

“I’d argue that no recent propagandist other than Donald Trump has had more influence in stoking violence than Andrew Anglin,” Hayden told Gizmodo. “In the run-up to UTR, Anglin ran what was effectively the homepage of the alt-right movement. Nearly everyone who attended from the white supremacist side read it. And what Anglin told them before they went was this: We are angry. There is an atavistic rage in us, deep in us, that is ready to boil over. There is a craving to return to an age of violence. We want a war.’”

“Dylann Roof read Daily Stormer,” Hayden added, referring to the white supremacist who in 2015 killed nine people in a mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. “Many far-right terrorists have read it. So it’s pretty clear to anyone with a brain how Anglin’s words were being received by men like James Fields at that time.”

Fields’s lawyer, Dave Campbell, didn’t do much other than argue that Fields was a rogue actor with no broader connection to the conspirators.

Where does the trial stand now?

Last Thursday, both sides of the case presented their closing arguments, and a decision is pending at the time of publication.

Dunn told the jury that Judge Moon had already ruled that Kline and Ray participated in a conspiracy, asking them who else was part of that conspiracy, who else acted with racial animus, and for which of the defendants the violence was reasonably foreseeable. The answer, she said, was all of them — Kessler “built an army for that battle,” Kline professed his desire to exterminate Jews, and Heimbach had testified that he had advised Kessler to invite skinhead groups and that TWP uniforms were black to hide blood. Spencer, Dunn argued, had merely deputized others to do his dirty work.

Dunn emphasised that the co-defendants believed in a violent, inevitable race war that justified the violence; in internal discussions, co-defendants referred to mace as “gas,” weighed the pros and cons of various improvised weapons, and inquired about the legality of mowing down protesters. Beyond that, Dunn told the jury, they misrepresented the scale of their plans to authorities and bragged about the extent of the unprovoked violence they committed. Many systematically destroyed evidence.

“When counter-protesters were in their way, the defendants beat them with torches,” Dunn added. “They plowed through them using their bodies. On Market Street, they charged through people with shields. And finally, they plowed through people with a car.”

Roberta Kaplan, another lawyer for the plaintiffs, asked for $US7 ($10) million to $US10 ($14) million in damages for physical injuries, $US3 ($4) million to $US5 ($7) million for pain and suffering, and whatever punitive damages they believed would make the co-defendants “never, ever do anything like this ever again”.

Kolenich, the defence attorney for Kessler, Damigo, and Identity Evropa, argued that all the plaintiffs had proven is that the defendants are racists and anti-Semites (“you knew that when you walked in”) but failed to demonstrate Fields’ attack was foreseeable. He also gave a bizarre metaphor about whether baseball players would be responsible for protesters run down in a parking lot and argued the co-defendants only wanted to fight antifa if they “get away with it,” i.e. in self-defence. Spencer’s closing argument that the trial was politically motivated resulted in at least four separate interventions by Judge Moon, who reprimanded him for trying to insert statements and evidence that weren’t part of the case.

Bryan Jones, lawyer for League of the South and Michael Hill, and Josh Smith, lawyer for Heimbach and TWP, argued that their clients had always wanted the rally to be peaceful. Edward ReBrook, a lawyer for Schoep, and Cantwell both argued they had only assaulted white people.

As the Washington Post reported, some of the jurors may be amenable to elements of the defence: One said during jury selection that antifa are “troublemakers” who start “racial riots,” and another apparently believes Black Lives Matter is made of “trained Marxists.” Jury deliberations began on Friday, continued through Monday, and could be announced at any moment moving forward.

Gizmodo would like to shout out media collective Unicorn Riot and Charlottesville court-watcher Molly Conger for making public extensive notes on the daily proceedings of the trial.