CHARLOTTESVILLE, Virginia — As the plaintiffs in the landmark federal lawsuit against two dozen neo-Nazis and other white supremacists who organized the “Unite the Right” rally called their final witnesses, they zeroed in on the alleged calls for violence in the run-up to the event, presenting organizers’ own message threads as evidence.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Karen Dunn on Tuesday called to the stand Jason Kessler, a white nationalist, member of the Proud Boys, and one of the primary “Unite the Right” organizers. The attorney spent hours Tuesday confirming and walking Kessler through his extensive communications with other white nationalists and neo-Nazis in the months, weeks, and days leading up to Aug. 11 and 12, 2017. Those communications — over social messaging platforms including Facebook and Discord, as well as by phone and text message — made clear that Kessler was looking to draw like-minded people from across the US to Charlottesville. In one post, he promised it would be “the biggest Alt-Right event of the year.”
He also referred to the rally in fighting terms, saying it would go down in history as “the Battle of Charlottesville.” Many of his messages discussed violence and provoking antiracist counterprotesters as a means to not only foment a race war, but also get media attention.
“We need a new way to tip off antifa when we want them to show up somewhere,” read one message that Kessler wrote to other white nationalists. “We definitely want to play these people into our hands Saturday in Charlottesville.”
In that same online discussion, Kessler spoke about the need to hide weapons while in public and his expectation that at least some attendees would be packing firearms.
“Can you guys conceal carry? I don’t want to scare antifa off from throwing the first punch. Big scary guns...will keep Antifa away. I want them to start something,” Kessler wrote. “Lots of armed military vets in attendance so we aren’t going to be lacking for firepower.”
The planning of violence is key to the case of nine plaintiffs, who are suing for damages to compensate for the injuries they sustained in August 2017 as well as to punish the rally organizers. Brought on the plaintiffs’ behalf by the civil rights nonprofit Integrity First for America, the lawsuit is using the 150-year-old Ku Klux Klan Act to try to hold some or all of 24 of the most notorious white nationalist figures and organizations in the US accountable for alleged racially motivated violence.
Over the course of three weeks, the plaintiffs have laid out their case that the rally planning amounted to a conspiracy; they have testified about the physical and psychological injuries they experienced and still struggle with; and they have used a mountain of digital evidence to show the extent to which the group of white supremacists went to allegedly get the fight they were after.
The jury is expected to hear from defense witnesses as early as Tuesday. So far, defense statements at trial have ranged from bizarre rants to hate speech. Unable to afford lawyers, some of the white supremacists are representing themselves, using their time in court to broadcast their extremist ideologies as well as grievances with their fellow defendants.
Neo-Nazi podcaster Christopher Cantwell, who is defending himself in the trial, also took the stand Monday. The plaintiffs played episodes of his podcast that aired before “Unite the Right,” including one in which he interviewed Andrew "Weev" Auernheimer of the neo-Nazi site Daily Stormer. In the interview, Auernheimer calls for a race war and praises neo-Nazi mass murderer Dylann Roof.
“I fucking like you… You’re awesome," Cantwell tells Weev after listening to him rant.
Social media posts by Cantwell in which he used racist and violent language were also shown to the jury. One read, “America won’t be free until the last kike is strangled with the entrails of the last Democrat.”
The plaintiffs also played a clip from a Vice News interview in 2017, in which Cantwell shows off the arsenal of firearms he had brought to “Unite the Right.”
In the process of presenting their case, the plaintiffs have also indirectly exposed how the ties among the white nationalists have frayed since the lawsuit was filed against them. During cross-examinations when some of the pro se defendants — those who are representing themselves — have interrogated their codefendants, things have turned heated.
In one testy exchange Monday, white nationalist Richard Spencer asked Kessler on the stand about Kessler’s public criticism of him.
“So when did you determine that I was a sociopathic narcissist?" Spencer asked Kessler, a term the latter had used in a 2019 tweet.
“You were just despicable to everyone you ever came in contact with... You were like a robot, like a serial killer,” Kessler answered.
Kessler, his voice raised at Spencer, continued, saying that Spencer had accused him “of being a Jew because I wouldn’t ‘Sieg Heil’ with you,” referring to the Nazi salute.
Spencer, glancing nervously at the jury and then down at his notes, responded before ending his questioning a moment later: “That’s — that's enough, Jason.”
Correction: Karen Dunn, the plaintiffs’ attorney who questioned Jason Kessler Monday, was misidentified in a previous version of this post.