'The rally was never about the Lee statue'

And other reflections from the Charlottesville trial

After four years of preparation and nearly four weeks in court, the big federal lawsuit against the white nationalists in Charlottesville is drawing to a close. Both sides have presented their evidence. It will soon be up to the jury to decide: Did these neo-Nazis and other white supremacist and white-supremacist groups intentionally conspire to commit violence against nonwhite and Jewish people in August 2017? And, if so, what damages should be awarded to the plaintiffs?

The effects of the case could reach far beyond the parties in court and this college town in central Virginia. It is a trial balloon for the revitalization of the Ku Klux Klan Act, a largely forgotten 1871 law against racist conspiracies that President Ulysses S. Grant used to dismantle the original Klan—a law which has also recently been considered in cases against the instigators of the January 6 attack on Congress, including against Donald Trump.

More broadly, Sines v. Kessler is part of a wider reckoning (or re-reckoning) in the courts with the racially animated reactionary violence of the Trump years, a moment that also includes the ongoing January 6 trials and the murder prosecutions of Kyle Rittenhouse and the killers of Ahmaud Arbery.

Since I’ve been covering the trial from the beginning—inside the courtroom, from an adjacent media room, and by audio feed elsewhere in town—I thought I’d take a few minutes to share some of my reflections so far.

‘Charlottesville’ was never really about statues

The conventional narrative about the violence in August 2017 went something like this: White nationalists and others showed up to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Counter-protesters showed up to oppose them. Things got out of hand.

Sines v. Kessler has blown that narrative to pieces. First, it has made clear (again) that—high-profile disinformation to the contrary—“Unite the Right” was expressly and entirely a white nationalist affair. Moreover, the city’s Confederate monuments (all of which have since been removed) have barely come up in testimony at all. On the rare occasions they have been mentioned—almost always by the plaintiffs—it has been to show how far down they were on the list of the white supremacists’ concerns.

As Nathan Damigo, the former head of the neo-Nazi group Identity Evropa, said in a leaked Discord chat from April 2017, presented during the trial: “Sure we don’t wanna see the statue removed but the truth is the rally was never about the Lee statue … It’s about increasing our ability to exploit circumstances in the real world and attract more activists for our cause.”

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Why does that matter? In part, it’s because it shows the pernicious ways the so-called alt-right was able to hijack the narrative, even after co-defendant James Fields plowed his car through the crowd. As a mountain of unearthed evidence presented at the trial has made clear, the organizers’ explicit goal was to glom onto issues with wider levels of support (such as protecting monuments to the white-supremacist past) and use those to further their real aim (the overthrow of the existing U.S. government and its replacement with a white fascist ethnostate.) That they were able to get so many to adopt their framing is a sign of the continued danger they pose.

The monsters are in the mainstream

That this happened at all was thanks in part to the inroads their allies have made into the national political and media spheres. Back in 2017, when Trump aide Stephen Miller was busy turning white-nationalist conspiracy theories into policy, Jason Kessler—the Kessler of Sines v.—had written a series of articles for the conservative Daily Caller that glorified white nationalists and demonized immigrants. The website even hired Kessler to cover a trial-run torch march at the Lee statue without disclosing that he was one of the march’s organizers. The Daily Caller was founded by Tucker Carlson, who was still part of its leadership team at the time.

The white nationalists know how to play this game, because many of them still identify with the conservative movement, and hope to use their points of agreement to win over the right-leaning “normies” on the jury. Chris “The Crying Nazi” Cantwell—who along with Richard Spencer is one of the two defendants representing himself at trial—has done this through the trial. In his opening statement, he noted the similarities between many of his views and those of the “mainstream Republican Party.”

In a surreal direct examination by Spencer, the Cantwell explained his political trajectory: that he “started out as a Tea Partier before I stumbled upon Libertarianism,” only to be “nudged toward the alt-right” by the writings of Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard—both of whom are mainstays of “classical liberalism,” as online libertarians sometimes refer to themselves. (“The Crying Nazi” noted the irony that Rothbard was Jewish—as was Mises, in fact.)

I don’t want to put too fine a point on this: The individual politics of the defendants, like any individual’s politics, really, get weird. Kessler was an Obama voter who participated in a Charlottesville satellite of Occupy Wall Street before taking a racist turn in a fight with a local Black politician and winning affirmation from Trumpists and the alt-right (until he was scapegoated by Spencer and others for the wave of negative publicity that followed UTR and the murder of Heather Heyer). It is entirely possible that Cantwell’s attempts to get the jurors to identify with him on a personal level will backfire.

But it would be foolish to miss the mechanisms at work here. The younger white nationalists, in contrast to the more unapologetically racist Boomer defendants like Michael Hill of the neo-Confederate League of the South, are steeped in the tactics and conversational styles of Twitter—disguising their deadly serious intent by drenching themselves in memes and irony. Cantwell talked on the stand about how the goal of his vlog/podcast was to “transmit sincerely held beliefs, exaggerated for the aim of the entertainment project”—for instance by dressing in blackface or as a “transgender person.”

Plaintiffs’ attorney Roberta Kaplan opened her summation this morning by asking the jury to find that “none of this is funny and none of it is a joke.”

Spencer meanwhile has spent the trial in adopting the slow-paced, pedantic, faux-reasonable tone that won him approving coverage from major media in the early days of the Trump presidency. He is trying to portray himself as the reasonable, violence-detesting white nationalist, adopting bothsidesing language and sometimes even the anti-racist counterprotesters’ own terms—such as Emancipation Park, instead of Lee. Spencer even gave his own spin on Trump’s most infamous quote about the weekend, saying: “There were also very bad people on both sides.”

(His aim there was to throw his co-defendants under the bus. Spencer apparently does not understand how criminal conspiracy law works. We’ll see if the jury does.)

These guys really, really hate Jews

That’s not news to anyone really, I guess. But it really stood out to me. Discussions in Charlottesville about Unite the Right tend to focus on the white nationalists’ anti-Black racism, which was very prevalent during the event itself. But mentions of Jews, Jews as Communists, supposed Jewish conspiracies, and on and on (and on), have been far more prevalent during the trial.

Some Nazis think they’ve won—for the moment

Many of the defendants are using the trial as a platform for other ends. Cantwell has used his cross-examinations of the plaintiffs to force them to name other counter-protesters who were with them during the rally. (Judge Norman K. Moon demanded at least one witness comply, despite the fact that Cantwell is currently serving a 41-month sentence in federal prison for extortion and making threats against others who refused to name names.)

Cantwell also told a radio show during the trial that he considers the trial to be “a spoken word performance. “I saw this as a tremendous opportunity both because of the cause at hand and because I knew the world was listening.”

In that respect, a win for everyone else cannot consist merely of the jury finding for the plaintiffs, but doing so in a meaningful way—awarding a sum that will bankrupt the white nationalists on trial, and serve as a warning to others.

The white nationalists’ argument comes down to self-defense: that the counterprotesters (namely, Antifa and Black Lives Matter) were the real aggressors, and that all of their weaponry—shields, helmets, guns, James Fields’ car—were just used to defend themselves.

The plaintiffs have mounted an extraordinarily well-evidenced case that this was not true—that the Nazis spent months preparing for the violence they intentionally inflicted against Jews, Black people, and their allies. But during jury selection, many of the jurors expressed personal biases against Antifa and Black Lives Matter (which, as the judge told them repeatedly, are not parties to the case). And the fact is that the Nazis’ argument is almost identical in that respect to the one being used by Kyle Rittenhouse, and similar to the self-defense case being mounted by Ahmaud Arbery’s killers—arguments that have won widespread currency on right-wing and even centrist media. We will see shortly, in Charlottesville and elsewhere, whose arguments will carry the day.

Edited by Sam Thielman

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