Charlottesville, Virginia—Mid-afternoon Friday, just before traveling teenage vigilante Kyle Rittenhouse got off on charges of killing two men and wounding another in Kenosha, Wis., last year, I admit I was laughing at some of the “lulz” and the “bantz” of the 10 or so white supremacists on trial here for inciting the deadly violence of the August 2017 “Unite the Right” rally. Well, I wasn’t laughing, exactly. Just repurposing for my own ends. Rereading their court testimony, waiting for a verdict in the media room, I was writing headlines. “The Trial of the Whiniest Nazis” stood out as a winner.

They really are some whiny fucking Nazis.

Planning for the Unite the Right rally, they worried about whether mayonnaise on sandwiches might spoil in the summer sun. They tried to coordinate the purchase of matching Tiki torches, or at least find the cheapest prices. They planned their uniforms of white polos and khakis. For four weeks, they’ve been bickering among themselves in a courtroom where they might have been expected to support one another’s defenses. Lulz there.

The “lulz” and the “bantz” in their rhetoric, and in their messages to one another, are how they try to fool outsiders: their Nazism, anti-Semitism, and white suprematism are all an ironic pose, they insist; and they mean nothing when they say things like “gas the kikes, race war now.” It was a major lulz—or is it just a lul?—when they got federal District Court Judge Norman Moon to repeat that slogan last week. Of course, they don’t mean anything by it!

Of course they do. Still, it was kind of amusing to see how pathetic they are—how they didn’t understand the laws they broke, the laws that had already sanctioned many of them, or the fact that their current hatred for one another doesn’t mean they couldn’t have conspired to achieve their bloody goals on that awful August weekend more than four years ago.

Then, watching Rittenhouse blubber like a baby as he was acquitted, I realized the idiocy and incompetence of the generation of white-rights vigilantes on display in Charlottesville is neither funny nor terribly relevant. I already knew that this landmark civil trial to hold 10 individuals and 14 organizations responsible for the murder and mayhem of August 2017 was important; that’s why I was here. Suddenly, I wanted a swift, just and decisive verdict. We did not get one; the jury will be back Monday to keep figuring out who should pay for the carnage in Charlottesville, and how much.

And I will be paying attention in a different way. No lulz here today.

Meanwhile, down in Georgia, jurors are also deliberating about what to do with the three white men who murdered Armaud Arbery in cold blood as he jogged around the neighborhood. “This is what a public lynching looks like,” one defense attorney complained to the jury.

White people perhaps being held accountable for a Black man’s murder = public lynching? Got it.

At the same time, federal courts in Washington, D.C., are plowing through the cases of 600-plus mostly white men who violated the Capitol on January 6 and contributed to at least five deaths there. I’ve laughed at the vegan whining of the so-called “Qanon Shaman” and others—these guys are absurd!

But there are way too many of them. It’s fun to point out how fucked up and ridiculous they are—just Google “Crying Nazi” Christopher Cantwell, one of the lead Charlottesville defendants. Sorry to be late to this realization, but that doesn’t make them any less deadly. It makes them scarier, that they can accomplish their goals with so much sociopathy and so much less brain power.

So here’s what could happen in Charlottesville this week, and why it matters.

It’s been a strange four years. If you’re like me, Judge Moon, now 84, appointed by President Clinton, sounds like any Southern judge of your Northern imagination, except he has pretty steadily found on behalf of the plaintiffs, sanctioning defendants who refused to participate in the trial and, over time, dealing with the group of nutters who ultimately did show up, narrowing their vision of a path to acquittal to about the size of the tiny alley where their collaborator James Alex Fields Jr. used his car to murder 32-year-old anti-racist activist Heather Heyer and seriously injure dozens more. Moon presided over Fields’s sentencing (he got multiple life sentences), and now several additional Fields victims are plaintiffs in this case.

The plaintiffs still don’t know what to expect, since we never know what juries will do—well, that’s not true; we knew Rittenhouse’s jury would acquit him, but that was largely because of awful judge Bruce Shroeder—but this jury has been given clear directions on how to find these whiny Nazis culpable. Their defense has mainly consisted of insisting that they are all too incompetent to commit conspiracy, but Moon has defined conspiracy clearly. “You don’t have to do very much,” he told the defendants. “You just get in there, be there, go along with it, support it: You’re part of the conspiracy.” He also made clear that in a civil trial, the burden is not “beyond a reasonable doubt” but a “preponderance of evidence”—and he defined that as “50.1 percent.”

Again, we never know what juries will do, but this jury has a path to justice.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys, organized by a new civil rights organization, Integrity First For America, have been working on this case for more than four years. “The suit already has helped to dismantle some of America’s most well-known white supremacist groups,” USA Today wrote in October 2021. Default judgments have already been entered against seven defendants, including Nationalist Front; East Coast Knights of the Ku Klux Klan; Fraternal Order of the Alt-Knights; Augustus Invictus; Loyal White Knights of the KKK and Daily Stormer editor Andrew Anglin.

Though there were 10 individual defendants, in its closing weeks the trial mainly featured three: self-admitted “Unite the Right” rally organizer Jason Kessler, self-promoting “Crying Nazi” Christopher Cantwell (representing himself because his lawyer dropped him after he threatened a plaintiffs’ attorney), and the man who coined the term “alt-right,” Richard Spencer. Spencer also represented himself, insisting that he’s been bankrupted by the legal proceedings.

To me, the case hinged on Kessler’s May 2017 Discord post calling for a clash between his white supremacist buddies and the bogeyman of “antifa.”

“I think we need to have a battle of Berkeley situation in Charlottesville and fight this shit out. They bring everything they’ve got—and we do too.” Kessler wrote that after several creepy Berkeley rallies where Nazis fought some people vaguely termed “antifa.” I don’t mean to downplay the violence that went on, but no one can link the allegedly lefty marauders to any existing political movement, in Berkeley or elsewhere—unlike the white supremacist “Unite the Right” defendants who identify themselves, and their political cause, quite proudly.

Kessler also used Facebook to reach, and coach, his audience. “If you want a chance to crack some Antifa skulls in self-defense, don’t open carry [guns],” Kessler wrote in a June 2017 message. “You will scare the shit out of them and they’ll just stand off to the side.” The next month, Kessler advised this: “If the police ask you how many people we have coming, don’t tell them. If they think we have more than 400 they might be able to help the city pull our permit. Privately we can tout the 800-1,000 number; better for our enemies to underestimate us.”

During the trial, Kessler defended all that dissembling. Minimizing crowd size, sending unarmed guys out to maybe provoke a reaction? “This is a common tactic Martin Luther King used!” he told the judge.

I do not remember “cracking skulls” in any of King’s speeches, but of course I might have missed something during those years. I was just a child.

Crying Nazi Cantwell promoted the coming clash on his “Radical Agenda” podcast regularly. He interviewed Kessler as he was driving to Charlottesville for their rendezvous. He also interviewed Spencer at least once, and texted him regularly. “I’m willing to risk violence and incarceration… but I think it’s worth it for our cause,” Cantwell shared. Spencer replied, “It’s worth it, at least for me.”

Occasionally, Spencer did a reasonable job of distancing himself from the planning of the deadly rally. Apparently, he wasn’t on the Discord server, whose damning contents were shared widely and made up a lot of the plaintiffs’ case. But just when you’d think, hey, maybe Spencer wasn’t really part of this, he’d interject something totally incriminating during the trial. Apparently, he texted Kessler on Aug. 12: “I’m sorry but I won’t attend the press conference today, you’re not listening to leadership.”

Kessler’s attorney asked, “Who is leadership?”

And Spencer answered, “I’m referring to me. I’m the alt-right.” So much for Spencer getting out of this whole conspiracy thing.

There was also this rant by Spencer, after he got a tiny bit roughed up by police on August 12—which apparently Kessler recorded: “Little fucking kikes. They get ruled by people like me. Little fucking octoroons… I fucking… My ancestors fucking enslaved those little pieces of fucking shit. I rule the fucking world. Those pieces of fucking shit get ruled by people like me. They look up and see a face like mine looking down at them. That’s how the fucking world works. We are going to destroy this fucking town [of Charlottesville].”

Spencer apologized for that during the trial. It was whiny and “juvenile,” he admitted. But that’s your whole shtick, dude. Whiny and juvenile, while sometimes violent. That’s all their shticks.

That’s what they’re like, and that’s why it was so easy to mock them. They are preening, cruel, and juvenile middle-aged assholes. They think this trial has been good for them—and here’s where I have to say: I have no idea. Maybe it is. The good news, to me, is that it got comparatively little coverage on television.

Oh, and James Alex Fields Jr. is a defendant here too, although he’s already in prison, serving multiple life sentences for Heather Heyer’s murder. This whole trial, his codefendants acted like they had no idea who he was; just a random maniac who decided to kill. Who knew?

But the plaintiffs were able to show many of the defendants lavishing admiration on him after the fact. Martin Heimbach wrote him a letter to say that though they had never met, they are “comrades” and he knows Fields is “a good man,” adding “You my friend are a martyr for our folk.” Cantwell admitted that he shared a cell block with Fields, where he greeted him with a Nazi salute and gave him a hug.“I’m really sorry this is happening to you,” Cantwell said he told Fields, according to The Washington Post.

So I listened to the audio of the trial for about 10 days, and then I flew down on the only day I could, last Friday. It was the day of all silence, the jury deliberating, the media room taking turns going out for coffee. I went out and a woman in a Jews for Justice sweatshirt was very lovely, making sure I was warm enough, that I’d had lunch, but she couldn’t resist. “This was the most boring day to be here!”

I agreed.

But that night, I could not sleep. I woke up at 5, drank some coffee, and when it was light, I grabbed another cup of coffee and walked to “Honorary Heather Heyer Way.” Deserted, it felt even more like an alley. There’s still chalk on the red brick buildings on both sides—there are very good red brick buildings on both sides, by the way—and I couldn’t tell how old the chalk was, but there’s a lot of blurred messages that felt old. There are fake flowers and scarves on traffic signs, perhaps left at the last anniversary observation last August? Or maybe longer ago?

I called Susan Bro, Heather Heyer’s mother, about the end of the trial. She did not endorse my use of the word “end.”

“This never comes to an end for me.”

I acknowledged the poor word choice.

She agreed that the definition of conspiracy shared by Judge Moon was interesting. And she is waiting for the verdict, as we all are.