EDITOR’S NOTE: The civil trial of the white supremacists who planned the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017 brought some measure of justice. But the threat of violence still looms large.
Sitting in a Charlottesville federal courtroom, waiting for the jury to come in with a verdict, I couldn’t miss it.
The civil trial of 14 men and 10 groups accused of conspiring to ignite racist violence at the two-day Charlottesville riots, which killed 32-year-old counterprotester Heather Heyer and injured at least 35 others, doesn’t offer an exact legal template for holding the 650-plus individuals (of an estimated 2,500 believed liable) charged in what was essentially an attempted coup accountable. But we can learn a lot from that recent four-week legal cavalcade of white supremacist preening, complaining, and, ultimately, defeat.
One obvious parallel: Trump helped inspire the Charlottesville goons, just as he (even more directly) inspired the January 6 insurrectionists. I met Charlottesville defendant Richard Spencer, the founder of the genteel racist movement known as the “alt-right,” at a party at the 2016 Republican National Convention that brought together every variety of racist and white nationalist for cocktails and canapés. As Spencer told me then: “What’s most important about Trump is the emotion. He’s awakened a sense of ‘us,’ a sense of nationalism among white people. He’s done more to awaken that nationalism than anyone in my lifetime. I love the man.” (Charged with plotting the Charlottesville violence, Spencer claimed he voted for Biden in 2020, but I don’t believe anything he says.)
It took four years, partly because of Covid, to bring the Charlottesville conspirators to trial. But ultimately a jury found them liable for injuries to counterprotesters and awarded the nine plaintiffs in the case $26 million from this group of white supremacists. I hope it doesn’t take that long to bring the January 6 ringleaders, from Trump through Mark Meadows, Roger Stone, and Steve Bannon to the most minor MAGA insurrectionists, to justice. But whatever the time line, to have any chance of preventing the next spasm of white supremacist violence, it’s critical to identify the threads that connect these apparently separate events. They are many, and they’ll make your skin crawl.
I must admit: During the trial, and waiting for the jury’s verdict in the Charlottesville federal courthouse, I got distracted by the defendants’ remarkable incompetence, vanity, and whininess. White supremacy, to paraphrase Trump, has not sent us “its best people.” They planned their violence on Discord, an Internet platform established to facilitate conversations among gamers, but one that allowed them to use private servers to share racial hate—and in this case, to plan the Unite the Right rally.
Planning the rally, these man-babies worried about whether mayonnaise on their sandwiches might spoil in the summer sun. They used social media to shop for the cheapest tiki torches, which they used in their ghoulish flame-lit “Jews will not replace us” march on August 11. Some coordinated their outfits: white polos and khakis.
During the four-week trial, they bickered among themselves like schoolboys on a gaming site when it would have been much more effective to support one another’s defenses.
Some started out cocky, using the unique platform of a trial to promote their views. Michael Hill, founder of the League of the South, proudly told the jury he’s “a white supremacist, a racist, an anti-Semite, a homophobe, a xenophobe, an Islamophobe” from the witness stand. The infamous “Crying Nazi,” Christopher Cantwell, defending himself because his lawyer quit after Cantwell threatened a plaintiffs’ attorney, played coy, one minute using the N-word in opening arguments, the next insisting his persistent racism was merely a “spoken-word performance,” part of promoting his lame, cringey podcast Radical Agenda. (“Radical” mostly meaning racist.)
Preppy Nazi Spencer (one codefendant derided him as “bougie”) tried to insist that he wasn’t part of the conspiracy, in part because he wasn’t on the infamous Discord server used to plan the event. He joined the Unite the Right planning nonetheless, but texted Jason Kessler, one of the lead organizers of the rally, on August 12: “I’m sorry but I won’t attend the press conference today, you’re not listening to leadership.”
Kessler’s attorney asked at the trial, “Who is leadership?”
Spencer answered, “I’m referring to me. I’m the alt-right.” So much for getting out of the whole conspiracy charge.
The plaintiffs’ attorneys showcased the many calls for violence made by the disparate group of defendants, even as they tried to deny their connections to one another.
“I think we need to have a Battle of Berkeley situation in Charlottesville. Bring in the alt-right, Proud Boys [and other defendants] and fight this shit out. They bring everything they’ve got and we do too,” Kessler wrote in May 2017, after a violent rally in Berkeley, Calif., where Nazis fought some people vaguely termed “antifa.” He later wrote to Spencer, “We are raising an army my liege, for free speech but for the cracking of skulls if it comes to it.” In a June 2017 message on Discord, Kessler advised: “If you want a chance to crack some Antifa skulls in self-defense, don’t open carry [guns]. You will scare the shit out of them and they’ll just stand off to the side.”
“I’m willing to risk violence and incarceration…but I think it’s worth it for our cause,” Cantwell shared in a text with Spencer. The Preppy Nazi replied, “It’s worth it, at least for me.”
Spencer himself played a damning bit of audio that Kessler reportedly recorded after the Preppy Nazi was treated roughly by police at the rally. “Little fucking kikes. They get ruled by people like me. Little fucking octoroons…. 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 was recorded as saying.
This was evidence, Spencer said, not of his commitment to racist violence but of how deranged he was that weekend, totally “juvenile” and not himself, thus incapable of intention and planning. But nobody was convinced.
Meanwhile, Kessler had started a “Charlottesville 2.0” server that came to have 61 channels, according to Peter Simi, a Chapman University sociologist who was an expert witness at the trial, “organized in topics that ranged from event planning logistics (e.g., ‘carpool_available’ and ‘gear_and_attire’), to issues of violence and law (e.g., ‘medic_team’ and ‘virginia_laws’) and participating groups (e.g., ‘traditionalist_workers_party’ and ‘league_of_the_south’).”
All of that seemed pretty damning to me.
Which might be why the once-macho defendants turned so whiny. Early on, they were dropping the N-word, joking about race war, and applauding when their supporters managed to break into a telephone livestream of the trial (listeners were supposed to be on mute) to yell “Make America Great Again” and racial epithets. But by the end, Cantwell was complaining about his courtroom computer problems, Spencer was irritated that Judge Norman Moon wouldn’t buy his comparing himself to Jesus, and Kessler was unhappy that the courtroom didn’t seem convinced that his efforts to provoke the rumored antifa into throwing the first punch, thus igniting violence, wasn’t accepted as nonviolence: “This is a tactic that even Martin Luther King would use!” There was an air of panic, not cockiness, in the defendants’ closing arguments.
What changed? I can’t be sure, but one thing I know: The plaintiffs’ attorneys, led by Karen Dunn and Roberta Kaplan, weren’t distracted by the preening and complaining of the defendants the way I was. They called two particularly effective expert witnesses: Simi, the white supremacist expert, and Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt.
Lipstadt traced the defendants’ “Jews will not replace us” chant at the violent tiki-torch rally to both modern and age-old notions that Jewish people, acting in concert with nonwhites, have been the drivers of white Christian erasure. “There was a great deal of overt anti-Semitism and adulation of the Third Reich throughout the evidence I looked at,” Lipstadt testified. “Very few things surprise me, but I was taken aback.”
Acting as his own attorney, Cantwell asked Lipstadt if there were any appropriate Holocaust jokes: “If somebody was going to make a joke about the Jewish people, would the Holocaust be an easy target?”
“I find it hard to imagine using a genocide which killed 6 million people, irrespective of their religion, their identity, their nationality, as a topic of jokes,” Lipstadt replied.
Simi produced a 63-page report, with researcher Kathleen Blee, that examined the defendants’ vast social media record, including the trove of Discord planning, against a backdrop of white supremacist violence going back to the post-Reconstruction Ku Klux Klan. On the witness stand, as in his report, Simi blew up the attempted defense, particularly the one offered by Cantwell: that the defendants’ brutal racism and anti-Semitism were just performances, satirical and not sincere.
That argument dominated an early, and discouraging, part of the trial. Cantwell and others argued that they’re the cool kids and that we’re all squares, taking them too seriously. The so-called “lulz” and “bantz” in their rhetoric and in their messages to one another—their Nazism, anti-Semitism, and white supremacism—those are all an ironic pose! Who knew? “There was a subculture in which it was the coolest thing in the world to be as edgy as possible,” Spencer told the jury, calling it “very juvenile and silly.” When they say things like “Gas the kikes, race war now,” we’re supposed to believe it’s just a big joke.
That dodge ended when Simi took it apart from the witness stand, drawing on his authoritative report. He noted that the style guide of the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer website (its founder, Andrew Anglin, was a defendant) advises:
The unindoctrinated should not be able to tell if we are joking or not. There should also be a conscious awareness of mocking stereotypes of hateful racists. I usually think of this as self-deprecating humor—I am a racist making fun of stereotypes of racists, because I don’t take myself super-seriously.
This is obviously a ploy and I actually do want to gas kikes. But that’s neither here nor there.
Simi’s report also showed that the Unite the Right organizers deliberately recruited participants who had been involved in violence before. And the “Charlottesville 2.0” Discord channels featured multiple posts about using cars to run down protesters, just the way James Alex Fields killed Heather Heyer and injured so many others. “Is it legal to run over protesters blocking roadways?” one supporter asked. “I’m NOT just shitposting. I would like clarification.”
Fields himself—who murdered Heyer and injured others with his Dodge Challenger on the afternoon of August 12—posted a meme depicting a car running into protesters just weeks before he did it. Others on Discord and elsewhere suggested carrying flags, whose flagpoles could be used to beat counterprotesters, which they also did that weekend.
“In our opinion,” Simi testified at the trial, “readers [of these posts] would have understood that such use of humor was intended to ‘normalize,’ approve of, and encourage violence without explicitly promoting it.”
The jury seemed to agree.
It’s hugely encouraging that the jury found the Charlottesville sad sacks liable for $26 million in damages, which will be paid to the nine plaintiffs, who suffered severely that August day. But it’s terrifying that these barely competent poseurs could have the influence they had and inspire the violence they did. We have to face the fact that there’s an epidemic of (mostly male) violence on the right, and they’re learning from one another, sharing with one another, and thus amplifying their impact beyond their actual numbers—or apparent competence. Just before the Charlottesville verdict, Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted on charges of murder. Admittedly, it was hard for the prosecution to disprove his claim of self-defense. But that a 17-year-old felt he had the responsibility—more importantly, the right—to take to the streets of Kenosha, Wis., with an AR-15 to practice vigilante justice during the Black Lives Matter marches there is just another symptom of what’s grievously wrong with a lot of young white men in America.
The trial’s one disappointment was that the plaintiffs’ attempt to use the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act, passed to punish Reconstruction-era violence against Black people, especially Black voters, didn’t carry the day. The jury based its verdict on a similar Virginia state statute that criminalized racial violence, but it deadlocked on the charges related to the Klan act. Several legal scholars I talked to suggested that the Klan act doesn’t necessarily draw a fine enough line between what’s considered free speech and what’s an obvious incitement to violence.
Right now, though, other lawsuits are trying to use the act. At least three go after Trump for fomenting violence in order to overturn election results—one relating to his efforts to reverse Michigan’s outcome, plus two by members of Congress involving his encouraging the Capitol insurrection. There are two other lawsuits in Texas, related to law enforcement in San Marcos refusing to protect a Biden bus from “Trump train” members in cars and SUVs who were trying to drive it off the road. (Police officials were caught snickering about the danger to the Biden people on audio.)
It’s worth remembering that the Klan act passed 150 years ago, in a time remarkably similar to ours. During the fall of 1870, South Carolina Governor Robert K. Scott wrote to President Ulysses S. Grant that Klan sympathizers “will not submit to any election which does not place them in power…. I am convinced that an outbreak will occur here on Friday…the day appointed by law for the counting of ballots.”
Sound familiar? Grant pressed Congress to pass the 1871 Klan act, which, according to the Reconstruction scholar Eric Foner, “by 1872…had broken the Klan’s back and produced a dramatic decline in violence throughout the South.”
We might need an act like that again, and soon.
Which brings us back to January 6. It’s easy to mock so many of the people charged, some of whom seem as ludicrous and incompetent as the Charlottesville boys. Not just the “QAnon Shaman,” Jacob Chansley, or James Beeks, who was touring with a production of Jesus Christ Superstar but took a time-out for violence (and who, by the way, is Black). Unlike the Charlottesville rioters, the January 6 insurrectionists charged included some women, like Dallas area realtor Jenna Ryan, who boasted on Instagram that she wouldn’t go to prison because, as she tweeted, “I have blonde hair white skin a great job a great future” (but then she did get sentenced to prison), and Gina Bisignano, a Beverly Hills salon owner who stormed the Capitol but is now cooperating with prosecutors.
The worst of the January 6 protesters, especially those who entered the Capitol or tried to and those who assaulted police there, were ultimately more dangerous than the Charlottesville clan. At least 150 police officers were injured. So far those charged—that’s charged; many more participated—include more than 70 current or former members of the military and at least 15 current or former police officers. Dozens of suspected Oath Keepers, a paramilitary group with ties to both the military and police, have been charged, with more coming. Over 650 people have been charged so far; HuffPost estimates that’s about a quarter of those who ultimately could be.
Which means that on that day alone, up to 2,500 people broke the law trying to break our democracy—whether to “hang Mike Pence” or “get Nancy” (Pelosi) or grab the electoral votes that Congress was in the process of ratifying. Or to otherwise intimidate democratically elected lawmakers into overturning democracy.
So there’s no equating Charlottesville 2017 with the 2021 Capitol violence. But if there’s not a direct comparison in scale, there’s certainly an echo in ideology and tactics. At least one planner of the Unite the Right rally—Tim Gionet, the white supremacist Internet troll known as “Baked Alaska”—was arrested for storming the Capitol on January 6. The deadly flagpoles, the Confederate flags, the Trump worship, the rage, and the (mainly male) sense of entitlement; plus the disintermediated planning across multiple social media platforms, some of which, like Parler, didn’t exist in 2017, as well as old familiar spreaders of right-wing disinformation, like Facebook, which did—much of what we witnessed on January 6 we saw first in Charlottesville.
The Charlottesville verdict is much-needed evidence that justice can be done, even if it takes four years. “It’s a resounding victory,” Amy Spitalnick, the executive director of Integrity First for America, told me. But with so many of these failson defendants and their backing organizations already pretty far down on their luck, I wondered if the plaintiffs would ever see money from them. “Absolutely!” Spitalnick said. “You collect judgments in a lot of ways.” Some of the larger groups hit by this verdict have assets and operating funds, she added. Richard Spencer glumly told reporters he envisioned that the men might have their wages garnished or liens placed against their homes and property. “They could do all those things,” he said, adding that his alt-right movement “is dead and gone.” One can only hope.
But meanwhile, the great malefactors pushing white supremacy have yet to be anything close to punished: not a Trump sycophant like Steve Bannon or Roger Stone or Mark Meadows; certainly not Trump himself. The dangers posed by Charlottesville and the Capitol violence are still with us. After the trial, I called Susan Bro, Heather Heyer’s mother, to talk about how the trial ended. She did not endorse my use of the word “end.”
“This never comes to an end for me.”
I acknowledged my poor word choice, then realized: The greater nightmare hasn’t come to an end, for any of us.