Far-right figures in Charlottesville court over deadly violence of 2017

By Edward Helmore

Two blocks from the oak and boxwood trees slowly turning amber in the downtown Charlottesville park that saw one the most violent political confrontations of the Trump era is the tightly-secured federal courtroom where the origins of the racist mayhem that struck over that mid-August weekend in 2017 are now being forensically examined.

Close to four years after the event, a sprawling civil lawsuit alleging a conspiracy to commit racially motivated violence against nine residents of Charlottesville during the white-supremacist Unite the Right march and rally is drawing together some of the most notorious figures of America’s alt-right movement.

The case, Sines v Kessler, alleges that 14 people, including Richard Spencer and ​podcaster Chris Cantwell, white nationalists who are representing themselves in court, and 10 far-right groups, among them Vanguard America, Identity Evropa and the Traditionalist Worker party, violated an obscure federal law known the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 citing “conspiracy to interfere with civil rights”.

A diverse jury, identified only by numbers, has been hearing evidence that the white nationalists violated the constitutional rights of nine plaintiffs who were left injured or emotionally scarred, and now seeking compensation. Jurors need only find “a preponderance of the evidence” to assert the defendants’ liability.

But some of the defendants are missing, most say they are now broke, and some are using the case as a stage to promote their views.

The statue of the Confederate general Robert E Lee, to which the white nationalists rallied, has been removed, but political amplification of the mayhem over that weekend, which left a young woman dead and 14 injured, continues.

Last weekend, a political stunt orchestrated by the Lincoln Project designed to tie Glenn Youngkin, Virginia’s Republican governor-elect, to the riot appeared to backfire. Charlottesville’s Democratic city council later condemned organizers for regarding their city “as nothing more than a political meme, and parading mock white supremacists around our city as nothing more than political cosplay”.

But the case and its outcome may have more political than legal purpose. A Democratic lawmaker has filed a similar lawsuit aimed at those involved in the Capitol riot that names Trump, his lawyer Rudy Giuliani, and members of the far-right Proud Boys and Oath Keepers as conspiracists.

Yet last week defendants in the Charlotttesville case, some airing intra-white nationalist grievances, others describing Charlottesville as a defensive dust-up with the anti-fascist group Antifa, have at times pushed presiding judge Norman Moon to rub his eyes in exasperation.

An inexact reading of the US neo-Nazi movement is that the ones with shaved heads and swastika tattoos you can see approaching, while the preppie extremists, in suits or uniforms of dark shirts, khaki pants and New Balance sneakers, are more problematic because, as the lawsuit contends, they plan ahead.

It’s those of the second order being sued in Charlottesville. An imposing security detail for the plaintiffs and lawyers for Integrity First For America, a group supported by George Soros’ Open Society, stands outside the courthouse.

That speaks to alarm over apparent contacts between Cantwell, who has pleaded guilty to charges related to pepper-spraying counter-protesters and is serving a federal prison sentence for extortion, and Matt Hale, the former leader of the World Church of the Creator, a 90s racist skinhead group. Hale is currently serving a 40-year sentence for soliciting the murder of a federal judge.

Defendants claim the Unite the Right rally and march, granted license to congregate by Charlottesville, was designed to protest the city’s plan to remove General Lee and his horse, Traveller, from its towering plinth. After a series of prequel confrontations with Antifa counter-protesters, they came prepared for violence.

But so too did Charlottesville authorities, deploying 1,000 law enforcement officers to keep the peace – and failing – before then governor Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency. Last week, the court heard vivid witness testimony of their experience of what far right planners and promoters call “Charlottesville 2.0”.

Natalie Romero, a plaintiff and the first witness to testify in the case, recalled that neo-Nazi James Fields fractured her skull in the same attack that killed 32-year-old counter-protester Heather Heyer. Fields was convicted of first-degree murder along with multiple counts of aggravated malicious wounding. He was sentenced to a life term plus 419 years.

Romero testified that she’d witnessed the torchlight parade and heard chants of “Blood and soil” as “almost like thunder. Like the earth was growling.”

Another University of Virginia student, Devin Willis, also a plaintiff, could hear the white supremacists chanting “you will not replace us” before they came into view in an “ocean of light and flames”. He added that the column “looked like a lynch mob”.

The court heard from Holocaust expert Deborah Lipstadt, recently appointed a US special envoy to combat and monitor antisemitism by Joe Biden. (Biden launched his presidential campaign with a video denouncing the Charlottesville rally he called “a defining moment” for the nation.)

Lipstadt was asked to identify phrases and symbols used by organizers and marchers, some to covertly signal alt-right extremism in online forums, others using heraldic-reminiscent shields to signal the bearer’s particular shading of neo-Nazi ideology.

“I don’t surprise easily, but I was taken aback,” Lipstadt testified.

But the nationalists’ deep attachment to racist symbolism does not, legally, always establish racist conspiracy. Cantwell had advised that tiki torches, to be used in the torchlight parade, could be purchased inexpensively at Walmart. Richard Spencer, founder of the National Policy Institute, a white supremacist thinktank, said claims that such parades were uniquely evocative of the Third Reich were “ridiculous”.

“The general sentiment is the mystery and magic of fire and darkness,” he explained.

The statue of Robert Lee is removed from Charlottesville in July.
The statue of Robert Lee is removed from Charlottesville in July. Photograph: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Defendants claimed that prejudiced pre-Charlottesville conversations at the heart of the case were superficial and hyperbolic. Nazi salutes, comments that “portable ovens are where it’s at” and other inflammatory remarks is a “subcultural thing of being outlandish and stupid,” Spencer testified.

Matthew Heimbach, a founder of the neo-Nazi Traditionalist Worker party, testified that members of the far right went to lengths to consider “the most outrageous things we could do to troll and create outrage in the media and get reaction”.

“They absolutely fell for it,” he added.

The sometimes comedic squabbles and betrayals between white nationalists, or their use of semantic decoys like “See Kyle” for “Heil Hitler”, should not be misunderstood, testified Samantha Froelich, a former member of the white nationalist group Identity Evropa and girlfriend of its founder Elliot Kline, aka Elliot Mosely.

Even their humor, alternately horrific, grandiloquent and bickering, was a “way that if someone were to call you out on it and say, ‘Hey, that’s really disgusting ideology,’ you could turn around and say: it’s just a joke, we don’t mean it. Even though they did.”

In an exchange last week, Heimbach described the suit-wearing, Nietzsche-invoking Spencer as “bougie”.

“I kind of always viewed you as a bit of a dandy,” Heimbach said.

“Did you ever see me wear boat shoes?” Spencer asked.

“Not off top of my head, but it wouldn’t surprise me,” Heimbach shot back.

The outcome of the lawsuit may prove, like any subsequent action based on the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act case around the Capitol riot, more useful for entering neo-Nazi stirrings of the Trump era into the official federal court record than in exacting monetary compensation from the defendants.

According to Christina Rivera, co-president of Congregate Charlottesville, a plaintiff: “We want people to remember that being actively anti-racist and anti-fascist is the reason why we are doing this work.”

The court has already entered default judgments against seven defendants, including neo-Nazis Elliot Kline and Robert “Azzmador” Ray, who refused to comply with court orders to turn over electronic devices. Authorities have been searching for Ray, described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a tough-talking brawler, since June 2018.

Andrew Anglin, who publishes the hate site the Daily Stormer, is subject to a $14m judgment for orchestrating an antisemitic harassment campaign against a Montana real estate agent, is missing and believed to be out of the country. Jeff Schoep, former commander of the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement, said his cellphone “accidentally” fell into the toilet, making it impossible to recover potential evidence, and claims to have reformed his views.

But in a phone call to the Guardian on Thursday, defendant Heimbach dismissed the proceedings as a “show trial”. He claimed that trying to link Nazi Germany to America in 2017 showed that “the plaintiffs were trying to make a Hollywood production out the courtroom”.

He admitted that those on trial were not much of a unified threat, at least, not since they had marched together. “The far right is fundamentally ideologically fractured, and can hardly sit in the same room together.”