Explosive testimony this week exposed the culture of violence around Unite the Right and left little doubt that the bloodshed in Charlottesville was exactly what the organizers wanted.
Online and offline conversations leading up to Unite the Right were full of racist incitement, calls to violence, discussions of hitting protesters with cars, and specific tips for provoking counterprotesters so that participants could claim self-defense.
The leader of one defendant group testified it was obvious that violence was imminent: The murder and injuries, he said, “shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone.”
As our plaintiffs begin to wrap up their case, they’ve done exactly what they pledged at the start of this trial: provided overwhelming evidence that the defendants conspired to carry out racially-motivated violence in Charlottesville.
“All the Hallmarks of the White Supremacist Movement” -- Expert Witness Decodes Unite the Right Planners’ Tactics and Rhetoric
Much of the evidence in this trial has required little deciphering. When defendants praise Hitler, drop the N-word in open court, or declare “race war now,” their motivations and intentions are pretty transparent.
Other evidence is highly coded, or shrouded in doublespeak. Throughout the trial and in depositions, defendants have claimed that their violent rhetoric and plans are merely online humor. The phrase “just a joke” has been repeated over and over again.
This week, our expert witness Professor Peter Simi explained to the jury that such tactics are classic emblems of the white supremacist movement -- used internally to normalize violence and outwardly to create plausible deniability. “For any culture where violence is central,” he testified, “the more you can normalize it, the easier it is for members of that culture to commit violence.” And while “they may laugh” as they talk about gassing Jews or while sharing memes about murdering Black people, “it is a sincere expression of their ideology.”
Profs. Simi and Kathleen Blee spent over 1,000 hours analyzing 575,000 Discord posts, thousands of images, and hours of depositions. Their expert report concluded that defendants:
“utilized white supremacist movement tactics, principally the reliance on racial animus as a motivator, the intentional use of violence to achieve their goals, and a coordinated strategy to obfuscate their aims through the use of ‘double-speak’...”
On the stand, Simi walked the jury through examples of these tactics, demonstrating how defendants' “just joking” disclaimers were intentional obfuscations of their very real violent intentions.
“Most people are not comfortable with material that comes across as…. nonironic hatred,” Simi read from the Daily Stormer style guide used by a number of Unite the Right organizers, “[so] the unindoctrinated should not be able to tell if we are joking or not... This is obviously a ploy and I actually do want to gas the k*kes.”
Damning Deposition Testimony
The jury heard testimony from a number of co-conspirators, which painted a clear picture of the ultra-violent nature of Unite the Right. The witnesses used the servers created by the UTR organizers to plot violence -- often in chats involving the defendants themselves -- and then traveled to Charlottesville to execute their plans.
- If you’ve followed this case very long, you’ve likely seen the "protester digestor" meme that Discord user Tyrone posted in a conversation about running over counterprotesters. Tyrone is in fact Michael Chesny, a neo-Nazi and former Marine whose deposition was played for the jury this week. The testimony revealed that Chesny was given Discord moderator privileges by defendant Elliot Kline and was invited to join the exclusive leadership channel for the event. Along the way, he gave advice about the most effective weapons to bring and where to buy them.
The jury saw that Chesny not only posted memes about ramming protesters, but also asked if Virginia law allowed it. And they learned that Chesny was the transportation coordinator for Unite the Right. Chesny acknowledged that he frequently communicated with event organizer and defendant Jason Kessler.
- Vasillios Pistolis’s deposition was most notable for how little he had to say -- particularly given that the neo-Nazi Atomwaffen member was normally very talkative online, openly bragging about “cracking skulls” and curb stomping people at Unite the Right.
Video placed him with defendants, amidst the violence, throughout August 11 and 12, but he repeatedly invoked his right not to self-incriminate -- pleading the fifth when asked if he helped defendants Christopher Cantwell and Michael Tubbs commit assault, cracked any skulls, or plotted to blow up a synagogue in Charlottesville. He did confirm, however, that he was in contact with Jason Kessler in the lead-up to Unite the Right, specifically asking what kind of flag he could bring. He ultimately chose a wooden flagpole riddled with staples, which he was seen using as a weapon.
- Testimony was also shown from the depositions of two leaders of Vanguard America, the defendant group James Fields marched with before the car attack. Vanguard leaders were in regular communication with many other defendants in the lead-up to the event.
The group’s former commander Dillon Hopper testified that it was obvious violence was “more than likely” at Unite the Right, comparing the white supremacist participants to sharks and counterprotesters to surfers. The deaths and injuries, he said, “shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone," and it was clear from his testimony that he was not remorseful. He acknowledged that he posted “Commies died. That’s good enough for me,” on August 12. Asked what he meant by commies, he said he considered any counterprotester a communist.
“We Are All on Basically the Same Page." -- Testimony From the Defendants.
Among the defendants to testify this week were members of the Nationalist Front -- an umbrella organization for hate groups, including defendants League of the South, Traditionalist Worker Party, National Socialist Movement, and Vanguard America. The coalition was key to recruitment efforts for Unite the Right, and at the center of the violence.
- Defendant Jeff Schoep was the leader of the largest neo-Nazi organization in America at the time of Unite the Right, the National Socialist Movement. Perhaps more significantly, he created the Nationalist Front umbrella group.
As such, Schoep and other NF leaders were key to recruitment. "I would like you to see what we bring to the table,” he wrote Jason Kessler in July, “besides experience and men who are battle-tested in the streets." In an earlier speech played to the jury, Schoep referred to those battle-tested men as “shock troops for the white race.”
When the Nationalist Front groups arrived at Unite the Right on August 12, they parked at a distance from the rally site, planning to march in formation with shields through areas where counterprotesters were congregating. Violent videos showed the resulting assaults on protesters, and Schoep punching a man in the face.
Afterward, Schoep boasted on Twitter that he’d “knocked out an antifa scumbag” and texted co-defendant Heimbach “your men and the League fought well.” “We’re finally fu**ing winning,” he continued. “And that’s because we are all basically on the same page.”
- Defendant Matthew Parrott of the defendant group Traditionalist Worker Party further elucidated what happened at the violent march toward Emancipation Park, testifying that the group had a plan in place to “have our shields at the front and push through antifa into the park.” Initially, he claimed that the shield march was a contingency for if they encountered “antifa.” But he admitted under questioning that they began the push with no knowledge of who was between them and the park.
Parrott also testified that there was communication with the defendant group Identity Evropa during these violent encounters, confirming they sent a “detachment of fighters” to assist the Nationalist Front groups and “relay intelligence” to defendant Kessler. The revelation undermined the defense’s effort to downplay coordination between the Nationalist Front groups and other defendants.
- Alongside Schoep and Parrott in the charge toward Emancipation Park was defendant Michael Tubbs, the League of the South member who was praised by the group’s leader for being “everywhere the chaos was” on August 12. In fact, video presented to the jury showed Tubbs yelling “charge” and leaving the rally site to engage in more violence -- undermining his claims of self-defense.
Tubbs testified at trial, “It was also the proudest moment of my life on the streets of Charlottesville that day. I have no regrets about it.” He also did not have any regrets about the car attack that day, tweeting at least six times after: “James Fields did nothing wrong.”
- James Fields is in prison for life for murdering Heather Heyer and injuring dozens. He refused to be deposed for the case, but the plaintiffs presented extensive evidence against him -- and connecting him to the other defendants -- on Thursday.
Fields regularly posted racist and violent messages on social media. In a private message before UTR, he sent a picture of a car driving into a crowd with the caption “when I see protesters blocking.” And he regularly tagged defendants on social media, while also sharing their antisemitic, xenophobic, and violent content.
On August 10, he sent his mother a meme posted by Richard Spencer of a Black Charlottesville official in a net with the caption “it’s afraid.” The next day, when his mother told him to be careful, he sent her a photo of Hitler and said, “We’re not the ones who need to be careful.”
As he approached Charlottesville, he retweeted photos of the torch march and continued to tag Unite the Right organizers. He marched with Vanguard America, knowing what uniform to wear because he’d communicated with members prior to the event. And then drove his car into the crowd.
It’s clear that Fields was inspired by his co-defendants, understood that Unite the Right was intended to be a violent event, and did what he thought UTR organizers wanted from him. He didn’t need to wait long for his assumptions to be confirmed. Matthew Heimbach wrote Fields a letter calling him a martyr. Matthew Parrott proclaimed Fields was a Traditionalist Worker Party member for life. Michael Tubbs tweeted that Fields did nothing wrong. Jason Kessler tweeted that Heather Heyer was a communist and that her death was “payback time.” A leader of Vanguard America tweeted “commies died. That’s good enough for me.”
Gut Wrenching Plaintiff Testimony
Marcus Martin and Marissa Blair at the memorial for Heather Heyer
Six of our incredible plaintiffs testified this week, recounting the traumatic events of August 11 and 12 that upended their lives. It’s impossible to give each of the plaintiffs their proper due -- we could write volumes about how much we admire them. But here’s a brief recap:
- Plaintiffs Marcus Martin and Marissa Blair were engaged to be married when they attended the counterprotest of Unite the Right with a small group of friends that included Heather Heyer. After seeing the torch march on TV the night before, Marissa knew she needed to peacefully “stand up for the people of Charlottesville.”
They joined a jubilant crowd of counterprotesters, and Marissa lifted her phone to broadcast the festive scene on Facebook. Then James Fields accelerated his car into the crowd. Marcus pushed Marissa out of the way, likely saving her life -- but he was directly hit. Her phone continued to record as she screamed out his name, searching for him amidst the devastation; she testified that she saw his blood-stained baseball cap on the road.
At the hospital, they learned their close friend Heather was killed in the attack. Marcus’ leg and ankle were shattered, and to this day he can’t do activities he's always enjoyed, like playing basketball. He later found out he’d also suffered a brain injury. Marissa suffered physical injuries and still struggles with panic attacks, flashbacks, and a loss of concentration. The attack that took so much from them eventually unraveled their marriage. They both attribute their divorce to the fallout of August 12.
- Chelsea Alvarado testified she decided to drive from Richmond to Charlottesville on August 12 to “stand up for what I believe Virginia represents.” She met up with some friends and spent the morning among counterprotesters, playing a drum to the beat of their chants.
Like Marcus, she was directly hit in the car attack. The brain injury she suffered left her with speech issues and cognitive impairments that significantly impede her work. She suffers from PTSD and ongoing anxiety.
- April Muñiz counterprotested Unite the Right to “stand with the community, bear witness, and support local businesses.” She was among the celebratory crowd and narrowly missed being hit directly by James Fields -- but she saw the entire attack unfold. As Fields reversed, she ran. People were jumping over the injured to escape and she feared being trampled. Afterward, April was diagnosed with acute stress disorder and PTSD. She had a job where she managed 25 people but, after missing work, she was demoted, and eventually lost her job. “I don’t think I’ll ever get back to my old self,” she testified. “I’ve learned to manage being my new self, a different person.”
- Reverend Seth Wispelwey recounted the ‘mountaintop experience’ of the church service held the night before the rally for members of the Charlottesville community -- the freedom songs, the uplifting sermons -- and then how it all came crashing down when congregants learned that neo-Nazis with torches were marching outside the church. Not knowing where they were marching or what their intentions were, he helped evacuate people out of the back of the church. His seven-year-old daughter cried hysterically in fear. “I can only describe it as a panic attack,” he testified.
The next day Seth was peacefully linking arms with fellow clergy when he heard someone yell, “Kill the fa**ot priests.” A column of white supremacists barrelled through the clergy, knocking Seth to the ground. Later, the group of clergy was notified of a car crash, and raced to assist the victims. Seth arrived at a scene of utter devastation. The events left him with acute stress disorder, PTSD, and other symptoms that impact his ability to work.
- Liz Sines was a UVA law student during Unite the Right. She testified that she saw other students completely surrounded by neo-Nazis, being beaten and punched. Afterward, she saw Richard Spencer declare to the neo-Nazi tiki torch marchers, “we have claimed a historic victory" and "these are our streets."
The next day, she was peacefully marching with other counterprotesters, chanting and singing, when James Fields accelerated into the crowd. She testified that she heard it before she saw it -- a sound she described as a metal baseball bat being dragged across a wooden fence. She narrowly avoided being hit herself and had to weave through injured people to get to safety. The trauma left her with insomnia, panic attacks, depression, and PTSD. “I’m here because of the harm done to me on August 11 and August 12,” she testified. “I want those who harmed me to be held accountable.”
What To Read
- Vice News: This Couple Survived the Unite the Right Car Attack. The Trauma Tore Them Apart.
- Boston Globe: In Charlottesville, a civil trial against white supremacists gives a nightmarish view of a deadly car attack — and the racist ideologies that fueled it
- AP: Woman recalls ‘complete terror’ of Charlottesville car attack
- Slate: Why the Nazis Are Treating Their Trial in Charlottesville Like a Joke
- HuffPost: Takeaways From The 'Unite The Right' Trial In Charlottesville So Far
Monday will begin with defendant Jeff Schoep back on the stand. The defendants will start presenting their case Monday, but our plaintiffs’ case remains open ahead of testimony from defendants Jason Kessler and Christopher Cantwell.
We’ve seen over the course of this trial that these defendants and their supporters will use every opportunity to spread their extremist ideology. For us, this only affirms the urgency of holding them accountable and sending a clear message: there will be real consequences for violent hate.