Dozens were injured and three people died as a result of the Unite the Right Rally on August 12, 2017. Four years later on November 24, 2021 a Jury found the rally’s organizers liable for Civil Conspiracy to violate Virginia Code 8.01-42.1, often referred to as Virginia’s hate crime law, awarding $25 million in damages. This verdict effectively bankrupts some of the most prominent members of the White Supremacy Movement (WSM). Defendants included main rally organizer Jason Kessler, alt-right leader Richard Spencer, car attack perpetrator James Fields Jr., along with several far right individuals and organizations like the Traditional Workers Party, Identity Evropa, and League of the South. The trial featured testimony from victims, experts on the WSM, and the defendants themselves. Additional evidence in the form of the Rally organizers’ chat logs and communications shed light on the ways the WSM co-opts mainline political and cultural issues like free speech and historical preservation as cover for recruitment and racially motivated violence.
The traditional narrative of the Unite the Right rally was that it was in service of preserving historical monuments of Confederate leaders. Media organizations that ran with the statue narrative or emphasized the actions of national political leaders in the aftermath provided legitimacy and deniability to the WSM. While a real topic of political controversy, for the rally organizers it served as cover to commit racially motivated violence. Expert testimony by Professors Kathleen Blee and Peter Simi, from the University of Pittsburgh and Chapman University respectively, shows that the WSM is organized to allow individuals and the movement itself to deny culpability for violence perpetrated on behalf of the movement. Drs. Blee and Simi describe so-called “front-stage” and “back-stage” behaviors among WSM followers. Front-stage and back-stage behavior is the difference between how group members espouse and communicate their views in public as opposed to private settings. Movement members use seemingly innocuous language in public settings to communicate violent intentions to others “in the know”. This behavior is what allowed the organizers to use WSM symbols, rituals, slogans and language to promote the rally while giving the public perception that the rally was about free speech and historical preservation.
This practice was exposed along with the WSM’s adoption of new-age communication platforms like Signal or Discord. Leaked chat logs show WSM leaders and rally organizers communicated publicly in double-speak, but spoke much more directly about their intentions in what they believed to be private channels. In one such leaked chat log from April 2017, former Identity Evropa leader Nathan Damigo stated “we don’t want to see the statue removed, but the truth is the rally was never about the Lee statue, it was about exploiting mainstream attention on the confederate statues and attracting people to the event.” After Unite the Right, Damigo went on to post “honestly this is a huge victory” before directing Patrick Casey to shut down the Discord and tell group members not to speak to the police. To emphasize the point, the statues in question seldom came up during the trial. To reiterate Mr. Damigo, the rally was never about the Lee statue.
Lost too, in the statue narrative, was the profound antisemitism at the heart of the rally organizers’ ideology. Dr. Deborah Lipstadt, an expert on anti-semitism, wrote in an expert report that “the ideology, symbols, and rhetoric that were on display at the Unite the Right rally fit comfortably within a long tradition of antisemitism and share in the tradition that led to the violent murders of millions of Jews in the Holocaust”. This was no exaggeration. Dr. Lipstadt’s report goes on to describe an official propaganda video released by Defendant organization the Traditional Workers Party that opened with “Genocide doesn’t always happen with guns and bombs, the European people are facing genocide … the international Jewish system, the capitalist system, and the forces of globalism want to destroy our people, they are doing this through mass immigration.” The video concluded by urging members to attend the Unite the Right rally and chant “we will not be replaced”.
Originally filed in October 2017, the lawsuit was plagued by procedural delays and malfeasance. The Court brought sanctions against several of the defendants for not complying with the discovery process. Defendants Elliot Kline and Robert Ray’s behavior was so egregious that The Court ruled the jury was to take as established that Kline and Ray entered into an agreement to engage in racially motivated violence at the Unite the Right rally, that the violence that followed was reasonably foreseeable, and that the defendants then ratified the racially motivated violence that occurred. The Court issued further sanctions against Messrs Ray and Kline, this time joined by Defendants Matthew Heimbach, Vanguard America and the Nationalist Socialist Movement for failing to comply with the discovery process after intentionally withholding and destroying documents and electronically stored information that they were required to provide to the Plaintiffs.
The Defendants’ behavior during the trial vacillated between obfuscatory and surreal. Defendant Eric Cantwell, representing himself, spent a substantial amount of time cross examining plaintiffs and witnesses about purported Antifa conspiracies in an attempt to claim self-defense. All this despite Judge Moon making clear that even if Defendants acted in part out of self-defense, this had little to do with the claims against them, stating in the final jury instructions “...if Plaintiffs prove that the alleged conspiracy was motivated, at least in part, by discriminatory racial animus, then it is no defense that Defendants also possessed some other motive, such as a desire to join together for mutual protection”.
Defendant Richard Spencer, also representing himself, used his closing arguments to claim that the lawsuit was an attempt to silence free speech because his views were unpopular. He went on to compare himself to a scapegoat and Jesus Christ, forcing Judge Moon to intervene. Mr. Spencer then argued with Judge Moon, stating that “you can’t cut me off for using poetry!” In the final jury instructions Judge Moon reminded the jury that “The fact that an agreement to engage in illegal conduct necessarily takes the form of words also does not confer upon it, or the underlying conduct, protection under the First Amendment.”
This trial brought to light the ways the WSM communicates and organizes internally, and how the movement co-opts mainstream political divisions to bring attention to itself for recruitment purposes. In that regard, Unite the Right was successful. Elements of the WSM received substantial media attention and were granted the space to espouse their views to a credulous audience while behind closed doors they conspired to bring violence to Charlottesville. The verdict goes some way toward disabling the WSM, but it will not resuscitate the dead nor will it truly make whole those that suffered as a result of the Defendants’ actions. Instead, perhaps the most important outcome of this trial was the light shed on how the WSM’s leaders simultaneously push their followers to violence while maximizing mainstream legitimacy.
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