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Christopher Cantwell, known as “the Crying Nazi,” turned the opening statement portion of the Sines v. Kessler trial into a racist open-mic session, in which he dropped the N-word and plugged his podcast.
Cantwell and 19 other white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and their various organizations are accused of conspiring to incite racially motivated violence at the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which left one person dead and dozens injured.
They’re being sued in a massive civil case brought by nonprofit Integrity First for America on behalf of nine survivors of that mid-August weekend four years ago,
Opening arguments for the case started Thursday with lawyers for the plaintiffs playing videos from that weekend featuring hundreds of white nationalists holding tiki torches as they marched across the University of Virginia campus chanting “Jews will not replace us.” The following day, Unite the Right rallygoers flooded downtown Charlottesville, bringing shields, mace, and other weapons.
Lead attorney Karen Dunn also read aloud stomach-churning antisemitic and racist statements made by the defendants online in the months and weeks running up to Unite the Right. “Our case is about the planning, execution, and celebration of racially motivated violence,” Dunn told the jury. “Many of the defendants wanted to build a white ethnostate—a country only for white people. And that could only occur after a violent race war.”
Roberta Kaplan, the plaintiff’s other lead attorney, introduced each of the plaintiffs and explained how they were physically injured and experienced severe psychological trauma due to the events in Charlottesville in August 2017.
In response, the defendants argued that there was a “giant chasm” between the rally they planned, and what actually happened. They also claimed that even though they say “reprehensible” things, ruling against them would undermine free speech. The defendants also casted blame on counter protesters and “antifa.”
Various defense attorneys also tried to shift blame from their clients onto the other individuals in the group.
Cantwell and white nationalist Richard Spencer are the only two defendants who are representing themselves in the case. On Thursday, both of them delivered long-winded speeches that often strayed from the facts of the case and resulted in interruptions from Judge Norman K. Moon.
Spencer has entered the courthouse everyday since Monday in a black trenchcoat and a black flat cap. On Thursday, he had a new accessory with him: Local activists said they saw him lining up to go through security with what appeared to be a stuffed dinosaur in his bag. (Cantwell later addressed it during his opening statements: “I know Richard has a stuffed animal in his bag,” he said.)
Spencer told jurors that this wasn’t about deciding to land “on the side of the angels, or on the side of the devil incarnate, bad old Richard Spencer and his Nazis.”
“This case is ultimately not about the scattered and often stupid ramblings of the alt-right,” said Spencer. “This case is about something very difficult in society….To defend someone you vehemently disagree with. Someone you find reprehensible.”
Other arguments pitched by defense relied heavily on the “both sides” narrative of the Unite the Right rally, which stems from infamous comments made by then-President Donald Trump that allocated equal blame to the white nationalists who came to Charlottesville and the counter protesters who rallied against them.
“These antifa and antifascists are a big part of this case,” asserted James Kolenich, who is representing white nationalists Jason Kessler (a resident of Charlottesville), Nathan Damigo (who founded Identity Evropa), and Identity Evropa (a now-defunct white nationalist organization). “Why is antifa a big part of this case? Because they don’t like Jason Kessler, they don’t like what they call fascists or nazis. OK, nobody likes fascists or nazis. But whether they’re likeable people is not legally relevant.”
Edward Rebrook, who has described himself as a “thrice-vaccinated Democrat,” is defending Jeff Schoep, the former “commander” of the National Socialist Movement, and the organization itself. He told the jury that they shouldn’t expect a moral defense of his clients in the weeks to come. “I think it would be a waste of your time and a waste of my time, to try to humanize people who have beliefs that most of us would spend our last breath opposing,” said Rebrook, as he asked the jury to “set aside the natural human desire for vengeance.”
But he was reprimanded by the judge on three occasions for “going beyond the facts of the case,” when Rebrook made ominous prophecies about what would happen were the jury to deliver a verdict in favor of the plaintiffs. He described his court opponents as “lawyers who came down here to whittle away the First Amendment.” He also quoted Brad Pitt from the movie Inglorious Bastards, stating, “He likes his nazis out in the open; he likes them in uniform that way you can identify them,” implying that this case could just force neo-Nazis further underground. “You must ask yourself, where will they be more dangerous?” he said.
Meanwhile, Cantwell name-checked Adolf Hitler’s manifesto Mein Kampf within the first minute of his opening statement, wondering aloud whether any of the jurors had had the “intellectual curiosity” to read it.
He described himself as a “professional entertainer,” “talented,” and “good-looking,” and reminded the jury that he once dabbled in stand-up comedy.
“You’ll hear us making a couple racist jokes, we’re sort of notorious for those things,” Cantwell said. “But what you won’t hear is a conspiracy to commit any crime.” He also dropped the n-word before mentioning his podcast several times by name, and at the end of his statement, read out the URL for his blog. “I hope you can all become diehard fans, and together we can save the country,” he told the jury. “Thank you for indulging me.”