Neo-Nazis Are Trying to Hijack the ‘Unite the Right’ Trial and Turn It Into a Horrible Podcast

At one point Monday, neo-Nazi trolls managed to take over the public access line to the trial, forcing the proceedings to stop.
November 9, 2021, 4:05pm
Demonstrators carry confederate and Nazi flags during the Unite the Right free speech rally at Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Virginia, USA on August 12, 2017.
Demonstrators carry confederate and Nazi flags during the Unite the Right free speech rally at Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Virginia, USA on August 12, 2017. (Photo by Emily Molli / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Virginia — If you’ve dialed the public-access line to listen to proceedings at the federal courthouse in Charlottesville in the last two weeks, you may have wondered if you’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere and stumbled onto a neo-Nazi podcast. 

This is, perhaps, an inevitable byproduct of trying to hold the more than two dozen white nationalist and neo-Nazi figures, plus their organizations, accountable for the violent Unite the Right rally that left one dead, many injured, and traumatized this small college town. 

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Sines v. Kessler, brought by nonprofit Integrity First for America on behalf of nine plaintiffs who were impacted by the violent events on August 11 and 12, 2017, is a massive civil suit that seeks to bankrupt a movement that prides itself on violence, trolling, racism, and antisemitism. 

At least one of the defendants—neo-Nazi shock jock Christopher Cantwell, who is representing himself pro se—has seized on any opportunity to hijack court proceedings and peddle his ideas. 

“I consider this a spoken-word performance, and I take this kind of thing seriously, especially once I found out people were going to be able to listen in,” Cantwell said on a podcast last week. “I thought this was a tremendous opportunity both because of the cause at hand, and because I knew the world was listening.” 

“I look like a star,” he added. At least one of his co-defendants appears to agree: Charlottesville white nationalist Jason Kessler took to Telegram to applaud the “epicness and boldness” of Cantwell’s opening statement (in which he dropped the N-word and name-checked Mein Kampf), describing it as a “free speech performance.” 

And the defendants' supporters have, unsurprisingly, formed far-right peanut galleries on Telegram to make vile comments about the plaintiffs and their lawyers (many of whom are Jewish), and cheer on the extremists standing trial. 

When the court recessed for lunch on Monday, a glitch allowed trolls to swarm the public-access line, delaying proceedings by 30 minutes while the clerk worked to figure out what was going on. At first, listeners who realized the “mute-all” function had been removed began saying things like “Make America Great Again'' and “Let’s Go Brandon” (an in-joke for conservatives who hate Joe Biden). One listener namechecked Cantwell’s podcast. Then came the racist slurs: one person said the N-word repeatedly, and another urged the rest of the people on the call to “read Siege,” a neo-Nazi manfiesto that’s been associated with violent accelerationist groups like Atomwaffen. 

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Over on the far-right Telegram channels, some listeners were thrilled about the troll party on the public-access line. Others were worried that people saying racial slurs could reflect poorly on the defendants “given that this entire case is based on taking edgy memes literally.” 

Last week, Kessler’s supporters launched a coordinated effort to call into the trial en masse, forcing it to its 500-capacity limit in an effort to exclude media and researchers from listening in. 

Meanwhile, plaintiffs have been delivering harrowing testimony about the emotional and physical injuries they suffered as a result of that weekend. On Monday, Marissa Blair testified about what it was like standing with the group of counterprotesters when a neo-Nazi plowed into the crowd, killing her friend Heather Heyer and injuring her fiancé. At one point her voice cracked as she recalled finding her fiancé’s baseball cap covered in blood, and not knowing where he was. 

Most of the other defendants (including Richard Spencer, who is also representing himself pro se) declined to cross-examine Blair. Cantwell couldn’t help himself. He made her rewatch the video of the moment a Dodge Challenger came barreling through the crowd of counterprotesters at an intersection. He also challenged her to identify particular details that the far-right have fixated on, such as the various colors of bandannas present among counterprotesters, or why several people were dressed like clowns.

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He was scolded several times by Judge Norman K. Moon, who agreed with the plaintiffs’ lawyers that his line of questioning veered into the realm of “badgering.” 

Last week when he questioned defendant Matthew Heimbach, head of the now-defunct neo-Nazi group Traditionalist Worker Party, he took it as an opportunity to riff with a like-minded individual about antisemitic memes, Nazi Germany, and more. “What’s your favorite Holocaust joke,” Cantwell asked Heimbach. There was a pause, and Heimbach laughed. Cantwell decided to withdraw the question. 

The fact that Cantwell and Spencer appear to have rather long leashes in court, and routinely seem to stray well beyond the facts of the case when questioning witnesses or delivering testimony without reprimand, isn’t unusual given that they’re representing themselves, explained Brian Levin, who heads the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. Judges tend to give pro se defendants a bit more flexibility. 

“While it may seem, and often is, that the defendants are using their appearances to platform bigotry and troll the court, they do so at their own legal risk,” said Levin. “Key to legal representation is client control, and while ideology is admissible in the case, an exposition of it in a particularly offensive way is going to leave a jury with a bad taste in their mouth as they attempt to digest a lot of information. No lawyer would advise them to discuss Holocaust jokes and other vile banter because it does nothing to help their defense.”

The trial is slated to last through November 19, though there’s some concern from both sides about their ability to make their cases and give the jury sufficient time to deliberate in such a short period.

Follow Tess Owen on Twitter.