Four Years After Deadly Rally, Charlottesville Nazis Are Headed to Court
A sprawling lawsuit has haunted organizers of the Unite the Right rally for years. It’s finally going before a jury.
In the four years since Charlottesville, Virginia residents filed a sprawling lawsuit against some of the nation’s most prominent white supremacists, two of those defendants have gone missing. Others have served jail time, paid hefty sanctions, or seen their far-right groups dissolved under pressure of the lawsuit.
On Monday, the case is finally going to trial.
The case, Sines v. Kessler, takes aim at the organizers of Unite the Right, the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The two-day rally began with a torchlit march, during which white supremacists assaulted counter-demonstrators, and concluded with neo-Nazi James Fields Jr. driving his car into a crowd of protesters, murdering one and injuring dozens more. Survivors of the attacks were left with lasting injuries and emotional distress. Sines v. Kessler, which represents nine survivors, argues that event organizers planned for violence. And after four years of dramatic pre-trial developments, the plaintiffs are finally going to make their case.
In summer 2017, Unite the Right was billed as a coming-out moment for the then-ascendant alt-right movement. Comprised of internet-savvy fascists, the alt-right movement was riding high off Donald Trump’s 2016 election and hoped to march publicly with other, older white supremacist movements like the neo-Confederate League of the South or the National Socialist Movement.
For months leading up to the rally, alt-right organizers planned the event in texts and on the messaging platform Discord. Some of those communications, which were obtained via the Sines v. Kessler discovery process, appear to show plans for violence, plaintiffs allege.
“We’re raising an army my liege,” Unite the Right organizer Jason Kessler messaged white supremacist Richard Spencer before the event. “For free speech, but the cracking of skulls if it comes to it.”
Elsewhere in event-planning chats, Unite the Right marchers openly pined for violence and posted about hitting counter-demonstrators with cars. The release of those chat logs (some by activists and some via Sines v. Kessler) drove rifts through the alt-right movement, which was already scrambling after the disastrous rally. Some Sines v. Kessler discovery documents, for example, revealed contact information for Kessler’s collaborators. Others revealed Unite The Right organizers’ contempt for each other.
“After c ville, we need to drop him,” Spencer wrote of Kessler in a text to another rally organizer, Elliot Kline. The message was revealed in the Sines v. Kessler discovery process. “He’s just stupid and weird.”
“Spencer has been nothing but hostile to me since I’ve known him and he tried to his best to feed me to the media wolves [sic],” Kessler told followers in messages that also appeared in court records. “Not someone I would ever trust again.”
Sometimes the post-Charlottesville breakups affected entire white supremacist organizations. Multiple organizations named as defendants in Sines v. Kessler dissolved after the deadly rally. Fields, the neo-Nazi who murdered a counter-demonstrator with his car, marched in Charlottesville alongside the group Vanguard America. Facing intense scrutiny after the killing, Vanguard America disbanded, with members going on to form the still-active group Patriot Front. Identity Evropa, a white-nationalist group that marched at the rally later rebranded as the “American Identity Movement” before dissolving again last year. The group Traditionalist Worker Party also fell apart less than a year after Unite the Right, but largely due to an intra-familial domestic violence incident. The Nationalist Front, a coalition of white supremacist groups, which is also listed as a Sines v. Kessler defendant, was similarly stunted, after many of its member organizations dissolved or withdrew from the alliance.
The lawsuit also took a financial toll on some of the movement’s leaders. A judge slapped multiple white-supremacist groups and individuals with sanctions after they failed to cooperate in the case. Vanguard America, for instance, was ordered to pay more than $16,000 for failing to turn over documents, while far-right leaders Matthew Heimbach and Elliot Kline were ordered to pay more than $12,000. (Integrity First for America, the nonprofit organization backing the lawsuit, has kept a running list of sanctions against defendants on its website.)
Kline’s lawsuit-induced legal woes went even further. He briefly served jail time for contempt of court in 2020, after he refused to produce court-ordered documents. (Other prominent defendants have been jailed for other offenses, not related to the lawsuit. Defendant Christopher Cantwell, a neo-Nazi who gained notoriety for crying after Unite the Right, is currently serving time for extortion after he threatened to assault a rival white supremacist’s wife.)
Rather than face their day in court, some other defendants have disappeared. One, Andrew Anglin, is AWOL after previously being ordered to pay $14 million in a separate lawsuit. (In that suit, Anglin was accused of leading an antisemitic campaign against a Jewish woman.) Fellow Sines v. Kessler defendant Robert “Azzmador” Ray has also gone on the lam. He currently faces an arrest warrant for contempt of court in the case.
Some of Sines v. Kessler’s more notorious defendants have managed to annoy their own lawyers. Multiple lawyers working on the case have dropped their neo-Nazi clients, citing unpaid legal bills or general lack of cooperation.
Azzmador’s attorneys gave up on him in 2020 after their one means of contacting the on-the-run client appeared to have failed. “Counsel had to request contact through an alternative means (an online Alt-Right comment area) and Mr. Ray would then call,” his attorneys wrote, adding that he hadn’t paid them for their services.
Christopher Cantwell’s lawyers, meanwhile, abandoned him after he made violent comments online about the plaintiff's lead attorney.
“Mr. Cantwell has rendered Attorney’s continued representation of him unreasonably difficult, has created a conflict of interest between himself and Attorney’s other clients, and has engaged in conduct Attorney’s consider ‘repugnant or imprudent,’” his former lawyers wrote.
Cantwell has since taken on his own defense, filing a flurry of motions this month, like one that attempted to bar an expert witness from talking about the Holocaust. Cantwell, who used to sell copies of Mein Kampf on his website, called the expert’s presence “irrelevant and inflammatory.”