Newly unsealed court documents reveal that the FBI launched a wide-ranging investigation into both sides of the fatal 2017 Charlottesville rally, searching electronic records of white supremacists and left-wing antifascist activists.
The targets of the searches included rally organizer Jason Kessler and three antifascist activists the FBI believed were allegedly involved in an attack on an elderly Unite the Right marcher.
Kessler was one of the organizers of the Aug. 12, 2017, “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, which became the scene of violence between white supremacist groups and counterprotesters. White supremacist rally-goer James Alex Fields drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters after the white supremacist groups were driven out of Charlottesville, killing 32-year-old activist Heather Heyer. Fields is serving multiple life sentences on murder and hate crime charges.
In August 2017, Unicorn Riot, a self-described alternative media website that publishes private leaked documents from far-right groups, released the internal communications of many of the Unite the Right leaders, including Kessler, from the chat app Discord. The Unicorn Riot document dump sparked a law enforcement investigation into whether Kessler and “other individuals associated with white supremacists groups” were aware of the potential for violence and incited others to riot.
According to the logs, Kessler allegedly encouraged Unite the Right participants to not bring guns because he thought being armed would deter physical confrontation. “We ultimately don’t want to scare them from laying hands on us if they can’t stand our peaceful demonstrations,” Kessler wrote, according to the FBI affidavit.
After reviewing the leaked records, the FBI’s search warrant requested original copies from Discord to build a potential criminal case against Kessler on rioting charges, which can carry a prison sentence of five years.
In the leadup to the rally, Kessler purportedly posted on Discord about the possibility of rioting, writing, “But if we are forced into a street brawl...fight them with honor, stay within reasonable bounds of the law and whoop that Commie, anti-white ass all over God’s green Earth.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Western District of Virginia declined to comment on the specific search warrants or whether the FBI is still investigating Kessler.
Kessler did not respond to a request for comment.
So far, Kessler has not faced any criminal charges over Unite the Right. The search warrant filed on Kessler requested “all information described as...violations of 18 U.S.C. [U.S. Code] 249” — a hate crime charge. However, the number “249” was stricken by pen in the search warrant application, and replaced in handwriting with “2101,” indicating the federal charge for inciting a riot. Authorities may face an uphill battle in using the Anti-Riot Act to charge anyone else connected to the Charlottesville rally. In June, a federal judge dismissed charges against three white supremacists over their participation in violence at Unite the Right, ruling that the Anti-Riot Act is “unconstitutional overboard.” The Justice Department’s appeal is still pending.
The FBI was able to obtain copies of Kessler’s records from Discord due to an IT error. The affidavit noted that Discord inadvertently kept backups of deleted user data as a redundancy, meaning they were still available for the search warrant when the FBI requested the data. In an April 2018 call with the FBI, Discord’s general counsel stated that they had a ‘snapshot’ of user data from August 2017. As the search warrant notes, “due to an internal oversight, some information that is deleted by users was retained.”
The FBI’s post-Charlottesville investigations weren’t limited to the white supremacists. The FBI also obtained phone data belonging to an antifascist activist as part of an investigation into the activist and two of her fellow counter-protesters, according to one warrant. In a March 2019 search warrant application for the data, an FBI agent laid out his suspicions that the three counter-protesters were involved in violence surrounding the rally.
The FBI requested data for an AT&T number in Virginia, citing a YouTube video taken at the rally of a helmeted woman attacking a man dressed as a Unite the Right activist while two other left-wing activists blocked anyone from stopping the assault. In the request, the FBI revealed that it also had a search warrant for a Facebook account related to planning the antifascist response to Unite the Right.
“We need the goon squad,” the account’s owner wrote, according the affidavit, adding, “cville.”
None of the three activists appears to have been charged with a federal crime related to Charlottesville.