In the aftermath of the “Unite the Right” rally in August 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, then-President Donald Trump stated that there were “very fine people on both sides,” and just last week the 2024 presidential candidate told right-wing website The National Pulse that immigrants were “poisoning the blood of our country”—a phrase that directly echoes rhetoric repeatedly used by Adolf Hitler in reference to Jews. Thus, it’s not difficult to see why, from the moment Trump was first elected to the country’s highest office in 2016, white nationalists have been emboldened to emerge from the shadows and, worse still, act.
Hate groups’ newly empowered attitude was epitomized by the “Unite the Right” gathering, in which scores of tiki torch-wielding white men marched through the city under the guise of protesting the removal of a General Robert E. Lee statue from a local park. Chanting “You will not replace us”—which soon morphed into “Jews will not replace us”—these individuals, all of them members or sympathizers of neo-Nazi organizations, loudly and proudly proclaimed their intolerant convictions for the entire world to see. On the second day of the two-day event, they put their violent rhetoric into practice when James Alex Fields Jr. purposely rammed his Dodge Challenger into a group of protesters, injuring 19 and killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.
Fields was subsequently sentenced to life behind bars, but the rest of those involved with “Unite the Right” evaded criminal prosecution. Not everyone, though, was content to let them off the hook.
Premiering Tuesday, Oct. 10 on HBO, Kristi Jacobson’s No Accident is a feature-length documentary about the efforts of lawyers and nine plaintiffs to hold the chief organizers and instigators of the rally responsible for their abhorrent actions. As a civil prosecution, none of the defendants were threatened with incarceration. However, they did face potentially enormous financial penalties that could bankrupt them and their organizations. Moreover, as lead prosecutor Roberta “Robbie” Kaplan makes clear, there was a second goal behind the lawsuit: to expose who these people are, what they believe, and what they are willing to do in the name of that cause.
No Accident is an extension of that latter objective, detailing the way in which alt-right celebrity Richard Spencer, Unite the Right organizer Jason Kessler, Traditional Worker Party head Matthew Heimbach, and podcaster Christopher Cantwell—as well as their accomplices and groups—put the event together, as well as the motives and intentions that drove them. To Kaplan and her legal partner Karen Dunn, “Unite the Right” was the byproduct of a tech-enabled scheme carried out via texts, emails, and message-board posts on Discord. As such, their legal claim was that these various players had violated both the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 and a similar Virginia state statute that outlawed private actors from conspiring to commit racially motivated violence against minorities and their supporters.
There was no doubt that those who arranged and attended “Unite the Right” held intolerant views against Jews, Blacks, gays and non-white immigrants, but proving beyond a reasonable doubt that they had deliberately staged the meeting in order to violently attack their enemies was another story. No Accident charts Kaplan, Dunn and her colleagues (including Michael Bloch, a Jewish litigator whose family successfully fled the Holocaust) as they attempt to build their case.
Key to that mission is acquiring the countless digital communiques between Spencer, Kessler, Cantwell and their ilk, and then sifting through it to present a clear and comprehensive portrait of their grand “battlefield” designs for Charlottesville, replete with numerous instances in which they outright said they wanted to goad antifa into showing up (as counter-protestors) so they could instigate a fight and claim self-defense.
Between the written messages and deposition videos presented in No Accident, it’s obvious that “Unite the Right” was meant to devolve into physical chaos, and the courtroom arguments made by Spencer and Cantwell (who served as their own attorneys) only underscore that what they really cared—and still care—about is broadcasting their vile ideology to recruit and to encourage others to commit violence in its name. The white nationalists’ legal defenses are pitiful to the point of being laughable, especially since they’re countered by their own assertions. Yet as with Trump and his common habit of saying something ugly on the record and then denying it the following day, their point was to brazenly dare the system to hold them accountable.
That it did, thanks in part to Spencer’s own words. In what amounts to a smoking gun, an Aug. 12, 2017, audio recording (made hours after Heyer’s death) lays bare his true feelings and aims for the rally. “I am so fucking mad at these people!” Spencer screams. “They don’t do this to fucking me. We’re going to fucking ritualistically humiliate them. This is never over. I win. They fucking lose. That’s how the world fucking works. Little fucking kikes. Little fucking octoroons. My fucking ancestors fucking enslaved those pieces of fucking shit. I rule the fucking world. Those pieces of shit get ruled by people like me. They look up, and see a face like mine, looking down at them. That’s how the fucking world works. We are gonna destroy this fucking town!”
Spencer’s tirade isn’t shocking in terms of content; there’s no universe in which neo-Nazis are peaceful, so his fury and wish for carnage is to be expected. But it is stunning that he foolishly allowed it to be saved for posterity. As Dunn states in No Accident, contending with Spencer and his compatriots in court was akin to dealing with angry teenage boys with a virulent grudge against those not like them. Deborah Lipstadt appears briefly to explain the underlying antisemitism of white nationalists’ worldview (with Jews as the puppet masters orchestrating white people’s eradication), while snapshots of the lawsuit’s plaintiffs—including Natalie Romero, Elizabeth Sines and Heather Heyer’s close friend Marissa Blair—demonstrate the courage required to take a public stand against this corrosive movement.
That things legally worked out (to some extent) allows No Accident to end on a relatively happy note. Nonetheless, with such individuals still in our midst, and still supported by a former commander-in-chief who has no qualms about stoking their Third Reich-style rage for his own anti-democratic ends, Jacobson’s documentary resounds as merely a small victory in an ongoing war.