Editor’s Note: This story contains language that some readers may find offensive.
A key federal defendant accused of conspiracy over the 2017 Unite the Right rally was forced this week to confront his own explicit calls for violence – and who should do the actual fighting – in the months before the deadly event unfolded in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Christopher Cantwell is among 25 defendants being sued for his role in the gathering that brought together far-right groups and racists for a weekend the main organizer had privately billed as “The Battle of Charlottesville.”
Cantwell, who’s known as the “crying Nazi,” has tried to make the case that the threat that weekend from counterprotesters, including far-left antifa activists who track White nationalists online and try to disrupt their rallies, justified the White nationalists’ acts of violence.
But on the stand, Cantwell had to listen to recordings of his own podcast, including one from January 2017 – some eight months before the deadly Charlottesville rally – in which he discussed Dylann Roof, who in 2015 murdered nine people at a Black church in South Carolina.
Roof “had no future” and so was “exactly the kind of person who should be committing acts of mass murder,” said Cantwell’s guest, a guy from the neo-Nazi gossip blog The Daily Stormer. Cantwell agreed: “Not everyone’s going to be a professional propagandist, shall we say. Some of us got to be fucking cannon fodder for the race war.”
Plaintiffs in the Charlottesville suit argue the chaos that erupted there was intentional and planned by the defendants in a conspiracy to commit racially motivated violence. They have presented thousands of pages of evidence – private messages, podcasts, chat logs, even an ex-girlfriend’s testimony – detailing how the alt-right anticipated violence and how they approached the critical issue of who among them could be counted on to enact it.
What has become clear over three weeks of trial is that, for all their talk of brotherhood and unifying the White race, some in the White power movement expected others to carry out violence for the sake of their cause and considered those people disposable.
It is perhaps not surprising that a movement that dehumanizes large groups of people would treat its own members with casual cruelty. Still, it’s one reason they’re turning on each other with spectacular bitterness in court.
‘Optics’: Friendlier packaging of White supremacy
So, who exactly was to be that “cannon fodder?”
The Charlottesville organizers have long said they didn’t know James Alex Fields, who murdered Heather Heyer with his car in the chaos after the Unite the Right rally, and that the violence wasn’t their fault. But their private communications unearthed by the plaintiffs reveal the White nationalists apparently anticipated violence in Charlottesville, even as they framed it among themselves as “self-defense.”
The White power movement has long been divided by class, a phenomenon its members call “boots vs suits.” By 2015, it was also divided along generational lines, which White nationalists referred to as “White Nationalism 1.0” versus “White Nationalism 2.0.”
The 1.0 version – associated with the Ku Klux Klan, skinheads, poor White Southerners and those less educated and with less internet illiteracy – was being pushed aside by the alt-right, which wanted to look younger, wealthier and better educated. “White Nationalism 1.0 was a sausage fest,” one teenage fascist told me in 2016, using slang for a party that doesn’t have enough women. He said he aimed to change that. (He has not.)
Within White power, this debate is referred to as “optics.” The racist beliefs are largely the same, though the alt-right’s misogyny has stunned old-school neo-Nazis, they’ve told me.
Alt-right advocates have said – in interviews, private messages and public memes – they thought they could win over more people by looking clean cut and friendly and by saying racist stuff with ironic detachment, compared to skinheads, whose lack of subtlety they thought turned off the general public.
But as the evidence unfolding in the Charlottesville federal case – Sines v. Kessler – shows, behind the scenes, the new alt-right had the same affinity for violence: They might have wanted to look classier, but the point was the same.
In May 2017, in his first messages about Unite the Right, its main organizer, Jason Kessler, referred in a group chat to a huge brawl a month earlier between alt-right groups and antifascists, writing: “I think we need to have a battle of Berkeley situation in Charlottesville.”
During that scrum, Nathan Damigo, now also a defendant in the Charlottesville case, was caught on video punching a woman in the face. Damigo had founded Identity Evropa, which members told me was intended to look like a preppy, aspirational, White nationalist fraternity. Video of the punch became an alt-right meme, and it brought a surge in applications to Identity Evropa, or IE, according to conversations among members presented at the Charlottesville trial by plaintiffs, who are funded by the non-profit Integrity First for America.
This is what Kessler wanted to drum up, but with more groups – or, as he said in one a group chat for planning alt-right events, to “assemble every motherfucker you can.” Kessler wanted to bring together Damigo, Richard Spencer, the Proud Boys and a guy known as Based Stickman for beating people with a stick at a rally, and “fight this shit out,” according to messages he affirmed at trial were his.
He wanted the Charlottesville event “PUBLICIZED” so that antifa would show up. “They bring everything they’ve got and we do too,” Kessler said in the same chat.
In fact, Kessler was deeply invested in getting antifa to show up and fight the alt-right. He urged one White power group not to wear guns because it would be too much of a deterrent. “If you want a chance to crack some Antifa skulls in self-defense, don’t open carry. You will scare the shit out of them and they’ll just stand off to the side,” Kessler said in a June 2017 Charlottesville planning group chat presented at trial.
He advised more subtle weapons: “I recommend you bring picket signposts, shields and other self-defense implements which can be turned from a free speech tool to a self-defense weapon should things turn ugly.”
Again, in the same group chat, Kessler returned to optics: “Please do not open carry. We want to avoid that optic for both the media and Antifa. We ultimately don’t want to scare them from laying hands on us if they can’t stand our peaceful demonstration.”
“The alt-right is a dangerous movement. It feeds on the chaos energy of our unchecked racism bantz,” Kessler said in a chatroom in May 2017, closing with the slang for ironic online banter. “But in IRL (in real life) activism … you have to be more like a civil rights movement for whites.”
Kessler continued to say he was happy to fight without the jokes “to secure a future for my people.” He added: “This is war.”
When encouraging other White nationalists to post public messages that would goad antifa into fighting them, Kessler said in July in the Charlottesville planning group chat, “I want to talk shit but as the event organizer I can only do so much. People need to bullycide them into confronting the alt-right in Charlottesville.
‘We can’t depend on anyone outside … the hard right’
Kessler acknowledged during the trial that he delegated some Unite the Right planning to Matthew Heimbach, who led the Traditionalist Worker Party, a White power group that advertised itself as working-class. Heimbach is now a codefendant.
Kessler asked Heimbach to reach out to two skinhead gangs, the Hammerskins and Blood & Honour Social Club, Heimbach testified. Plaintiffs’ attorney Karen Dunn repeatedly asked Heimbach if he invited those groups because they were known for violence; he claimed it was to deter violence.
Heimbach testified that anti-fascist counterprotesters would be intimidated by the skinheads, that they “would be less likely to want to assault members of the Hammerskins than college students in white polos.” That was a reference to the white polos worn by members of Identity Evropa, whose collared-and-khaki uniform became infamous after Charlottesville.
Heimbach testified that he invited other groups to Unite the Right that were also more explicitly extreme or known for street fights, like the National Socialist Movement, whose members have been known to wear swastika armbands and brownshirt uniforms. The group is familiar with violence: In 2006, a member insulted another White power group at a Klan concert, sparking a brawl in which five National Socialist Movement members were beaten by almost 50 skinheads, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported; its 2009 anti-immigration demonstration in Riverside, California, caused a brawl.
Heimbach also said he invited Vanguard America, a fascist group. In July 2017, Heimbach texted Vanguard America’s leader about the National Front, or NF – an umbrella group that included his own Traditionalist Worker Party, Vanguard America, National Socialist Movement and the League of the South – saying, “We need plans. The NF has been charged with taking the ground early, so I need to talk to you and get our security leaders talking to one another.”
At trial, Dunn asked Heimbach about a July 2017 private message exchange between him and a person he testified was Vanguard America’s “security representative for Charlottesville.”
Less than a month ahead of the rally, they were anticipating counterprotesters would block their access to the event site, Emancipation Park, and that only the more explicitly extreme “hard right” groups could secure the site for Unite the Right.
Heimbach: “It’s really up to us. If we don’t take the park, it’s over before it began.”
Vanguard representative: “Exactly. And we can’t depend on anyone outside of, as Ike (Baker, of League of the South) described it, the hard right. I’m trying to get an official stance from IE right now. If they won’t assist, I want it on record.”
Dunn asked what that meant. “Identity Evropa and the Traditionalist Worker Party and other organizations had a fraught relationship that was also very much at odds with one another due to subcultural and class differences,” Heimbach said.
But did it mean “the hard right could be relied upon to be more violent or aggressive?” Dunn asked.
Heimbach again reframed it as a question of self-defense: “I would say the discipline and organization of groups such as myself were more reliable to ensure that there wouldn’t be violence. We were used to, unfortunately, being attacked by anti-fascists at demonstrations.”
Dunn asked again – “yes or no” – did it have something to do with violence? “Self-defense, yes,” Heimbach said.
Dunn: And you didn’t think IE would be willing to do that?
Heimbach: No, they were more the boat shoes, bougie types.
Black clothes hide blood
What the White nationalists wore – and what those outfits communicated – were clearly important.
In May 2017, Kessler texted Heimbach that he was concerned that a KKK rally planned for that July in Charlottesville “will hurt the overall pro white message,” and wondered if they could be convinced to come to Charlottesville “in plain clothes,” just as he’d asked the National Socialist Movement to do. Whatever his class differences with Identity Evropa, Heimbach indicated he saw the value in the optics-friendly preppy look. “Let’s set the dress code now, khakis and a polo,” he texted.
But Heimbach’s group was required to wear “head-to-toe black,” according to a detailed email sent to Traditionalist Worker Party members about uniform requirements for Charlottesville. When asked why those members wore black Dickies-brand work clothes, Heimbach testified, “because we are a working-class party, and that’s typical working-class attire for factory workers across America.”
Dunn then read from Heimbach’s August 2020 deposition:
Question: Isn’t it true that one of the reasons that you believed your members should wear all black is because black is a good color to hide blood?
Heimbach: Yes. If someone is injured, it isn’t a good look if they’re bleeding all over a white polo shirt.
Heimbach has repeatedly expressed frustration at his perception that alt-right leaders like Spencer and Identity Evropa were classist, complaining to me once that when the Traditionalist Worker Party did security at one of Spencer’s events in 2018 and its members got injured, Heimbach asked Spencer for some money to get his guys some health care. Heimbach said Spencer hung up the phone. I’ve asked Spencer about this, and he didn’t deny it. After this rally, Spencer quit speaking at colleges, saying, “Antifa is winning.”
At the Unite the Right trial, a lawyer for Kessler and Identity Evropa, James Kolenich, asked Heimbach if he considered them to be “hard right.” Heimbach said no. “Would your organization have relied on Identity Evropa or Kessler for physical defense at a public event?” He said no.
A few days before Unite the Right, the rally had lost its permit. Organizers planned to go to the same park anyway, according to testimony and interviews with CNN. In considering this tactic, Cantwell confirmed at trial that he texted Spencer, “I’m willing to risk a lot for our cause, including violence and incarceration, but I want to coordinate to make sure it’s worth it for our cause.” Spencer responded, “It’s worth it. At least to me.”
But Spencer did not do any of the fist-fighting. Before Charlottesville, Spencer was the most prominent figure associated with the alt-right, but he’d spent much of the previous years publishing books on scientific racism and going to conferences of older racist professors and lawyers like Kevin MacDonald and Sam Dickson.
Once the alt-right wave began to swell in 2015, Spencer became the subject of both fascination and ridicule within the movement for wearing fancy suits and speaking in a fancy way.
Spencer, who is representing himself at the Charlottesville trial, asked Heimbach what he’d thought of him back in 2017. Heimbach answered, “Kind of always viewed you as a bit of a dandy.”
Spencer asked, “There was a discussion during your testimony … about relying on people at this rally. Could you rely on me?” Heimbach said no.