- Sebastian Porreca
Sines V. Kessler: Putting Hate on Trial
On August 11 and 12 of 2017, white supremacists, neo-Nazis, Klansmen, and far right activists descended upon the quiet college town of Charlottesville, Virginia. The rally, called Unite the Right, was organized by Charlottesville native Jason Kessler to oppose the proposed removal of a large statue depicting the Confederate general Robert E. Lee, and was intended to draw together hundreds of disparate extreme right activists to create a united and coordinated extreme right movement.
Almost immediately, the rally descended into violence. On the night of August 11, white supremacists notoriously marched with Tiki torches spewing phrases such as “Jews will not replace us” and "blood and soil", before viciously attacking a small contingent of nearby counter protesters. The next day, Charlottesville descended into chaos as violent street brawls broke out between white supremacists armed with shields, clubs, mace, and combat gear, and the counter protesters who gathered to oppose them.
By the end of the day, a white supremacist, James Alex Fields, rammed his car into a group of counter protesters, killing a woman, Heather Heyer, and seriously injuring many more. Fields was convicted and received a life sentence plus 419 years in 2019. The events in Charlottesville provoked outrage against the far right nationwide. Furthermore, former President Donald Trump created controversy because he initially hesitating to condemn the white supremacist violence, claiming “you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides''
Finally, more than four years after the deadly rally, the organizers of the rally are being brought to trial in a massive civil court case, Sines V. Kessler. The trial began on Monday, October 25, and is seeing nine plaintiffs seek damages from two dozen defendants for injuries and the violation of their civil rights. In addition to seeking these damages under Virginia civil law, the plaintiffs also seek to show that the defendants violated the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act and engaged in conspiracy to violate the plaintiffs civil rights. The plaintiffs, represented by Karen Dunn and supported by the legal nonprofit Integrity First for America, are various members of the Charlottesville community who have suffered both severe physical injuries as well as mental and emotional trauma due to the events that unfolded at Unite the Right.
The defendants in the case are a who’s who of American neo-Nazis and white supremacists, and include groups such as Identity Evropa, the Traditionalist Workers Party, League of the South, and the National Socialist Movement, as well as individuals such as Richard Spencer, Andrew Anglin, Christopher Cantwell, and Nathan Damigo. Due in no small part to this trial and the public outrage following Unite the Right, many of these groups have gone extinct or ceased to organize, and many of the individuals are no longer influential in the American far right. To be clear, this is not the first trial related to the Unite the Right rally, but it is very significant in the fact that it is the first trial that seeks to widely prosecute the far right as a movement rather than as individual actors.
For example, a number of criminal trials have taken place in connection to attendees of Unite the Right. Most notably, five men from various extreme right groups were convicted for the brutal beating of a Black man, Deandre Harris. Several members of the neo-Nazi street fighting group Rise Above Movement, were also sentenced to prison time on riot charges after traveling from California to Charlottesville with the intent to cause violence. These trials were certainly important in bringing justice to those harmed by far right street violence, and have impacted individual groups and networks, but they widely have not impacted the extreme right movement as a whole.
The primary debate surrounding the trial is in regards to whether the organizers of Unite the Right planned the mass street violence that occurred that day. The plaintiffs deployed a massive trove of evidence, including text messages, social media posts, and leaked organizing chats from the activist media collective Unicorn Riot, to demonstrate their claim that the defendants anticipated and planned to use violence against leftist wing antifascist activists and community members who opposed them.
In damning testimony, a former white supremacist named Samantha Froelich (the former girlfriend of the notorious alt-right organizer and defendant Elliott “Eli Mosley '' Kline ) testified that numerous defendants frequently expressed genocidal racism and antisemitism. Froelich also testified, according to a tweet by Integrity First for America executive director Amy Spitalnick, that she overheard Unite the Right organizers discuss the legality of ramming cars into counter protesters at a party in the months leading up to the rally. The defendants on the other hand, claim that all this discussion of violence, and the vast stashes of shields, weapons, and body armor they brought to the event, were preemptive self defense against violent anti-fascist counter protesters. James Kolenich, an attorney representing defendants Jason Kessler and Nathan Damigo, said in his opening statement “[My clients] were planning for the possibility that Antifa would attack them, as had happened before.”
These concerns and claims of the defendants were reflected in the jury selection process, which drew controversy for its focus on perceptions of anti-White racism and attitudes toward antiracism. Other opening statements were much less carefully worded than those of Mr. Kolenich. Defendant Chris Cantwell, a notorious neo-Nazi from New Hampshire who is already serving a prison sentence for extortion and rape threats against a rival neo-Nazi, opted to defend himself in court, and delivered an unhinged rant that included racial slurs. Overall, as the trial has progressed, the prosecution has painted a wide picture of the American white supremacist movement and how it climaxed in the violence of Unite the Right.
On November 23, following four days of deliberation, the jury found the defendants liable under state law and awarded the plaintiffs over $25 million in damages. While the jury remained deadlocked over the federal conspiracy charges, the ruling was an overwhelming victory for the plaintiffs. The victory however is largely symbolic. Many of the Unite the Right organizers are, as previously mentioned, have already been financially drained from the trial, and several organizations listed among the defendants have disbanded. For this reason, it’s unclear how much of the money can actually be collected, but the significance of the verdict is far more important than the money.
The verdict also came only days after Kyle Rittenhouse was found not guilty of the 2020 killing of two antiracist protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, a verdict that was highly celebrated by the extreme right. The verdict of Sines V. Kessler overshadowed the Rittenhouse verdict in the eyes of the far right, and served to largely crush their newfound hope in the American legal system, demonstrating a renewed impact of the Sines V. Kessler trial on the far right’s morale and ability to organize.
Just as Unite the Right was a landmark event in the trajectory of the contemporary American extreme right, and so too is the trial a landmark event. It will ultimately set a legal precedent for lawsuits against violent extremists, and encourage future lawsuits against violent far right organizing. With the court's ruling in the prosecution's favor, the trial has the potential to open the floodgates for future legal action against extreme right networks that promote and cause violence in communities. It is important to remember that Unite the Right, despite its exceptional size and violence, was only one of many rallies, and dozens of violent far right events have taken place before and after. In light of the outcome of Sines V. Kessler, victims of these violent far right rallies across America will have the legal precedent to challenge far right groups and movements that organize them.
Even before the verdict, Sines V. Kessler has already shown itself to be hugely impactful in how it has sparked conversations and debates about how the court system interacts with the far right. However, as Natasha Lennard writes in her piece for The Intercept, the courts are not a long term solution in and of themselves to the encroaching threat of fascism and the extreme right. They are simply one tool to challenge it, and while a ruling against the white supremacist and neo-Nazi aligned defendants of Sines V. Kessler is absolutely a major precedent in using legal systems to fight the far right, there would still be major work needed by communities across the nation to prevent future extreme right violence.