Jason Kessler, a onetime gadfly conservative journalist and neo-Confederate activist who convened an array of violent white nationalist groups under the banner of the Unite the Right rally in 2017, took the witness stand in a federal courtroom in Charlottesville, Va. on Monday.
Plaintiffs' counsel confronted Kessler with a tranche of planning documents suggesting the Confederate monuments at the center of the rally were little more than a pretext for an effort to harness the energy from a series of confrontations with leftist counter-protesters that the organizers hoped would bring a violent, fascist movement intent on creating a white ethno-state into full bloom.
As Karen Dunn, a lead counsel for the plaintiffs, briskly walked Kessler through the evidence, he became increasingly combative, by turns defiant and evasive, while also lashing out at his co-defendants.
Kessler and neo-Nazi podcaster Christopher Cantwell were the final witnesses among two dozen defendants accused of conspiring to commit racially motivated violence in a lawsuit brought by the nonprofit Integrity First for America on behalf of nine people who physically injured or emotionally traumatized during the chaotic events on the weekend of Aug. 11-12, 2017 in Charlottesville.
Dunn showed Kessler a message he posted on a Discord server used by a number of alt-right leaders in which he cited an April 15, 2017 rally in Berkeley, Calif. -- dubbed the "Battle of Berkeley" -- as an inspiration. Nathan Damigo, a codefendant who founded Identity Evropa, had gained instant fame within the movement when a video of him punching a counter-protester went viral on social media.
"I think we need to have a Battle of Berkeley situation in Charlottesville," Kessler wrote. "Fight this shit out." Referring to "Antifa," the white nationalists' hated adversaries, Kessler added, "They bring everything they've got, and we do, too."
Other Discord posts presented by the plaintiffs showed Kessler privately referring to the Unite the Right rally as the "Battle of Charlottesville" and "East Coast Berkeley."
Adding to a tranche of evidence plaintiffs have presented about other defendants, the plaintiffs showed the jury a Discord post showing that Kessler recommended that rally attendees bring picket-signs posts, which, he said, "can be turned from a free speech tool to a self-defense weapon, if thing turn ugly."
Kessler's messaging in the chats on the Discord server used to plan the rally, as presented by the plaintiffs during his testimony on Monday, repeatedly promoted the idea that participants should do whatever they could do ensure a confrontation with leftist counter-protesters.
In one message, Kessler urged attendees to refrain from carrying firearms, explaining that he didn't want to scare counter-protesters and that he wanted to increase the odds of adversaries "laying hands on us."
"This is a common tactic that even Martin Luther King used — to put common people out front to be attacked," Kessler protested when Dunn confronted him with the message. Judge Norman K. Moon sustained a motion by Dunn to strike the statement.
In an exchange with another person on the server on June 8, 2017, Kessler was even more explicit about the tactic. When the other Discord user suggested that carrying firearms would diminish their opportunity "to beat down Antifa," Kessler responded: "100 percent agree…. If you want to crack some Antifa skulls in self-defense, don't open carry. You'll scare the shit out of them, and they'll just stand off to the side."
In other messages, Kessler discussed tactics for ensuring that counter-protesters showed up, including taunting them on social media, and even planting false information through a fake social media account indicating that Spencer would be at a Charlottesville bar in the hopes of provoking antiracist activists two months ahead of the rally.
In another Discord message, Kessler solicited white nationalist supporters to invite someone he called an "Antifa manlet" to Unite the Right, lamenting, "I want to talk shit, but as the event organizer I can only say so much. People need to bullycide them into attending."
During his testimony on Monday, Kessler attempted to downplay the comment.
"I was only horsing around," he said. "This was not a serious discussion."
Under questioning by Dunn, Kessler acknowledged that he directly invited several of the co-defendants. Kessler confirmed that he and Elliott Kline were the principal organizers and coordinators of Unite the Right and that they held weekly planning meetings. When Kline's name was mentioned, Kessler exclaimed, "He's a liar. He's a known liar."
The feud between the onetime allies is largely immaterial to the legal claims against the defendants; it revolves around Kessler's belief that Kline and other alt-right leaders conspired to wrest control of the rally away from him.
Kessler's language about "cracking of skulls" turned up in a text exchange confirming Richard Spencer's participation in the rally.
"We are raising an army, my liege, for free speech but the cracking of skulls if it comes to it," Kessler wrote to Spencer, the most prominent figure among the planned speakers for the event.
Kessler went out of his way to implicate Spencer during his testimony on Monday. Throughout the trial, Spencer has attempted to portray himself as a public figure who was detached from the nitty-gritty day-to-day organizing leading up to the event. But Kessler testified that Spencer "participated" in the Discord server used to plan Unite the Right through "his designees," naming Kline and two other men.
During the trial, the two men have made no secret of their intense dislike for one another. On Monday, Kessler denounced his co-defendant as a "sociopath" and assured the court that a rage-filled rant filled with racist and anti-Semitic slurs was "the real Richard Spencer."
Kessler testified that he personally reached out to Matthew Heimbach and David Matthew Parrott, the co-directors of the Traditionalist Worker Party. He frequently exchanged messages with Derrick Davis, a regional director for the group. Kessler testified that he invited Cantwell to join the Discord server.
He also directly reached out to three other leaders who were part of a hardline coalition known as the Nationalist Front, speaking by phone with Michael Hill, president of the League of the South, and Jeff Schoep, commander of the National Socialist Movement. Kessler also confirmed that he reached out to Dillon Hopper, who led Vanguard America, a fourth group in the Nationalist Front.
A subplot in Kessler's conspiracy theory surfaced when Dunn asked Kessler about his communications with Robert "Azzmador" Ray, a contributing writer for the neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer, which organized followers into so-called "book clubs."
"Mr. Ray is a scumbag and these people staged a mutiny to force me to have this guy be part of the event," Kessler testified.
Dunn suggested that the reason he relented and gave Ray a speaking slot was because he wanted to ensure that his followers came.
"But you wanted the Daily Stormers there," she said.
"I might have," Kessler conceded. "By the time I realized what this guy and his crew was about I wasn't so hot on it."
Whatever Kessler's stated misgivings about Ray at the time, video of the two interacting during the Unite the Right rally suggested a different picture. The video show Kessler bragging to Ray about breaking through a line of protesters that included Cornel West, a philosophy professor who joined clergy members in protesting the rally.
Ray can be heard in the video saluting Kessler for his role in organizing the rally.
"Everybody give a big hail victory to Jason Kessler," Ray said.
In another video from the Aug. 12 rally, Kessler can be heard expressing enthusiasm about Ray.
"Azzmador's going to give a hell of a speech," he says. "We're moving out of the online space, which we already dominate…. We're going to take over the real world."
Azzmador, in turn, enthuses: "This is what happens when you truly unite the right."
During his testimony on Monday, Kessler downplayed his responsibility for an Aug. 11 march on the University of Virginia campus when torch-bearing white nationalists surrounded a small group of counter-protesters at the Thomas Jefferson statue, yelled racial slurs at them and flung lit torches at their feet. During his testimony later on Monday, Cantwell acknowledged that he pepper-sprayed two counter-protesters, and he testified that he saw himself in a video "beating the shit" out of a third counter-protester.
Dunn homed in on Kessler's previous testimony during deposition that he did everything in his power to stop the torch march once he saw the counter-protesters surrounding the Jefferson statue.
Dunn asked Kessler if his efforts to prevent the attack included "heading it off."
"That was not in my power," Kessler said. "I put up my hands and said, 'Stop!' There was another guy named Eli Kline with a megaphone."
But asked specifically if it was his idea to do a torch march at the Thomas Jefferson statue, in which he did not inform campus law enforcement until a couple hours beforehand, Kessler testified, "I don't deny it was my plan originally."
Kessler claimed that his reason for trying to avoid a confrontation is that he saw guns on the counter-protesters.
"At that point, I'd seen Antifa with firearms they're not supposed to have on campus," he blurted out. "I'd seen them with mace. I saw big, tattooed people giving me the middle finger. At that point, I tried to get away from the situation because that wasn't a good situation."
No evidence has been presented to support Kessler's claim that the counter-protesters were armed, and Dunn showed Kessler his earlier testimony in deposition in which he made no mention of seeing counter-protesters with guns. Kessler eventually admitted that he wasn't certain he saw any guns.
"I know they did have firearms," he testified. "I could be mistaken about whether I saw it that night."