Charlottesville trial takes a strange turn as Nazi leader complains violence at rallies 'made me look bad'
Richard Spencer (YouTube/screen grab)

Cross-examining Richard Spencer on Friday as the conspiracy trial against the organizers of the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally concluded its second week, fellow defendant Christopher Cantwell sought to turn the triumph of their antifascist opposition into a legal argument for their defense.

Cantwell attempted to capitalize on the antifascist movement's success in forcing Spencer, the one-time figurehead of the alt-right, to suspend his "Danger Zone Tour" of college campuses as a legal strategy to minimize the defendants' liability for the violence at Unite the Right.

"I did appear on college campuses, I believe twice after that," Spencer testified. "Particularly the last event, it seemed like scuffles outside the event were overshadowing the event itself. At the last one I was not able to speak."

Cantwell asked Spencer about a video he made announcing the suspension of the tour following his appearance at Michigan State University in March 2018.

"Did you state that Antifa was winning because they were willing to go further than anyone else?" Cantwell asked.

"They had successfully escalated to a point where it's not about a speech and it's not about Richard Spencer talking about his views," Spencer testified. "It's about let's get into a fight…. It made me look bad, for lack of a better term. I started having a sick feeling where it wasn't leading to anywhere good."

The plaintiffs' counsel is intent on keeping the focus on their clients, nonviolent counter-protesters who were physically and emotionally injured in the violence at the Unite the Right rally, and attempted to keep Spencer's testimony about violence by "Antifa" out of the trial.

Lawyer Michael Bloch objected to Cantwell's line of questioning about Spencer's speaking tour following Unite the Right, but he was overruled by Judge Norman K. Moon, who noted that the plaintiffs had also asked Spencer about events that took place after Unite the Right.

"Wasn't violence your desired outcome?" Cantwell asked, mocking the plaintiffs' questioning of Spencer during direct examination.

While the purpose of Cantwell's cross-examination was to undercut the plaintiffs' evidence that the defendants had violent intentions, it also served to highlight the fissures in the alt-right movement that led to its unraveling and were successfully leveraged by antifascist counter-protesters in late 2017 and early 2018.

"Did you desire to make the alt-right a mainstream movement?" Cantwell asked Spencer.

"Absolutely," Spencer responded. "That was one of my fundamental goal."

In response to Cantwell's next question, Spencer said that he did not think that "violent crime would be a good way to take the alt-right mainstream."

"If you wanted your mainstream political movement, why were you encouraging your supporters to engage in racially motivated violence?" Cantwell asked rhetorically.

While Spencer had concluded that the optics of brawls with antifascists was not conducive to his goal of mainstreaming white nationalism by the spring of 2018, the plaintiffs had previously offered compelling evidence that glorification of violence was an essential component of his political project. But the violence embraced by Spencer had a more triumphal cast than the chaotic scenes that transpired at Michigan State.

In a podcast in April 2017, Spencer described the footage of co-defendant Nathan Damigo punching a counter-protester in Berkeley, Calif. as "quite beautiful." In the same month, Spencer criticized humanitarianism as a basis for war, arguing, "The right reasons to go to war is because you want to dominate someone, you want to take their territory, you want to take their women." And two months after Unite the Right, Spencer described the alt-right as shifting from a "meme war" in 2016 to an "IRL war" — or, in real life — in 2017.

The jury also heard testimony on Friday from Michael Hill, the 69-year-old leader of the League of the South, a group that advocates for the creation of a whites-only homeland in the US South. Hill testified that he was invited to speak at Unite the Right by local organizer Jason Kessler.

Prior to Unite the Right, the League was already part of a coalition of neo-Nazi groups called the Nationalist Front, described by League chief of operations Ike Baker as the "hard right" of the larger alt-right universe. The Nationalist Front also included the Traditionalist Worker Party, National Socialist Movement and Vanguard America, three other organizations that are also defendants in the lawsuit.

Hill's testimony on Friday established that the optics of confronting "Antifa" had become an essential part of the League's recruitment strategy by 2017.

The plaintiffs introduced Hill's June 9, 2017 email to League members announcing their participation in the upcoming Unite the Right rally.

"I want an excellent turnout," Hill wrote. "BLM and antifa will be there to greet us. Don't miss out on the fun."

Understanding the plaintiffs are using the language in the email to try to prove that Hill and his organization welcomed and wanted violence as part of making their case that the defendants conspired to commit racially motivated violence, Hill shrewdly tried to deny the obvious implications of the message.

"When you were talking about fun, you were talking about mixing it up with the counter-protesters, isn't that right?" plaintiffs' counsel Alan Levine asked.

"No, it isn't right," Hill responded.

Then, Levine showed Hill an email that he sent in September 2017, when the League was preparing for a follow-up rally in Shelbyville, Tenn. with its Nationalist Front allies.

"We wanted a public confrontation in Charlottesville for the world to see, and we got it," Hill wrote in 2017. He confirmed his authorship of the statement on Friday: "They're my words, sir, absolutely."

Finally, Hill acknowledged the strategy of confrontation.

"We wanted to have a political rally, to have opposition because it provides good optics," Hill testified.

Soon after the Shelbyville rally, the Nationalist Front coalition disbanded. Facing litigation and mounting opposition from antifascist counter-protesters, the League has retreated from public rallies since Unite the Right, instead opting for secret publicity stunts by promoting their message at hallowed civil rights landmarks such as the memorial to Emmet Till, the Black 14-year-old lynched by white men in 1955, and on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., where Alabama state troopers beat civil rights marchers during "Bloody Sunday" in 1965.

The nine plaintiffs in the Charlottesville lawsuit are all nonviolent counter-protesters.

Thomas Baker, a horticulturalist who testified on Friday, told the court he didn't know much "Antifa" when he joined other community members to counter-protest the Unite the Right rally on Aug. 12.

Natalie Romero, who, like Baker, was injured in defendant James Fields' car attack, told the court she only knew two or three fellow students when she linked arms with other counter-protesters around the Thomas Jefferson statue on the University of Virginia campus on the eve of the rally and was surrounded by a torch-wielding mob of white nationalists.

Like other plaintiffs, Devin Willis testified he was not a member of Antifa; as a member of the Black Student Alliance, he testified that he served as a liaison to other groups like Standing Up for Racial Justice to plan for a nonviolent counter-protest.

In contrast to Spencer, who in his testimony on Thursday denied being a white supremacist, Hill made no effort during his testimony to conceal his bigotry.

Levine asked Hill to read aloud from a "Pledge of Allegiance" that he published on the League of the South website in 2016.

"I pledge to be a white supremacist, a racist, an anti-Semite, an Islamophobe, a homophobe or any other sort of phobe that benefits my people," Hill read with defiance.

"I still hold the view," he confirmed on the stand. "I do not deny any of these views."

During cross-examination by his lawyer, Bryan Jones, Hill explained how the League of the South exploited controversy over Confederate monuments, such as the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, as a recruitment tactic in 2017.

"We went to defend monuments or statues or flags," Hill testified. "If there were public information given out that we were going, we knew that 'Antifa' or maybe Black Lives Matter would be there to oppose us. The purpose was to be seen publicly opposing our enemies because it helped us with recruiting."

Alongside the League's messaging about opposing "Antifa" and Black Lives Matter — stances that are broadly shared within mainstream conservatism — the organization is also open in expressing anti-Semitic and crudely racist viewpoints that would likely be considered a liability for the average Republican voter.

"If you want to defend the South and Western civilization from the Jew and his dark-skinned allies, be at Charlottesville on 12 August," Hill tweeted.

On Aug. 12, members of the League of the South, alongside allies from Traditionalist Worker Party and National Socialist Movement, used shields to smash through a line of counter-protesters as they marched in a column down East Market Street and into Emancipation Park.

"The shields were used to push through the crowd, to protect our people from objects that were being thrown at our people," Hill testified.

At one point, Levine challenged Hill: "You agree, don't you, that League members initiated some of that violence."

"Yes," Hill testified, "there were some League members that participated in violence that they initiated."

The plaintiffs played video for the jury showing three men surrounding a female counter-protester and shrieking at her. After Hill confirmed on the stand that the men were League of the South members, Levine said, "They pushed down a woman and when she got up, they maced her. Isn't that correct?"

"Yes, that's correct," Hill testified.