CHARLOTTESVILLE, Virginia — Matthew Heimbach, the former neo-Nazi leader of the now-defunct Traditionalist Worker Party, took the witness stand in a federal courtroom on Tuesday to describe texts, phone calls and chats on the Discord gaming chat platform that he exchanged with other organizers in the runup to the violent Unite the Right rally in August 2017.
A leader of the "hard right" faction of the alt-right, Heimbach was one of the first two people approached by Jason Kessler, when he decided to organize the white nationalist gathering, along with Elliott Kline, a leader of the more optics-conscious Identity Evropa. Heimbach brought his own group, Traditionalist Worker Party, along with an array of hardline fascist groups already organized into an alliance known as the Nationalist Front, on board for the Aug. 12, 2017 rally in Charlottesville. One of those groups, Vanguard America, attracted a young man from Ohio named James Fields, who marched in uniform with the group and carried a shield bearing its emblem before speeding his Dodge Challenger into a peaceful group of antiracist marchers and murdering Heather Heyer.
Heimbach took the stand as a witness for the plaintiffs, who were injured during the chaotic weekend of Unite the Right and whose lawsuit seeks to prove that defendants conspired to commit racially motivated violence. Heimbach is also a defendant in the lawsuit.
Late in the day on Tuesday, the court proceedings yielded the surreal scene of Richard Spencer, the one-time figurehead of the alt-right who is representing himself at trial, cross-examining Heimbach his fellow defendant. The two men were rivals, and as Heimbach repeatedly pointed out, represented different class and cultural constituencies in the larger white nationalist movement.
"Do you want me there," Spencer said at one point, speaking in the present tense to inquire whether Heimbach wanted him to show up for Unite the Right.
"Going to Charlottesville was primarily going to be a big platform for our message," Heimbach recalled. "Yeah, I was hoping you'd be there. I was hoping my speech would be better."
The civil conspiracy case against the already fractured leadership of the alt-right movement puts them in the awkward position of emphasizing their differences as a legal strategy to defend themselves against the plaintiffs' claims. But by presenting recovered texts, chats, video and other evidence, plaintiffs' counsel Karen Dunn demonstrated that Heimbach helped make critical connections among the various constituent organizations involved with Unite the Right.
Heimbach admitted on the stand that Kessler asked him to reach out to two racist skinhead groups, Hammerskins and the Blood & Honour Social Club, whom Heimbach described as "rough and tumble." Due to their reputations, Heimbach testified, the skinhead groups would have a "deterrent effect" against antifascists who could be expected to oppose the rally. Heimbach testified that he contacted the skinhead groups at Kessler's request, and they showed up at a strip mall on the outskirts of Charlottesville and car-pooled with other Nationalist Front groups to a downtown parking garage for the Aug. 12 rally.
Dunn presented Discord chats showing Dillon Hopper, the former leader of Vanguard America, asking Heimbach if his group could participate in Unite the Right.
Heimbach responded, "LOL it wouldn't be a party without you and your boys."
Another exchange between the two men strengthens the plaintiffs' conspiracy claims, and also illustrates the underlying goal of the rally beyond the superficial purpose of protesting the removal of Confederate monuments in Charlottesville. It was called "Unite the Right," after all.
"We have 90 percent of the real activists," Heimbach told Hopper in one of the Discord chats entered into evidence.
"Now, all we need is Spencer and Damigo," Hopper replied, referencing Richard Spencer and Nathan Damigo, the founder of Identity Evropa.
"Well, this is where Charlottesville comes in," Heimbach responded. "We're all doing it together."
The plaintiffs also introduced evidence that Heimbach established the dress code for Unite the Right, although it didn't apply to his own group.
The court introduced a text from Kessler to Heimbach in which Kessler noted that the Ku Klux Klan planned to hold a rally in Charlottesville in July, but Kessler feared that the Klans' image would hurt the white nationalists cause. Kessler suggested as an alternative that the Klan should be invited to attend Unite the Right, but told to come in plain clothes. The North Carolina-based Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan wound up holding its own rally in Charlottesville on July 8 over Kessler's objections.
Heimbach responded to Kessler: "Let's set the dress code now: Khakis and polos."
But members of Traditionalist Worker Party wore their customary Dickies black work pants and black shirts. Under questioning from Dunn, Heimbach acknowledged that one of the reasons for wearing black clothing was, "Yes, if someone is injured it isn't a good look for someone to bleed all over a white polo shirt."
Heimbach's testimony also included extensive discussion of chats that showed Traditionalist Worker Party members and their allies discussing efforts to prepare for the rally by procuring shields. Although Heimbach insisted on the stand that the shields were for defensive purposes, the plaintiffs introduced a Discord chat in which an individual with the screen name "Heinz – MI" responds to Heimbach's announcement that Traditionalist Worker Party has shields by advising, "If we are planning on doing a shield wall, I suggest learning how to actually fight in a shield wall."
Dunn also presented photos shared on Discord by Traditionalist Worker Party member Derrick Davis that showed shields with nails protruding on the outside, which another member praised as "some good kike bashing shields." Heimbach testified that he did not believe the shields were actually used in Charlottesville.
As video presented to the jury showed, the Traditionalist Worker Party members and their allies did in fact use their shields as weapons.
Heimbach and his allies in the Nationalist Front considered themselves the more hardened street fighters in the fragile alt-right coalition. Heimbach testified that Robert Isaacs aka "Ike Baker," the security officer for League of the South, had dubbed the coalition the "hard right." The plaintiffs presented a July 24 Discord chat in which a user with the screenname "RCO Nick" wrote: "As you're probably already aware, we may have to remove commies from Lee Park. It's going to be up to Vanguard, TWP, League of the South, Stormers and unaffiliated allies."
Heimbach testified that based on the context he assumed "RCO Nick was the Vanguard America's designated security officer for Charlottesville. "RCO Nick" went on to say: "We can't depend on anyone outside the hard right."
The chats show "RCO Nick" saying he wanted an "official stance from IE," referring to Identity Evropa, on what contributions they would make to security for Unite the Right.
"Identity Evropa and Traditionalist Worker Party had a very fraught relationship, based on differences of culture and class," Heimbach testified. "It was our opinion at the time that they fundamentally could not be relied upon for anything."
Vanguard America wound up withdrawing from the Nationalist Front due a leadership change, Heimbach testified, but members still attended Unite the Right under the command of Hopper's successor, Thomas Rousseau.
On the morning of Aug. 12, the Nationalist Front groups — which included Traditionalist Worker Party, League of the South, National Socialist Movement, Hammerskins and Blood & Honour Social Club met at JoAnn Fabrics in Charlottesville and then carpooled to the Market Street Parking Garage. A photo presented into evidence shows Heimbach marching on the front line alongside Michael Hill and Michael Tubbs, respectively the president and chief of staff of the League of the South. Members of the two groups were mixed together as the group advanced towards Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park).
Video presented by the plaintiffs showed Heimbach blithely telling a reporter, "Just a day in the park," and then suddenly yelling, "Shields up!" As shown in the video, members of Traditionalist Worker Party and League of the South then charged though a group of counter-protesters. The video showed a man carrying a Traditionalist Worker Party flag vigorous thrust the tip towards counter-protesters. The video also showed a man use a shield to shove counter-protesters. Heimbach testified that it appeared the man was wearing a Traditionalist Worker Party shirt.
Another man wearing a khaki hat consistent with the uniform of the League of the South could also be seen pushing his shield into counter-protesters.
"I'm fundamentally not the babysitter of other organizations," Heimbach testified.
There was still more evidence of shields brought by Traditionalist Worker Party being used to assault people.
Another video showed a man use a clear plastic shield bearing the party's initials to hit DeAndre Harris, a young, Black man who was brutally assaulted inside the Market Street Parking Garage.
"It did appear that TWP shields were used," Heimbach testified after watching the video.
Dunn's direct examination also tightened the connection between Heimbach and two other co-defendants. During Heimbach's testimony, she presented a tweet that showed that Christopher Cantwell spoke at a rally in Pikeville, Kentucky that Heimbach organized in the runup to Unite the Right, and Heimbach acknowledged on the stand that he introduced Cantwell as a speaker at the event. Heimbach also testified that he did not encounter Elliott Kline aka Eli Mosley at the Unite the Right rally, but Dunn presented video that unmistakably showed the two men speaking to each other in Emancipation Park.
"It looks like it was a very hectic day where people were trying to kill me," Heimbach said with visible defensiveness. "I don't remember a 10-second conversation."
Attempting to close the loop between Heimbach's efforts as an organizer and leader with co-defendant James Field's deadly car attack, Dunn noted that Heimbach had publicly celebrated Unite the Right as "a stunning victory" for Traditionalist Worker Party. She asked how he could think that "despite someone getting killed."
"I would view those as fundamentally separate events," Heimbach testified.
Then Dunn showed the jury a letter that Heimbach wrote to Fields in prison.
"Thank you for your service to our people," Heimbach wrote to Fields.
Dunn asked him who he meant by "our people."
"That would be white folks," Heimbach testified.
What did he mean by "service"?
"I'm not speaking about the car accident," Heimbach said. "His service is continuing to fight for his innocence."