CHARLOTTESVILLE — Richard Spencer, the preeminent leader of the white nationalist movement in 2017, took the witness stand in a federal courtroom in Charlottesville, Virginia on Thursday and testified about his role as a headline speaker at the violent Unite the Right rally that resulted in the death of antiracist activist Heather Heyer.
In contrast with other leaders in the alt-right movement who openly embraced fascism or reveled in shocking outsiders with crudely racist speech, Spencer was the erudite founder of a thinktank who represented a version of white nationalism that took pains to avoid racial slurs and glorification of violence. Piece by piece, plaintiffs' counsel Michael Bloch attempted to demolish Spencer's genteel front by presenting evidence that he privately used racist speech and glorified Adolf Hitler's Nazi regime, while endorsing violence in messaging and private communication with his followers.
Spencer testified on Thursday that he is not a white supremacist or someone who believes that white people should rule over people of other races.
The plaintiffs played audio for the jury of Spencer launching into a tirade in the presence of co-defendants Jason Kessler, Nathan Damigo and Elliott Kline after learning about Heyer's death following the Aug. 12, 2017 rally. (The leaked audio was previously published by alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos in 2019.)
"Little fucking k*kes," Spencer said. "They get ruled by me. Little f*cking octoroons… I f*cking… my ancestors f*cking enslaved those pieces of f*cking sh*t. I rule the f*cking world. Those pieces of f*cking sh*t get ruled by people like me. They look up and see a face like mine looking down at them. That's how the f*cking world works. We are going to destroy this f*cking town."
Bloch confronted Spencer with his own words, asking, "Isn't that your sincerely held beliefs?"
Spencer struggled to convince the jury that his carefully considered statements should be taken as a truer reflection of his beliefs than an outburst to fellow white nationalists that he believed to be private.
"There are also moments like that that capture my most childish, embarrassing sentiments," Spencer testified. "The animal brain. That's me as a seven-year-old. It's a seven-year-old that is probably still inside me. I'm ashamed of it. That is a childish, awful version of myself."
Bloch's direct examination walked Spencer through the key relationships with other white nationalist organizers that developed from late 2016 and into the summer of 2017 as plans for Unite the Right took shape: Nathan Damigo, the founder of Identity Evropa, who galvanized the alt-right through a viral video of him punching a 19-year-old woman at a violent rally in Berkeley, California in April 2017; Elliott Kline, an Identity Evropa organizer who worked closely with Spencer over the summer of 2017 and was assigned to coordinate other groups' participation in Unite the Right as a paid organizer; and Jason Kessler, the local organizer in Charlottesville.
The plaintiffs played a video of Spencer discussing Damigo's assault in which he can be heard saying: "The actual video footage is quite beautiful. It's theatrical, surreal. You can see the smoke…. It's a maelstrom, you could say, and one particular incident involving Nathan Damigo."
On Wednesday, the jury had heard testimony from Deborah Lipstadt, an expert on antisemitism and the Holocaust, who said that torch marches held by white nationalists on the campus of the University of Virginia on the eve of the Unite the Right rally and at an earlier rally in Charlottesville on May 13, 2017, were "very evocative of the propaganda technique" used by the Nazis in Germany.
During Spencer's testimony on Thursday, the plaintiffs presented a message sent from Damigo to Spencer in Slack that included a link to a video depicting a Nazi torch march in Germany. Damigo wrote, "The group should organize something like this."
Spencer testified that he didn't remember the Slack message or the video, adding, "I understand he could have done that." Judge Norman K. Moon told the court that "the document speaks for itself."
Plaintiffs introduced additional evidence supporting their claim that Spencer and the other defendants conspired to commit racially-motivated violence. A video played for the jury showed Spencer giving a speech at a drunken after-party following the May 13 torch rally in Charlottesville in which he can be heard saying, "I was born too late for the crusades. I was born too early for the conquest of Mars. But I was born at the right time for the race war."
Another video showed Spencer giving a straight-arm Nazi salute and participating in a call-and-response of "Sieg heil, sieg heil, sieg heil," at the party, which was also attended by Kessler, Damigo and co-defendant Matthew Heimbach.
"Was that the seven-year-old again?" Bloch asked.
Spencer stammered as he attempted to articulate himself, finally settling on, "I bet it was. That's fair."
On June 5, the plaintiffs showed that Kessler texted Spencer to confirm that he would be a "headliner speaker" at the Unite the Right rally. After confirming that Damigo and white nationalist Mike Peinovich would be attending and confirming the date, Spencer responded, "I'm there."
In another text to Spencer, Kessler referred to Unite the Right as the "Battle of Charlottesville." During the exchange, in early June 2017, after Kessler confirmed the date, and confirmed that Damigo and white nationalist Mike Peinovich would attend, Spencer wrote, "I'm there."
Kessler, in turn, wrote: "We're raising an army, my liege, for free speech but the cracking of skulls if it comes to it."
Bloch pressed Spencer to acknowledge that in confirming his participation he had agreed to get involved in a violent event.
On the stand, Spencer dismissed Kessler's words as "tough talk," but suggested he felt embarrassed by Kessler for another reason.
"I realized from that text message that he's a massive dork," Spencer said. "It's the 'my liege' which sounds rather strange."
Bloch continued to make the plaintiff's case through Spencer's own words in podcasts, interviews with journalists and social media posts that he promoted violence and white supremacy as a leader of the alt-right and as the most prominent personality associated with Unite the Right.
Bloch cited an interview in which Spencer expressed support for the idea of a white ethno-state, a homeland exclusively for white people.
"The ethno-state is an ideal," Spencer said in the interview. "It's not going to happen tomorrow…. I don't exactly know what's going to happen, but I do think it's going to be cracked predominantly on racial lines."
Bloch pushed Spencer to acknowledge the inherent violence in such an undertaking.
"A white ethno-state does not arise without a race war, right?" Bloch asked.
"I'm not sure I exactly believe that," Spencer responded.
In his defense, Spencer attempted to make the case that his advocacy of an ethno-state was more of a theoretical idea than a practical objective that he had wanted to immediately implement.
"It's a big voluptuous idea," he said.
Bloch played audio from another interview in which Spencer ridiculed the idea of waging for humanitarian reasons; Spencer and the alt-right broke with Donald Trump after the former president launched an air strike on Syria in April 2017.
"We're engaged in a war for the right reasons," Spencer said. "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…. You should go enslave them. That would be a proper war end."
The plaintiffs attempted to make the case that Spencer and his co-defendants intended violence in Charlottesville as opposed to only seeking to get their message out, and Bloch also played an interview with Spencer from October 2017, as he continued rallies after Unite the Right.
"2016 is the meme war; 2017 is the IRL war," Spencer said. "We all met each other on Twitter. In 2017, we're fighting shoulder-to-shoulder in the streets doing real activism."
Spencer's testimony on Thursday helped fill out the plaintiffs' case for conspiracy. Kline, an Identity Evropa leader who considered himself the "ground commander" at Unite the Right served as a bodyguard for Spencer at a rally in Washington DC in April 2017, according to testimony from both men. Kline testified in a deposition video played on Wednesday and Thursday that he was on the payroll of both Identity Evropa and Spencer during the weeks preceding Unite the Right.
Both Spencer and Heimbach testified about their prior relationship with Christopher Cantwell, a co-defendant who pepper-sprayed counter-protesters who were surrounded by white nationalists as they linked arms around the Thomas Jefferson statue during a torch march on the eve of the rally. Spencer said he met Cantwell in 2016 and appeared as a guest on his podcast. Heimbach admitted to introducing Cantwell as a speaker at a white nationalist rally in Pikeville, Kentucky in April 2017.
On Aug. 6, six days before Unite the Right, Spencer testified that he had lunch with Cantwell in Virginia. They exchanged texts the next day to discuss the city of Charlottesville's effort to pull the permit for the rally.
"We must proceed as planned," Spencer told Cantwell.
Cantwell said he was worried about jeopardizing his concealed carry permit, and he questioned how much risk the leaders should take on.
"I'm willing to risk a lot for our cause, including violence and incarceration," he said.
Spencer responded: "It's worth it at least for me."
In the days before the rally, Spencer worked on a document that came to be known as the "Charlottesville Statement" with co-defendant Augustus Sol Invictus.
Bloch noted that the language in the manifesto was similar to the 14 Words, a white supremacist slogan written by the late David Lane, a member of the domestic terrorist group the Order.
"Isn't it true that the manifesto is coded words for 14 Words?" Bloch asked Spencer.
"I think it's expressing the same sentiment as the 14 Words," Spencer responded. "It's not coded; it is what it is."
Bloch asked Spencer if he intended for the Aug. 11 torch march to be intimidating, noting that hundreds of white nationalists marched through the University of Virginia campus while chanting, "Jews will not replace us."
"I'm sure they would see it as, 'Wow, this is a powerful protest,' if you want to say it's intimidating," Spencer testified. "It was meant to be a powerful statement, no question about it."
Plaintiffs Natalie Romero and Devin Willis, who were students at the time, previously testified that members of the mob surrounded them as they linked arms around the Jefferson statue, yelled racial slurs at them and flung lit torches at their feet.
While Spencer tried to deny any intention to trap the small group of counter-protesters, the plaintiffs showed the jury a tweet from Spencer on the night of Aug. 11. Spencer shared a tweet by a counter-protester who said, "They surrounded us at the statue they wouldn't let us out," and in his own words Spencer wrote, "Fact check. True."
After the counter-protesters fled, Spencer climbed on to the statue and declared, "We own these streets. We occupy this ground. We won."
In the hours after Heyer's death, Spencer admitted to the court that he told the New York Times that Unite the Right was "a huge moral victory in terms of the show of force." The plaintiffs also played audio from a podcast in which Spencer said that "Charlottesville remains an amazing event because of all of these people working in parallel."
During his opening statement, Spencer had told the jury he has regrets about what happened in Charlottesville on the weekend of Aug. 11-12, 2017.
"That sounds like the right thing to say in court, doesn't it?" Bloch asked on Thursday.
"It's also the truthful thing," Spencer insisted. He went on to say that he has "very complicated feelings towards Charlottesville as I look back."
"Isn't it true," Block asked, "that the reason you said Charlottesville was 'amazing' is because you accomplished exactly what you set out to do?"
Spencer emphatically denied it.
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