Richard Spencer tries to sanitize white nationalism as Charlottesville defendants stumble to the finish line
Richard Spencer (YouTube/screen grab)

Richard Spencer pontificated on his belief in white nationalism and the lawyer for Matthew Heimbach played a YouTube video of the former Traditionalist Worker Party leader condemning "the international Jewish system" during their closing arguments on Thursday, as they defended themselves against conspiracy claims for their role in organizing the violent 2017 Unite the Right rally.

Roberta Kaplan, lead counsel for the plaintiffs in the case brought by Integrity First for America, cited evidence of Heimbach discussing "RaHoWa," short for "racial holy war," and an essay by Spencer mentioning a "cataclysm" that would to bring about the white ethno-state the defendants sought to create.

"Take them at their word," Kaplan said. "Race means race, and war means war. It's racially motivated violence."

Nine plaintiffs who were injured during James Fields' car attack after the Aug. 12 rally ended in a state of emergency, a torch march on the campus of the University of Virginia the night before or when rallygoers bashed through counter-protesters are seeking damages from the two dozen defendants, who included leaders and organizations who were at the forefront of the white power movement in 2017. The plaintiffs are asking the jury to find the 24 co-defendants liable for conspiring to cause racially motivated violence under a provision of the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act, which was passed to protect former slaves from racial violence.

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The plaintiffs are seeking compensatory damages of $7 million to $10 million for the defendants who were injured in the car attack and $3 million to $5 million for those who were injured in other violent incidents during the rally. Kaplan reminded the jurors they can impose additional punitive damages, suggesting they ask themselves: "What would it take to make sure the defendants and their co-conspirators never do something like this again?"

Spencer, the self-avowed leader of the alt-right — a rebranding of the white power movement — directly addressed a text exchanged with co-defendant Christopher Cantwell in the days leading up to the August 2017 rally. Judge Norman K. Moon had previously told the parties he views the text as being at the crux of the plaintiffs' claim that the defendants entered an agreement to engage in unlawful activity.

Concerned about the possibility that the permit for the rally would be withdrawn, Cantwell had texted Spencer to say that he was "willing to risk a lot for our cause, including violence and incarceration" and suggested they "coordinate."

As Spencer acknowledged to the jury on Thursday, he responded: "It's worth it, at least for me."

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Addressing the jury directly, Spencer said, "I absolutely endorse that sentiment."

Seeking to counter expert witness testimony from Peter Simi, a professor at Chapman University, who told the court that violence is intrinsic to the white supremacist movement, Spencer attempted to sanitize white nationalism for the jury, which includes both white and Black members.

"White nationalism is about family," he argued. "It's about us. It's about being a part of something bigger than yourself, being willing to risk things, and being dedicated so it can survive further. That is a cause I would risk quite a bit for."

Judge Moon interrupted Spencer's closing argument three times, including when he warned the jury that if they find the defendants liable, "lawsuits like this can be used as a weapon against free speech."

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"This jury has this lawsuit," Moon admonished Spencer, "and there are issues I've instructed the jury on. They're not to be worried about anything outside of this case."

Moon also stopped Spencer from speaking when he strayed beyond the evidence in the case by trying to discuss a media interview with Kaplan and by citing Jesus as a "radical" and an "extremist."

The defendants attempted to distance themselves from Fields, described by his lawyer, David Campbell, as a "lone wolf."

James Kolenich, who represents lead organizer Jason Kessler, along with Identity Evropa and its founder Nathan Damigo, admitted that defendants wanted a fight with counter-protesters, but tried to dispel the notion that they conspired to engineer a car attack.

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"They have to prove agreement by Jason Kessler to hit counter-protesters with a car," Kolenich said. "What they have not proven is that Jason Kessler agreed to hit people in such a fashion…. The evidence in the case shows that whether it's Kessler or Damigo, the evidence shows all they agreed to do is get in a fist fight, pushing and shoving, throwing rocks and bottles. They had done it before, and it's what they expected to happen again.

"They wanted to fight Antifa, but they want to get away with it," Kolenich continued. "They want to have a legal reason, not plausible deniability. When they're talking about violence, when they're talking about fighting, when they're talking about blood in the streets, it's pushing and shoving, maybe sticks. Rocks. Bottles. They are not talking about a car."

Karen Dunn, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, told the jurors they had been misled by the defense counsel's explanation of the law. She told them that the requirement that the violence be reasonably foreseeable doesn't necessarily mean they need to specifically foresee a car attack, but rather that the violence anticipated has to be of a similar nature and magnitude.

"This was not about a little fist fight; this was about 'raising an army […] for the cracking of skulls,'" she said, citing a phone text from Kessler to Spencer.

She also cited language by Cantwell after the event in which he boasted that Unite the Right "would not have happened if we didn't have people saying, 'Let's go crack some skulls.'" Dunn added that Cantwell's rhetoric was not "hypothetical," noting that plaintiff Natalie Romero's skull was fractured after she was struck by Fields' car.

Dunn also cited incidents of violence by Unite the Right rallygoers that included throwing lit torches at people, bashing people with shields, stabbing with flagpoles and choking.

Bryan Jones, representing defendants League of the South and two of its members, and Cantwell both tried to persuade the jurors that counter-protesters, not the white nationalists, were responsible for the violence and chaos in Charlottesville.

"When the defendants talked about communists, they were referring to people who show up at their rallies wearing communist insignia, communist colors, and try to obstruct their right to free speech," Jones told the jury. "Are the plaintiffs being honest with you when they talk about communists not being real?"

Cantwell cited a video of the Aug. 11 torch march that captured counter-protesters saying, "They're coming up the lawn," "This is important to all of us," and "Heads down, you all" before they began chanting, "No Nazis, no KKK, no fascist USA," as somehow being evidence of a malign conspiracy against the white nationalist torch marchers.

"Diversity of tactics," Cantwell sneered. "This is a scam. This is a lie. It's a trick on you, and it should upset you. We have sympathetic victims embedded with criminal conspirators."

Cantwell's closing argument also included an admission that he pleaded guilty to assaulting Emily Gorcenski, the transgender woman whose video he showed to the jury, and another counter-protester.

Narrating another video, Cantwell provided a blow-by-blow narration of his fights at the torch march.

"That's the guy I pepper-sprayed a little while ago; he's not a UVA student either," Cantwell said. "You see me punching this guy with the blue shirt. The guy on the statue is trying to pepper spray me."

Plaintiffs Devin Willis and Natalie Romero, two University of Virginia students who are respectively African-American and Colombian-American, have testified that the white nationalists yelled racial slurs at them and flung lit torches at their feet as they linked arms with other counter-protesters around the Thomas Jefferson statue. While presenting his case, Cantwell has taken care to note that all the people he assaulted during the torch march were white.

"I don't need to prove to you that that's okay," he told the jury on Thursday. "You can believe it's a crime and it doesn't help one bit unless you can prove it's racially motivated and it caused their damages."

Cantwell, who gave the final closing argument for the defendants, ran at least 20 minutes over his allotted time, and after Judge Moon told him to wrap up, he used his remaining time to suggest that the counter-protesters were responsible for causing Fields to ram his car into them.

Earlier in the day, Fields' own lawyer, David Campbell, had directly contradicted the theory Cantwell attempted to develop, telling the jury: "James Fields intentionally drove his car into a crowd of people and severely injured these plaintiffs." Campbell added: "There's no doubt that James Fields committed racially motivated violence."

Rushing to finish, Cantwell called the jurors' attention to video of jubilant counter-protesters marching through downtown Charlottesville, believing that the white nationalists had left town, just before Fields' slammed his Dodge Challenger into them.

"I want you to imagine that you're walking down that street and you see that mob of people coming towards you," Cantwell said.

"Your time's up," Judge Moon said.

Cantwell persisted by mentioning a video of a counter-protester striking the car with a club as it sped past before blurting out, "I never said I endorsed the murder of Heather Heyer."

Karen Dunn, one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs pulled up a tweet Cantwell made in 2018 in which he wrote, "If you think the alt-right is insignificant, you might want to ask the commie filth we sent to the morgue and the hospital how insignificant we are."

"Notice the word 'we,'" Dunn said. "He's part of a conspiracy. Heather Heyer is the one who was sent to the morgue."