The Rev. Seth Wispelwey, a local pastor who organized a national clergy response to the Unite the Right rally, took the witness stand on Wednesday as one of nine plaintiffs who suffered physical injuries and emotional trauma as a result of the violent white nationalist gathering in Charlottesville, Va. in August 2017.
Wispelwey is the co-founder of Congregate C'ville, which mobilized local and national clergy to bear nonviolent witness against Unite the Right. Images broadcast on national television of the pastors leading a mass prayer meeting at a church besieged by torch-bearing white nationalists on the eve of the rally and later getting pummeled by rallygoers as they linked arms in clerical vestments evoked the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
President Trump's widely condemned response to the rally summoned another view of those who came out in opposition to the white nationalists that has since taken hold in the imagination of many conservatives, Fox News viewers and Republican voters. While claiming there were "very fine people" on "both sides," Trump condemned James Fields for the car attack that took the life of Heather Heyer and injured dozens of others, while also decrying "the alt-left" that, in his words "came charging in, without a permit, and they were very, very violent."
The defendants, who are accused of conspiring to commit racially motivated violence in Charlottesville, attempted to sow doubt in the minds of the jurors in their cross-examination by linking him to "antifa." Several prospective jurors revealed that they hold negative view of "antifa" during jury selection, describing them as a "terrorist organization" and "domestic terrorists."
After a morning service at a historically African-American Baptist church, Wispelwey testified that he and 40 or 50 clergy members walked to Emancipation Park. As white nationalists marched by chanting "Blood and soil," a Nazi slogan, the clergy linked arms and stood in a line along the park, while singing and praying "as a visible, faithful presence that we wanted to communicate that we were bound together," Wispelwey testified. Later, the clergy members knelt, Wispelwey testified, as "sign of supplication, saying 'we are vulnerable, but we are not afraid.'"
After witnessing white nationalists stream into Emancipation Park for about two and a half hours, Wispelwey testified he and some other members of the clergy group walked over to the southeast entrance to Emancipation Park. The designated entrance for the permitted rally was at the other end of the street, and Wispelwey testified that the southeast entrance was blocked by barricades.
The plaintiffs presented video of the clergy members, joined by Professor Cornel West, locking arms on the steps to the barricaded entrance as white nationalists barked at them. Wispelwey testified he heard someone yell, "Kill the faggot priests."
"The next thing I knew we were getting jostled and pushed aside," Wispelwey testified. "I was near the lip of the side of the stairs. I was pushed and tripped into the bushes. When I stood up, a large man was standing over me, and saying, "F*ck you, faggot," over and over in my face."
The clergy regrouped, Wispelwey testified, adding, "I and some of the other leaders at Congregate thought it was still worth making a presence to put leaders out front."
Standing near the southeast entrance to the park, Wispelwey watched a "huge group of men walking down the street with flags and different insignias" — members of the League of the South and Traditionalist Worker Party, as it turned out. Counter-protesters linked arms and blocked their path as Wispelwey stood nearby. Wispelwey described the incident in a brief written statement provided for an article in Slate that was published four days after Unite the Right. Anticipating the defendants' line of attack, plaintiffs' counsel Roberta Kaplan asked the witness a statement that "antifa saved my life" on Aug. 12 that was included in the article.
Wispelwey testified that he and other Charlottesville community members were asked "to write some words" for the Slate article.
"There was a debate roiling nationally about violence and responses to it," Wispelwey testified. "I wanted to share that in my experience — for me it was a catchall for counter-protesters who I didn't know and didn't have affiliation. I said they saved my life and our lives. In that clip earlier of League of the South and National Socialist Movement at that point these other counter-protesters who I was lumped in with moved bodily in front of us. I feared for our safety. I thought I was going to take it on the chin at best. They bodily moved in front of us. League of the South moved right into them. They took the hit, and we pulled back on Market Street."
Kaplan also asked Wispelwey to explain a tweet he made two years after the Unite the Right rally in which he wrote, "Jesus is antifa."
"I understand in a short definition fascism to be a form of authoritarian governance that seeks to privilege and put on a pedestal a few based on nationality and race while explicitly keeping others down and depriving them of rights and safety based on their nationality and race," Wispelwey testified. "[Fascists embrace] a dream that runs counter to the dream of God for this world and all humanity. And, using a term that has become a lot of things in the media, I wanted to say that Jesus is against fascism because Jesus is for all of us and does not seek violence."
Christopher Cantwell, a neo-Nazi defendant who is representing himself, extensively cross-examined Wispelwey, picking apart the four paragraphs he contributed to the Slate article. A podcaster with a belligerent personality who frequently uses racial slurs and profanity, Cantwell has openly endorsed violence, telling a Vice reporter embedded with him at the Unite the Right rally: "I'm trying to make myself more capable of violence."
Cantwell asked Wispelwey about a passage from the article in which he wrote: "A phalanx of neo-Nazis shoved right through our human wall with 3-foot-wide wooden shields, screaming and spitting homophobic slurs and obscenities at us. It was then that antifa stepped in to thwart them."
Wispelwey testified on Wednesday that prior to the Aug. 12, 2017 rally, he had not been familiar with the term "antifa."
Cantwell queried him on how he was able to identity "antifa."
"It was a catchall term," Wispelwey responded. "There weren't any identifying markers. I'm with one group. Here are these other people who identify as antifascist."
Cantwell asked Wispelwey about a tweet in which he wrote, "Antifascism is community defense. We keep us safe. When Democratic leadership decides to do that, we can talk."
"What is community defense?" Cantwell asked.
"It means when your community feels under attack or threatened, it can mean a range of things. To me, it looked like showing up in prayer and solidarity. It can mean providing first aid or being a legal observer. It can mean so many beautiful, rich things. It can mean advocating livable wages and affordable housing."
Cantwell homed in on a passage in the Slate article in which Wispelwey wrote: "I didn't see any racial justice protesters with weapons, as for antifa, anything they brought I would only categorize as community defense tools and nothing more."
Cantwell tried in vain to get Wispelwey to testify on the witness stand that flagpoles and pepper spray in the hands of "antifa" were "community defense tools."
"Isn't it true that in this sentence you are acknowledging antifa has weapons, and you're justifying their use of their weapons," Cantwell said.
"I would only categorize that there was this roiling debate about 'both sides,'" Wispelwey testified. "What I saw was white supremacists attack counter-protesters and I pulled back. I was speaking hypothetically to something I really don't know."
When Cantwell pressed Wispelwey to explain what he meant when he wrote that "antifa" "have their tools to achieve their purposes, and they are not ones I will personally use," Wispelwey responded: "It's possible that has to do with the tools of using one's own body for self-defense when physically attacked."
Cantwell also questioned Wispelwey about a 2019 tweet in which he wrote, "Better yet, buy a milkshake."
Wispelwey initially testified that he could not recall the context of the statement, and Cantwell asked if he was familiar with Andy Ngo, a self-proclaimed journalist who writes critically about antifascists. Ngo became a darling of right-wing media and the GOP after he was hit with a milkshake and then punched during a rally in Portland, Ore.Wispelwey eventually testified that the context for his tweet was news stories about activists pouring milkshakes on "neo-fascist politicians."It appears I'm referencing milkshakes and yelling in reference to not being the moral equivalent of caging children," Wispelwey testified.
Cantwell pressed him: "Your dedication to nonviolence is not offended by pouring milkshake on someone?"
"I don't think I have much of an issue with it, no," Wispelwey acknowledged.
During Wispelwey's testimony on Wednesday, he also recalled running from a restaurant on the Downtown Mall to the scene of the car attack, and working with other clergy members to clear the street for emergency response vehicles.
Although he is not claiming a physical injury from the assault at Emancipation Park, Wispelwey testified that he couldn't work full-time for a couple years. Now, he said, he has a temporary job, "which felt like a safe entry point."
"I have lost a lot of function I used to have" he testified. "A month after August 2017, I was diagnosed with acute stress disorder, which became post-traumatic stress disorder. I've had trouble sleeping ever since. My anxiety. Night terrors. Hyper-vigilance. It's a tremendous cost, socially and professionally and physiologically. It's been rough."
During cross-examination, Cantwell suggested Wispelwey bore some responsibility for the violence he experienced.
"You blocked the path of people going through," Cantwell said.
"Technically, that would be a blockage until it was sorted out," Wispelwey grudgingly agreed.
Cantwell lit up, rolling a video of the rally attendees battering through the clergy while screaming profanities at them.
"Let's watch this get sorted out, shall we?" he said.
Once the video concluded, Cantwell asked: "Once you let them through, did that solve the problem?""If that was a problem," Wispelwey replied, "then assaulting us completed their objective."