After weeks of anticipation, key Unite the Right organizer Jason Kessler took the stand Monday, clashing with both the plaintiffs and his co-defendants as he attempted to deflect blame for the violence that engulfed Charlottesville in 2017.
Kessler, the first named defendant in the federal Sines v. Kessler lawsuit, is among more than a dozen individuals and groups the plaintiffs seek to hold accountable for the violence of the Unite the Right rally and University of Virginia torch march that preceded it.
The nine plaintiffs seek to prove that the defendants conspired to commit acts of racist violence in Charlottesville.
Throughout the trial, other defendants have pointed to Kessler as the primary organizer of both rallies. Monday, Kessler attempted to distance himself from the other defendants and deflect the blame onto absent defendants Elliott Kline and Robert “Azzmador” Ray.
Kline and Ray both ran afoul with the U.S. District Court during the lead-up to the trial, both being subject to bench warrants for contempt of court at one point. Kline declined to participate in the trial, virtually assuring a default judgment, while Ray remains a fugitive who has not been seen since August 2017.
Kessler said Kline and Ray were the source of dysfunction and a rally turned violent. According to Kessler, the pair of absent defendants had attempted a mutiny to take over the rally. Kessler minced few words when describing the two, calling Ray a particularly horrible person.
“[Ray] was a very bad person and I don’t think he should have been at the event. I’ll never associate with him again,” Kessler said.
Despite Kessler’s claims that Kline and Ray were to blame for the violence, the plaintiffs presented a trove of evidence against Kessler, including phone records, Discord messages and even a video shot by Ray.
From May 2017 until the day of the Unite the Right rally on Aug. 12, phone records showed Kessler regularly and repeatedly communicating with his co-defendants. Of the co-defendants, Kessler spent the most time on the phone with Kline.
“There are calls in here, some of them lasting for an hour or more,” plaintiffs’ attorney Karen Dunn said while presenting the phone log. “You talk to him constantly and in the week leading up to [the Unite the Right rally] you spoke to him every single day.”
Dunn also questioned Kessler about a message he posted in the UTR Discord server in which he encouraged attendees not to openly carry firearms out of concern it would discourage anti-racist counter-protesters from engaging in fights.
Kessler attempted to argue that this was the same as a protest strategy used by Dr. Martin Luther King. Dunn was having none of that, producing another post in which Kessler explicitly wrote that the strategy of prohibiting open carry was an effort to get “antifa to throw the first punch.”
Despite claiming that he did not lead the UVa torch march, Kessler did admit that he was at the head of the procession along with co-defendant Richard Spencer.
In the wake of the deadly rally, Kessler and other defendants have put much of their defense behind the argument that the event was permitted by Charlottesville. Though the rally had been permitted by the city, the permit was briefly revoked as concerns of violence mounted in the week leading up to the rally. However, the permit was reinstated after the ACLU got involved on Kessler’s behalf.
Taking a closer look at the Aug. 12, 2017 permit, Dunn pointed out that Kessler had written that only 400 people were expected to return. Meanwhile, in private communications, Kessler wrote that “Privately we can tout the 800-1000 number. Better for our enemies to underestimate us.”
Additionally, Dunn pointed out that the permit application had an option to request street closings and that Kessler had opted not to request that precaution. Various co-defendants, including leaders of the Traditionalist Worker Party and League of the South, have argued that, due to the permit, they were “forced” to march down Market Street and directly into conflict with counter-protesters outside Market Street Park.
Dunn showed Kessler several public and private messages where he encouraged people to attend the rally, even if the event’s permit were to be revoked.
Due to the fighting between his co-defendants and the counter-protesters, Kessler testified he was able to slip into the park. To do this, a clergy member by the park had unlinked their arms from the others and let Kessler pass through their line, Kessler said.
Dunn asked Kessler if he had seen famed religious figure and activist Cornel West. Kessler denied he had, prompting Dunn to play a video shot by Ray.
“We broke through Cornel West, we broke through Cornel West!” Kessler can be heard yelling before Ray references lynching the Black religious figure.
In the wake of the rallies, the degree of infighting among alt-right and white supremacist figures became public knowledge, particularly between Kessler and Spencer. That disdain was apparent as Spencer cross-examined Kessler on Monday, with the two trading barbs more often than addressing the central conspiracy allegations.
Earlier in the hearing, Kessler had referred to Spencer as a “sociopath,” which led the alt-right figurehead to question when Kessler made that determination.
“I recall, one of the first times I met you, you just sort of made my skin crawl,” Kessler said. “You were a very slimy, cold individual, inhuman, like speaking to a robot or a serial killer or something. You were despicable to everybody who you ever came in contact with.”
Spencer and Kessler also bickered over their relationship with Kline, with Kessler pointing to Kline’s paid role assisting Spencer prior to the rally. When Spencer described Kline as a liar, Kessler agreed and added that he was “a liar that you depended on and who you told me you depended on.”
Following Kessler’s contentious testimony, the plaintiffs called defendant Chris Cantwell to the stand. The virulent and hateful “shock-jock” has caused many logistical difficulties throughout the trial because he is representing himself.
Often the source of lengthy witness cross-examinations during this trial, Cantwell’s testimony Monday was more brief but certainly no less aggressive.
Throughout his testimony, plaintiffs’ counsel Michael Bloch played portions of Cantwell’s podcast in which the defendant called for acts of violence against Jewish and Black people, used a variety of slurs and hateful language, and insulted the appearance and memory of Unite the Right car attack victim Heather Heyer.
Cantwell never pushed back against the comments or views expressed in his podcast, appearing proud of the attention he was receiving.
This changed when Bloch presented Cantwell with comments and social media posts he made that encouraged vehicular violence against protesters.
One of the posts in particular appeared to strike a nerve with Cantwell. He argued that the post, a meme, was inadmissible because he had never testified that he had made the post, despite it coming from a Facebook account bearing his name.
The meme depicted James Alex Fields’ vehicular assault with the caption “This is what democracy looks like,” overlaid.
Cantwell’s contention seemed to be that he was not sure whether he had made or posted the meme, despite an apparent answer to the contrary during a previous deposition.
“When you are pestering me with this nonsense, I don’t care about the f*****g photo, Mike. Okay, I don’t give a s**t, all right?” Cantwell said. “I’m trying to be accurate and you’re being an a*****e.”
Cantwell’s testimony is expected to resume at 9 a.m. Tuesday.