Key Unite the Right planners, participants and their attorneys flailed Thursday as they attempted but failed to impeach an expert witness testifying about how white supremacists operate.
Peter Simi, an associate professor of sociology at Chapman University in Irvine, Calif., was the second expert witness to testify during the federal Sines v. Kessler lawsuit. The plaintiffs in the trial, which is approaching the end of its third week, are attempting to prove that more than a dozen defendants conspired to come to Charlottesville in August 2017 and commit acts of racist violence.
Simi’s testimony started out fairly typical for an expert witness, as he detailed his background studying extremist groups and violence for two decades and walking the jury through a report he co-authored for the plaintiffs.
According to Simi’s testimony, white supremacist movements are based around several core ideas: racist ideology; a central role of violence; front and backstage talk; and plausible deniability.
Front and backstage behavior, a term used by sociology to define behavior that differs in certain contexts, became a hot topic of cross-examination. Simi said that front stage behavior is used in more public situations and can be more muted, allowing for a white supremacist to blend in with more mainstream views.
“In the late 70s and into the 80s, there was an effort that was referred to as a ‘suit and tie approach’ that involved folks like David Duke and others within the white supremacist movement trying to present themselves in ways that kind of blended in more with the mainstream,” Simi said. “They started using terminology like ‘white civil rights’ and ‘white heritage’ as a way to try and promote the white supremacist movements so that it sounded less threatening and more innocuous.”
Another central organizing tactic, Simi said, is the creation of “inside and outside groups,” which white supremacist movements use to to make outcasts of people who are not white, or what some call “othering.”
As part of his work for the plaintiffs, Simi and his colleague Kathleen Blee from the University of Pittsburgh studied a trove of documents that the plaintiffs provided following court discovery. This included analyzing more than 575,000 posts from the messaging service Discord as well as thousands of images.
Based on the analysis, Simi said the Unite the Right rally was “centrally organized” on Discord, pointing to the main moderators of those servers as defendants Jason Kessler, Nathan Damigo, Elliott Kline and Robert Ray. The UTR Discord server, which allows for a server to be broken down into individual channels, also contained channels that indicated access from the defendant group the Traditionalist Worker Party.
In general, Simi said Discord was a popular digital platform for white supremacist movements around the time of the Unite the Right rally.
“Discord is an encrypted platform, so it provides a degree of secrecy and that’s something that white supremacist are interested in, in terms of communication purposes,” he said. “It was also originally developed primarily for online gamers, and that was a large population that white supremacist saw for recruitment potential.”
The hearing took an aggressive turn during cross-examination as several defendants or their attorneys attempted to impeach Simi over his testimony and ask questions far afield from the lawsuit.
James Kolenich, counsel for Kessler and Damigo, questioned Simi about an earlier comment he made about the white supremacist movements utilizing a false flag fear of a “white genocide,” and argued that the “14 words” slogan may not have a violent subtext.
The 14 words — “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children” — is widely understood to be violent, Simi said, and traces its origin to white supremacist David Lane, a member of a terrorist group that carried out armed robberies and was behind the assassination of Jewish radio host Alan Berg in 1984.
“I think it’s clear, given the fact that the 14 words was pinned by a convicted terrorist who took part in the murder of multiple people and committed other violent crimes, that it’s widely understood within the white supremacist movement to not be about a peaceful transition or electing a new official,” Simi said.
Kolenich’s cross-examination was consistently antagonistic, leading the attorney to ask Simi if he was “a member of antifa,” which Simi denied. Simi did not, however, deny that he was interested in preventing white supremacist violence, likening his work to that of a cancer researcher.
“So am I interested in helping prevent and intervene in violent white supremacy in some small way through my research? The answer is absolutely yes,” Simi said. “The white supremacist movement, as four core characteristics clearly indicate, has violence at the core, so there really isn’t a thing that you can’t really detach the movement from violence.”
Pro se defendant Richard Spencer’s cross-examination appeared focused on trying to muddy his anti-Semitism by asking Simi about whether he knew of various articles by Jewish authors that the defendant had published. When Simi answered no and began to explain why, Spencer cut him off before he could finish.
The most contentious cross-examination came from attorney Josh Smith, who is representing Matthew Heimbach, Matthew Parrott and the Traditionalist Worker Party. Smith clashed often with Simi, plaintiffs’ counsel and even Judge Norman K. Moon during an apparent effort to defend the idea of a white ethnostate — a nation for only white often championed by American white supremacists despite the nation’s origins.
“If [Simi], for example, only believes that whites should be deprived of an ethnostate, whereas every other race has an ethnos state then that would seem to be anti-white bias,” Smith said, after Moon interrupted a question about China being an ethnostate.
In an apparent effort to impeach Simi over testimony regarding humor as a form of plausible deniability, Smith asked the expert if he would be able to tell whether each defendant was being truthful if they said they were “just joking.”
“That was never part of our opinion. Our opinion is that the role of humor and joking within the white supremacist culture often has a kind of double speak aspect to it,” he said. “We’ve never offered an opinion that would allow us to characterize each and every person and the jokes that are told, we’re talking about this as a core characteristic that is a prominent theme within the movement.”
During pro se defendant Chris Cantwell’s cross-examination, Simi said that he was paid $30,000 by the plaintiffs counsel for his efforts, which included spending about 1,000 hours preparing the report on white supremacist movements. When calculated out, plaintiffs’ attorney Roberta Kaplan said that calculated out to a pay rate around $30 an hour.
Though Simi’s testimony took up the majority of Thursday, plaintiff and car attack survivor April Muñiz also spoke. Though not physically injured during the car attack, Muñiz said the psychological and emotional harm was severe.
“I heard the sound of metal hitting bodies, I don’t know how else to describe it,” she said. “Metal on metal on flesh and a lot of screaming in agony.”
Muñiz’s psychological injuries affected every aspect of her life, she said, and led to her being demoted at work and eventually fired. After years of being unable to find a comparable job, Muniz said she found work earlier this year but estimates her financial losses to surpass $200,000.
More defendants are expected to be called as witnesses when trial resumes at 9 a.m. Friday in Charlottesville’s federal courthouse.