In a courtroom in Charlottesville, Virginia, there is a trial going on that is, day by day, revealing the inner thoughts of some of America’s most prominent racists. Some of these men you might know: neo-Nazis Richard Spencer and Jason Kessler, self-proclaimed “shock jock” Christopher Cantwell. But their names aren’t really so important—what’s more important is what they’ve done. They’re accused of orchestrating the violence of the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally, from the white supremacists carrying tiki torches and chanting “you will not replace us” to the explosion of brutality that followed, when a man drove his car into a crowd, killing a woman named Heather Heyer. Four years later, the man who drove that car has been sentenced to life in prison. The Confederate statues these men came to Charlottesville to defend have been torn down. But the organizations that brought so many white supremacists together en masse still exist. This trial, Sines v. Kessler, is intent on bringing those organizations down.
Kathleen Belew, a historian at the University of Chicago who studies the white power movement, looks at this trial and sees echoes of cases that have come before. She says what’s notable about this instance is that the plaintiffs are trying to hold an entire network to account for what happened in the summer of 2017. They are doing that by piecing together chat logs and direct messages, violent memes and carpool requests. Usually, accountability for domestic terrorism has looked like a criminal trial for one or two defendants. This case, though is trying the system. On Wednesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Belew about how the civil trial in Charlottesville aims to take down the super structure of white supremacy. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Kathleen Belew: What we’re talking about is an organized event with implications for multiple activists, groups, leaders, and rank-and-file members of the white power and militant right movement. This is a movement that has been with us since the late 1970s, that has over and over again attacked American infrastructure, civilians, leaders, people, religious houses of worship … it goes on and on like this. It is an interlocking social movement that, as the history shows us, is usually manned by the same people and has organized very coherently online since 1983–84. Sometimes you hear about the founding of Stormfront in 1996 as the prehistory of social network activism on the right. But these groups were establishing this thing called Liberty Net in the ’80s, in which they used early computer to computer message boards that were keyword-secured. Liberty Net was not just ideological writings and assassination lists, but also things like personal ads and cookbook recipes and things like that. So this was social networking way before Facebook, a network that was trained at locking people into a social movement and providing a platform for radical action. The fact that this movement is still with us is partly because it has avoided being described as a movement. Instead, we have mostly heard about white power action as “lone-wolf violence.” And when we hear these stories of lone-wolf attacks, what that does is really disable the public response and the political will to confront this violent movement.
Mary Harris: Watching the Unite the Right gathering unfold in 2017, you saw something more than a protest. You saw a performance, a tying up of ugly ideas in what was meant to be a palatable, even attractive, package. That momentum culminated in deadly violence.
It was very clear to me from the beginning that this is a white power action, that it’s using white power rhetoric, that all of this has been very tightly managed: getting everybody to show up in khakis and polos as part of a performative strategy that is geared toward recruiting from a broader group. So this is not just a Klan rally. This is meant as a public-facing recruitment action. You might think about something like Boogaloo as a similar movement—these are the guys showing up to protests last year wearing Hawaiian shirts. It’s wacky and zany and a little campy even. but what they’re calling for is provoking a civil war. I mean, that’s an incredibly violent idea, right? But the public-facing part of it is meant to see exactly how far they can push into our mainstream so they can figure out their recruitment strategy. I find it very alarming anytime there is a big, organized public-facing thing that brings together multiple groups, because that shows legwork, an organization groundswell. And it also shows that this movement has enough of a sense of momentum that its members are interested in public-facing recruitment rather than just a meeting in robes and hoods.
Was it a forgone conclusion that there would be a civil lawsuit like this against the rally from the beginning?
Well, let me say that criminal suits of white power violence have had many, many high-profile failures. We could think about something like the Oklahoma City bombing trial, which got a conviction for McVeigh and his co-conspirators but did not try to figure out ties to the broader white power movement, which were evident in the historical archive. Civil suits have historically, at least in the short term, provided a really interesting and effective way to stop white power momentum, because a civil suit, through consent decrees and other legal instruments, can do things like stop activists from associating with one another, stop the publication of a newsletter. They can stop them from marching in uniform in public places. They have done things like seize the membership records of white power groups, which are usually kept highly secret. These are huge, immediate victories that can be really meaningful for affected communities and can have direct consequences for the organizing groups.
In this case, there are so many people being brought in to defend themselves. Can you just lay out who the plaintiffs are, who the defendants are, and how this is moving forward?
What we have in Charlottesville is a civil suit by nine plaintiffs—who were affected by the Unite the Right rally in 2017—against a number of groups and activists who the plaintiffs say are responsible for their injuries and for the damages to their lives. The defendants range from groups to prominent activists like Richard Spencer, Andrew Anglin, Matthew Heimbach, Christopher Cantwell, and others. I think what the prosecution is looking for here is a clearer sense of legal responsibility for the violence of the Unite the Right rally—that you are, as a group or activist, responsible for the violence you incite.
Listening to the defense, the main line seems to be We have freedom of speech or We are just joking. But then there’s also this other thread: that the Charlottesville Police should have controlled the situation better. I wonder what you think about that.
I have to say that part of the reason that happened, according to governor at the time, Terry McAuliffe, was that there were several militia groups on site who were purportedly “keeping order.” That was the reason police could not go in to protect counterdemonstrators: They were outgunned by militiamen. Now let’s straighten out what we mean about “militias”: So many people hear the word militia and think it is somehow patriotic or legal, but what we are talking about is illegal private armies. They are illegal simply for doing things like creating and commanding a private army. And then they do additional illegal activity on the regular: involvement with various kinds of violent action, like preventing police from doing their jobs. In this case, in Charlottesville, we have a pretty clear case where the militias are part of the militant right and white power movement, organizing this rally and making sure police couldn’t respond properly to this action. So I think that here this is not an effective defense by historical standards, because one reason the Charlottesville Police couldn’t intervene more effectively is the presence of these armed men themselves.
The defendants who are named in this Charlottesville trial read like a laundry list of white supremacists and their organizations: the White Knights of the KKK, the Traditionalist Worker Party, the League of the South are all called out by name here. In the years since 2017, a few of the defendants in this case, like Richard Spencer, have tried to distance themselves from the movements they stoked. Spencer has said not just that this trial has drained him of money, but that, after being one of Donald Trump’s biggest supporters, he voted for Joe Biden in 2020. You’ve said that this kind of shape-shifting is par for the course in white supremacist culture.
This is an incredibly opportunistic and flexible movement, where people regularly move around between groups and ideologies, where groups regularly change their name when they hit legal action or other kinds of issues, and where the form changes very, very quickly. Historians and journalists have spent an enormous amount of time trying to understand like, which ones are Klansmen, which ones are neo-Nazis, which ones are other kinds of fascists on the ground. Those distinctions have never been as important to people in these groups as they have been to outsiders, because people have multiple affiliations. People move around between them, but often they describe those differences as a small matter.
This flexibility is part of how white supremacists have avoided accountability in the past. IN previous decades past, the legal system has struggled to hold perpetrators accountable.
Look at what happened in 1979 in Greensboro, North Carolina. Members of the KKK and the American Nazi Party came together to threaten and eventually kill protesters opposed to their ideology. As in Charlottesville, the police did not intervene. There was an event where Communist demonstrators held a “Death to the Klan march.” Klansmen and neo-Nazis came together, drove up to this event, and opened fire on the demonstrators, killing five people and wounding many more. This was held in a Black housing project that experienced curfews and generational trauma as a result of this event as well.
Where were the police?
That is part of a very interesting, long story: The police were stationed away from the protesters because the Communists had had some confrontations with police before, and the police thought they could better manage this event from farther away. What happened is that the white power people came together, opened fire on leftist demonstrators, and then were acquitted on state criminal charges for reasons of self-defense. They were acquitted on federal criminal charges because the jury instructions in that trial said that they had to decide if these gunmen come together to deny the dead people their rights for reasons of race. The people killed in this event were four white men and one Black woman. The defendants said they were just articulating anti-communism, not racism, and because the long intertwining of communism and race in Southern history was not articulated very well in that trial, they walked free again. Then there was a civil suit where the only death found to be wrongful was the one person killed who was not a card-carrying Communist at the time of their death.
The white power movement, we can se,e takes an event like that as a huge green light for further organizing and further violent activity. Greensboro did not end this alliance—it cemented it, and a few years later, they were declaring war on the federal government, organizing groups around the country, implementing leaderless resistance and liberty. And that was sort of the arc of action that took us all the way to the Oklahoma City bombing.
Do you feel like what happens in Charlottesville could set a tone moving forward for how the judicial branch at least thinks about these white power movements and deals with them?
I can say from a historical perspective that an acquittal in Charlottesville would fuel additional violent activity. Because we’ve seen that every time there is a major acquittal, there’s a huge surge in momentum in white power and military groups.
Is there not a similar surge if there’s a conviction?
If there’s a conviction, especially in a civil trial, there might be parts of it that brook momentum, right? So if they seize assets and membership lists and bar association, and if people have the feeling that actions like Charlottesville are going to be expensive and difficult, it will not encourage additional actions of the same kind.
There’s been so much attention paid to what took place in Charlottesville. None of it seemed to change the momentum toward what happened on Jan. 6. I wonder if you think about that too.
I think it has changed the momentum in a number of really important ways that will allow us to better combat this problem. One thing it did was focus resources: Even before Jan. 6, we got a a threat assessment from the Department of Homeland Security that identified what they call domestic violent extremists—or white power and militant right activists—as the single most pressing terrorist threat to the country. That’s huge, and that is the first time the DHS and FBI have ever directed resources at this problem in this way. I think that, after Charlottesville, there was also a lot more interest in newsrooms about this issue and, I think, a greater degree of public awareness. All of those things are tools that can be directed toward combating white power violence.