White Supremacy on Trial in Charlottesville

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S1: In a federal courtroom in Charlottesville, Virginia, there’s a trial going on, which is day by day revealing the inner thoughts of some of America’s most prominent racists. Some of these men you might have heard of people like neo-Nazis Richard Spencer or Jason Kessler or self-proclaimed shock jock Christopher Cantwell, but their names aren’t actually that important. What’s more important is what they’ve done. They’re accused of orchestrating the violence of the 2017 Unite the Right rally.

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S2: Oh, that’s all I had thought.

S1: You probably remember the images from that August weekend, the white supremacists carrying tiki torches chanting, You will not replace us. The explosion of brutality that followed when a man drove his car into a crowd, killing a woman named Heather Heyer and injuring others, left it fuck off.

S3: This is our time now. Well, I could be

S1: four years later. The man who drove that car? He’s been sentenced to life in prison. The Confederate statues. These men came to Charlottesville to defend. They’ve been torn down. But the organizations that brought so many people together en masse, they still exist. And this trial? It’s called Science vs. Kessler, is intended to bring these organizations down.

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S4: What we’re talking about is a organized event with implications for multiple activists, multiple groups, multiple leaders and also rank and file members of the white power and militant right movement.

S1: Kathleen Belew calls herself a historian of the present. Her specialty is white supremacy. She looks at this trial and sees echoes of trials that have come before.

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S4: This is a movement that has been with us since the late 1970s, has over and over again attacked American infrastructure, civilians, leaders, people, religious houses of worship that goes on and on like this?

S1: Kathleen says what’s notable about this case is that the plaintiffs are trying to hold an entire network to account for what happened in the summer of 2017, and they’re doing that by piecing together chat logs and direct messages, violent names and carpool requests. All of it crescendoing in tragedy. In a way, Kathleen has been waiting for someone to connect all these dots.

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S4: It is a interlocking social movement that the history shows us is usually manned by the same people, and that has organized very coherently online since 1983 84 83. Yeah, sometimes you might hear about like 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 met in 1983 84, where they used early computer to computer message boards that were keyword secured and what they put on liberty. That 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 that was trained at locking people into a social movement and providing a platform for radical action.

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S1: Kathleen has watched as again and again. Accountability for domestic terrorism has looked like a criminal trial for a couple of defendants. This case, though, it’s trying the whole system.

S4: 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, quote unquote. 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.

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S1: Today on the show, how a civil trial in Charlottesville aims to take down the superstructure of white supremacy. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. As she watched the Unite the Right rally unfold in 2017, Kathleen Belew saw something more than a protest. She saw a performance, a tying up of ugly ideas in what was meant to be a palatable, even attractive package.

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S4: There is nothing about studying this event and not being surprised by it. That makes it any less shocking and disturbing to watch, you know, the torch lit march the night before the rally, when they were holding tiki torches and wearing their khakis and polo shirts and chanting very old anti-Semitic slogans.

S1: You will not replace us. You will not replace us.

S4: Do the Jews will not replace us? I think is the second half. I mean, 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, right? Like getting everybody to show up in khakis and polos as part of an old kind of 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, huh?

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S1: Because we all look like regular folks,

S4: respectable college kids, I believe, is that one. I mean, this changes over time. So you might think about something like boogaloo as a similar moment. And these are the guys that were showing up to protests last year wearing Hawaiian shirts and the Hawaiian shirts. Sort of. I don’t know. That’s meant to be less scary than somebody in full body armor, right? But it’s

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S1: wacky.

S4: It’s wacky and zany and like, 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 that they can figure out their recruitment strategy.

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S1: It’s funny because I remember the first half of what happened in Charlottesville, that nighttime rally with the tiki torches, and I remember the response at least online being almost laughter like, look at these guys with their tiki torches from Pier one kind of thing where it was dismissive of what was going on. And I wonder if you were less willing to dismiss it.

S4: Oh, I find it very alarming any time there is a big, organized public facing thing that brings together multiple groups because that shows legwork organization groundswell. And it also shows that this movement has enough of a sense of momentum that they’re interested in public facing recruitment rather than just, you know, a Klan rally is just meeting in robes and hoods and somebody is field. You know, it’s not trying to have everybody wear the same thing. It’s not trying to coordinate, it’s not trying to bring groups together. This was a level up. This was a huge level up.

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S1: That momentum, of course, culminated in a deadly way. Now, four years later, Kathleen says this lawsuit. It might be a way survivors get some semblance of accountability. Was it a foregone conclusion that there would be a lawsuit like this, a civil lawsuit like from the beginning? Were you thinking, Oh, that might be a technique here to figure out who’s connected to whom and how they planned this?

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S4: Well, let me say this criminal suits of white power violence have had many, many high profile failures. We could think about the Oklahoma City bombing trial, which got a conviction for McVeigh and his co-conspirators, but did not do anything to try to figure out ties to the broader white power movement, which were evident in the historical archive. Whereas 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 can do things like stop activists from associating with each other, 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. And one suit by the Southern Poverty Law Center in the 1980s even seized the membership headquarters of one of the groups and gave it to the victim’s mother. Hmm. These are huge, immediate victories that can be really meaningful for impacted communities and can have a direct sort of consequences for the organizing groups.

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S1: So 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 you know how this is moving forward?

S4: So what we have in Charlottesville is a civil suit by nine plaintiffs. Those who were impacted by the Unite the Right rally in 2017 against a number of groups and activists who they say are responsible for their injuries and for the damages to their lives. The defendants ranged from groups to prominent activists like Richard Spencer, Andrew Anglin, Matthew Heimbach, Christopher Cantwell and others to some people who are sort of activist level, rank and file. I think what they’re looking for here is a clearer sense of responsibility, 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. And of the many trials that are underway right now, the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse in Kenosha started jury selection recently. The trial of the people who killed Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia just started as well. Those are less broad in their ambitions because they’re dealing with one or a few actions. This one is about the coming together of groups and activists in a movement. So this is the one that really should command our attention over the next weeks and months.

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S1: And some of these people are defending themselves, right?

S4: Many of them are. Yes, there are a few things to know about both. How many people are standing trial and this idea of representing yourself Pro SE, which means defending yourself in court, sometimes in the historical record. We see that as a mechanism for making all of this look very dispersed and disorganized, right? So the way the trial moves forward sort of conveys that the defendants are a motley crew of people who are randomly brought together. Some of them are maybe a little bit less impressive than others. Some of them have better lawyers than others, and all of them are trying to prove like even if there’s a problem here, it wasn’t really my problem. Hmm.

S1: In the first couple of days, I’ve been so struck by how emotional the testimony has been. It’s the first couple of people who have been speaking are the two people of color who are plaintiffs here. One is Natalie Romero, whose skull was crushed. I believe her skull was broken and Devin Willis and they were friends and they were both at this protest. And the thing that’s hard about this, and there’s many things that are hard about it, but they’re having to be cross-examined by the people. They’re accusing of harming them. Yeah. Which seems horrible.

S4: It’s a very strange moment to see something like Richard Spencer questioning one of these defendants. And this is the case, I think in other moments of a white power activists defending themselves in court like there’s one case in the order where the order is a white power terrorist group that was active in the Pacific Northwest in the 80s. And there is a case where they were trying to prove their good character by while representing himself. He was cross-examining his ex-wife and he was trying to. He was asking things like wasn’t a good husband to you and wasn’t as supportive during our miscarriages and and all of this very public sort of marital business in order to sort of make the claim that he was a good person and therefore couldn’t be a violent, racist actor. It’s a very interesting, strange sort of dynamic, and I think it’s definitely one to sort of watch as this trial unfolds, because I’ll also just say that the the the plaintiffs are taking tremendous personal risk by bringing this suit, as are many others who are involved in trying to make the case against these groups, which have access to networks of violence. And I think that paying attention to the story is one of the ways that we can support confronting this movement.

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S1: Listening to the defense. The main defense seems to be, you know, listen, we have freedom of speech or we are just joking. But then there’s also this other thread that I want to talk to you about, which is that the Charlottesville police should have controlled the situation better. Like, sure, we showed up with flagpoles and maybe guns. But you know, really the police should have done more and they didn’t do enough. And the thing is, I hear that and I think that’s not wrong. I’m not sure. I wonder what you think about it.

S4: I mean, I think that is an effective line of argument for the defendants. But I have to say that part of the reason that that happened, according to governor at the time, Terry McAuliffe, was that there were several militia groups on site who were purportedly keeping order, quote unquote. And that was the reason that police could not go in to protect counter-demonstrators because 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. These are not the militias that are from your early American history class or from the Constitution or from anywhere else. Those legal militia has got folded into National and State Guard units with the DeCSS Act in what was that 1983. But at the beginning of the 20th century. So when we say militia now, 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 lake 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 that police couldn’t respond properly to this action. So I think that here this is not an effective defense, you know, by historical standards, because one reason the Charlottesville police couldn’t intervene more effectively is the presence of these activists themselves.

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S1: When we come back, why Kathleen sees echoes of the Charlottesville case in a trial from 40 years back and what that could say about the possible outcome in Virginia. The defendants who are named in this Charlottesville case, they read like a laundry list of white supremacists in their organizations, the White Knights of the KKK, the traditionalist worker party, the League of the South, all of them get called out by name here. In the years since 2017, a few of the defendants in this case, like Richard Spencer, they’ve 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 President Trump’s biggest supporters, he voted for Joe Biden in 2020. Kathleen Belew says this shape shifting, it’s par for the course in white supremacy culture.

S4: This is a 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, OK, so 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 us because people have multiple affiliations. People move around between them. But often they describe those differences as a small matter. One activist in the 80s said like, you know, it’s like I’m in the Navy and the other guys in the army, but we’re both military men, right? So I think the thing to remember is that it is flexible and opportunistic.

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S1: This flexibility. It’s part of how white supremacists have avoided accountability in the past. When Kathleen looks at what’s going on in Charlottesville, it reminds her of a different spate of extremist violence decades ago. The year was 1979. The place was Greensboro, North Carolina. Members of the KKK and the American Nazi Party, they’d come together to threaten and eventually kill protesters opposed to their ideology. As in Charlottesville, the police didn’t intervene.

S4: There was an event where leftist demonstrators held a death to the Klan march, and Klansmen and neo-Nazis came together and called themselves the United racist front and drove up to this event and opened fire on the leftist demonstrators that killed five people. That statement kept the Klan, and this makes it clear. It came through a open fire.

S1: They opened fire on us and we fired back to protect ourselves.

S4: They wounded many more people, and this was held in a black housing project that experienced curfews and generational trauma as a result of this event as well.

S1: Where were the police?

S4: So that is part of a very interesting long story. But the police were stationed away from the leftist protesters because the leftists had some confrontations with police before, and police thought that they could better manage this event from farther away. Hmm. But what happened from the perspective of the white power movement is that they came together, opened fire on leftist demonstrators, and then they 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 had these activists come together to deny the dead people their rights for reasons of race. And the people killed in this event were for white men and one black woman. And the defendant said while we were just articulating anti-communism, not racism, and because the sort of long intertwining of communism and race mixing in southern history was not articulated very well in that trial, they walked free again. Hmm. And 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 his death

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S1: because communists were asking for it or what.

S4: There was a very deeply unfunny, but sort of on the nose. Saturday Night Live sketch about this that depicted the first day of commie hunting season in North Carolina.

S3: It sure is exciting. Uncle Lester, my very first commie hunter. Hell, Jim Bob is the first one name loud now in 20 years. I expect I’m every bit as jacked up as you are. Are they easy to spot Uncle Lester? Well, sometimes I is, and sometimes I saying if they demonstrating like Tommy Stan to do is like shooting fish in a barrel.

S4: And the premise was sort of like, I guess we’ve legalized killing communists in the United States. You know, the white power movement we can see takes an event like that as a huge green light for further organizing and further violent activity like 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 that was sort of the arc of action that took us all the way to the Oklahoma City bombing.

S1: Was anyone held accountable for what took place in Greensboro?

S4: So in the end, in the civil suit, there was a partial judgment that found one of the people had died wrongfully and found some partial accountability by the city of Greensboro and the police department and some of the neo-Nazis and Klansmen. But the city, I think, wanted to make this all go away paid the settlement. The neo-Nazis and Klansmen did not ever individually really have any accountability, except perhaps for serving jail time while on trial

S1: after what happened in Charlottesville. I was struck by the fact that all of a sudden Greensboro City Council. Passed a resolution to apologize,

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S4: yes, this was huge because there had been a truth and reconciliation commission about this, not by the city and not with any kind of by and by the city of Greensboro in 2005, but by an NGO group, and that that truth commission had no subpoena power, no punitive capacity, no government buy-in, but did a phenomenal job getting people from both sides of this event to come and tell their stories about it. And I think they found then very persuasively that the city had been culpable, at least in not having police on site when they had good reason to think a violent altercation might happen. But the fact that Charlottesville was important to the city of Greensboro kind of finally admitting its role here is a sign of this problem really coming out into our national story as an issue that affects more than sort of one event that seems like an outlier, but as as the thing that really impacts all of us. Hmm.

S1: So you clearly think the legal system failed when it came to what happened in Greensboro? 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?

S4: You know, I don’t know how that works on the judicial side, but I can say from a historical perspective that absolutely an acquittal in Charlottesville would fuel additional violent activity because we’ve seen every time there is a major acquittal, we’ve seen a huge surge in momentum in white power and militant right groups.

S1: Is there not a similar surge if there’s a conviction?

S4: The thing is, if there’s a conviction, especially in a civil trial, there might be parts of it that broke momentum, right? So if they seize assets, membership lists, if they 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.

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S1: I look at what happened in Charlottesville and I’m really struck by the fact that there’s been so much attention paid to what took place there. I mean, President Biden, when he announced his candidacy, the first thing he talked about was Charlottesville. It’s yeah, but at the same time, all of that attention to what happened in 2017. None of it seemed to change the momentum towards what happened on Jan. six with which wasn’t the same thing, but was related. And I wonder if you think about that, too.

S4: 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, both at the policy level and in surveillance institutions at this issue. So even before January 6th, we got a document, a threat assessment from the Department of Homeland Security that has identified what they call DVC 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 that the DHS and FBI have ever directed resources at this problem in this way. I think that after Charlottesville, there’s a lot more interest in newsrooms about this issue. And I think there’s a greater degree of public awareness. All of those things are tools that can be directed towards combating white power violence.

S1: Kathleen Belew. Thank you so much for joining me.

S4: Thank you for having me.

S1: Kathleen Belew is a historian at the University of Chicago. She studies the white power movement, and she’s the author of a field guide to White Supremacy. Audio from the Greensboro Massacre was from the documentary The Guns of November 3rd. It was made by Jim Waters. And that’s the show. What next is produced by Mary Wilson Carmel Delshad Davis Land, Elinor Schwartz and Danielle Hewitt. We’re led by Alison Benedict, Alicia Montgomery, and I’m Mary Harris. Go find me on Twitter. I’m at Mary’s desk. Meanwhile, I catch you back in this feed tomorrow.