It’s been over four years since the Unite the Right (UTR) rally in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 11-12, 2017. Since January 6 of this year, those events astonishingly seem destined to be remembered as only the second-most infamous outbreak of mass violence during the Trump era. But if the storming of the US Capitol building is primarily remembered as an attack on institutions, norms, and ideas, UTR stands as a symbol of the visceral and often very personal fear and animosity that drives a great deal of far right activism.
Starting on October 25, the Western District of Virginia will commence the Sines v. Kessler civil trial against a number of the groups and individuals who, the plaintiffs contend, “conspired to plan, promote, and carry out the violent events in Charlottesville.” I plan to attend all or most of the trial and will be posting regular updates here. I was also on-site when UTR happened, so some commentary may be from personal recollection and not exclusively quoted from other sources.
The four years of pretrial motions, arguments, briefs, and hearings leading up to this point have been extraordinarily chaotic and I plan to address some of those details at a later date. In the meantime, as a way of bringing readers up to speed, I’m going to use this introductory post to describe who the players are and just what the purpose of the trial is.
The Stated Objectives of the Suit
The suit is being supported by Integrity First for America (IFA), a nonprofit that describes itself as “dedicated to holding those accountable who threaten longstanding principles of our democracy.” Executive director Amy Spitalnick says the plaintiffs are “a coalition of Charlottesville community members, many of whom were students and other young activists in the Charlottesville area, who were injured during the violence.”
The Complaint filed with the court alleges that the “Defendants’ avowed goal was to promote and create an atmosphere of religious and racial subordination on the streets of Charlottesville, ideally through the infliction of violence or emotional distress.” Underlying that claim is a conspiracy charge, according to which the defendants, “through their leadership and members, all agreed and coordinated with and among each other to plan, organize, promote, and commit the unlawful acts that injured Plaintiffs and countless others in Charlottesville.”
The objectives of the suit are also laid out in the Complaint, namely compensation for damages as well as punitive damages and, ultimately, “to ensure that nothing like this will happen again at the hands of the Defendants.” Indeed, this trial represents the first time most of the defendants have been forced to confront any sort of accountability for what happened in August 2017.
Nonetheless, some of the defendants and their supporters have seized upon this latter goal to argue that the suit is “politically motivated” and therefore illegitimate. However, the plaintiffs’ motivations have nothing at all to do with the legality or illegality of the defendants’ actions. Moreover, the defendants specifically and far right actors in the US more generally have marshaled every rhetorical resource available to them over the past four years in their efforts to undermine, reframe, and delegitimize this case. Ultimately, accusations of political motivation should be understood as one more attempt in that direction.
The list of defendants (both past and present) is long enough to warrant breaking them up into groups. To start, there are the ones who are still defendants as the trial begins, the ones who were previously defendants but have defaulted (i.e., they failed to respond and are no longer allowed to participate in the trial), and the lone defendant who had his charges dismissed. They are as follows (asterisk indicates currently without legal representation/acting as his own attorney; click a name to skip ahead to the respective bio):
- Jason Kessler
- Elliot Kline, aka “Eli Mosley”*
- Richard Spencer*
- Christopher Cantwell*
- James Alex Fields, Jr.
- Robert “Azzmador” Ray (currently a fugitive)*
- Vanguard America (VA)
- Nathan Damigo
- Identity Evropa (IE)
- Jeff Schoep
- National Socialist Movement (NSM)
- Matthew Heimbach
- Matt Parrott
- Traditionalist Worker Party (TWP)
- Michael Hill
- Michael Tubbs
- League of the South (LOS)
Former Defendants: Defaulted
- Andrew Anglin
- Augustus Sol Invictus
- Moonbase Holdings, LLC
- Nationalist Front (NF)
- The Fraternal Order of the Alt-Knights (FOAK)
- Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (LWK)
- East Coast Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (ECK)
Former Defendant: Charges Dismissed
Beyond their legal status in this case, however, it is probably easiest to think of them in terms of their affiliations with respect to the events around UTR themselves. With that in mind, the following are short biographical sketches of each defendant that will hopefully provide some context as to their roles during UTR and their engagement (or lack thereof) with the proceedings in this case thus far.
The Public Faces of UTR
Jason Kessler, Elliot Kline, Richard Spencer, and Chris Cantwell are undoubtedly the most recognizable leadership figures behind UTR. Kessler, the sole local resident among the defendants, became outraged in 2016 when then-Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy called for a statue of Robert E. Lee to be removed from a downtown park. The drive to take down the statue was followed by several isolated protests, including one in May 2017 led by Kessler and Richard Spencer (the defendants and their co-conspirators subsequently dubbed this protest “Charlottesville 1.0”) and one in July 2017 organized by the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (details about them below). But it was Kessler, a former Obama supporter and would-be Occupy participant, who called for a single, large, multi-group rally that August.
Throughout these proceedings as well as no fewer than three lawsuits he has brought against the City of Charlottesville since UTR, Kessler has sought to publicly position himself as a tenacious defender of the First Amendment. He does not describe himself as a white nationalist, despite his advocacy for “white civil rights” and the fact that he invited 1,000 or so racists to his own town, where they attacked many local people of color and threatened the local Jewish population. In recent months, he has been making the rounds on the white nationalist podcast and online media circuit, appearing on shows hosted by Jared Taylor of American Renaissance, Peter Brimelow of VDARE, Greg Johnson of Counter-Currents, and Henrik Palmgren of Red Ice TV (Palmgren was a UTR attendee himself).
In 2017, Elliot Kline was a leading figure in the now-defunct organization Identity Evropa (more on them below). His status owed a lot to his reputation as a combat veteran from the war in Iraq. It is in part because of that reputation that he was able to credibly circulate an eight-page document called the Charlottesville 2.0 “Operations Order,” or “OPORD,” among his comrades in early August 2017. In it, he all but literally gave marching orders to his fellow organizers, identified the proposed speakers, and even dictated how rival groups should behave toward one another.
Kline’s alt right career was cut short in early 2018 when journalists from The New York Times revealed that his military experience actually consisted of six years in the Pennsylvania National Guard and never extended beyond the state line. His ongoing refusal to cooperate with the proceedings in the Sines case will have to be a topic for another post, but for now it is noteworthy that it led his lawyers to drop him as a client. Moreover, because Kline has been so recalcitrant and failed to rebut plaintiffs’ arguments, the court has accepted as fact that he (among other things) planned to “engage in racially-motivated violence at the Unite the Right event” and was “motivated by animus against racial minorities, Jewish people, and their supporters.”
Richard Spencer, of course, is the face of the alt right, a term he helped coin in 2008. He is specifically regarded as the main organizer behind the tiki torch march on August 11, 2017 and promotional materials for the August 12 rally placed him at the top of the speakers list. While his fortunes have dimmed significantly in recent years (he’s had an acrimonious divorce, his lawyer in the Sines case dropped him for lack of payment, and he has effectively moved into his mom’s house in a resort community in Montana – all despite the wealth he was born into), he is nonetheless still able to get booked occasionally as a commentator on mainstream media outlets.
It is difficult to summarize the walking disaster that is the life of Chris Cantwell, aka the Crying Nazi. Hillary Sargent has done us all the favor of writing up an extensive bio, but suffice to say that he has a lengthy arrest record, flitted from one ideological fad to another before settling on fascism, and is incapable of keeping his mouth shut. He is therefore currently serving a 41-month sentence in federal prison for extortion and threats against a rival neo-Nazi.
Cantwell’s participation in both the tiki torch march and the UTR “rally” have been extensively documented, as has his ambition to “make [him]self more capable of violence.” In the summer of 2019, that kind of puffery made it impossible to ignore his threats against Roberta Kaplan, an outspoken attorney for the Sines plaintiffs who is specifically a target due to the fact that she is Jewish, a woman, and married to another woman. Her legal team sought to enjoin Cantwell for his threatening behavior, however the judge declined to do so, noting that he was already incarcerated by that point and ostensibly posed little threat to Ms. Kaplan. Even Cantwell’s own lawyers (one of whom is also a white nationalist while the other is, at the very least, a giant bigot) described his behavior as “repugnant” in their motion to withdraw from representing him. That motion: granted.
More recently, Cantwell has received shadow counsel from fellow white supremacist inmates Matt Hale, a former Glenn Greenwald client and leader of the World Church of the Creator, and William White, who is in prison for soliciting violence against the foreman of the jury that convicted Hale.
The Convicted Murderer
James Alex Fields, Jr. will go to his grave remembered for only one thing: he’s the guy who drove the car that killed Heather Heyer and injured a great many others. His federal criminal trial for the attack ended with a sentence of life plus 419 years. (Molly Conger produced an excellent day-by-day podcast of his trail, available here; transcript here.)
Fields is not believed to have participated in high-level organizing for UTR, however he is included as a Sines defendant largely due to his association with the neo-Nazi organization Vanguard America (more on them below). He was widely photographed in a VA uniform (white polo shirt and khaki pants) and holding one of their shields on August 12. According to the Complaint in the Sines case, his actions that day were an act of domestic terrorism “in furtherance of [the defendants’] conspiracy.” Fields would likely make an excellent case study in the concept of stochastic violence.
Of the seven counts raised against the defendants, three of them apply exclusively to Fields.
Fields will not be present in the courtroom for Sines v. Kessler, but rather watching from a federal prison in Missouri.
Alt-Right Core Groups
Vanguard America (VA) was one of the many neo-Nazi organizations that grew out of the online Iron March community (now best known for spawning Atomwaffen Division). VA was founded in 2015 or 2016 by ex-Marine Dillon Hopper. Hopper claims he was not at all involved with UTR planning and there is evidence to suggest that there may be some truth to this. The organization’s website was hijacked shortly before UTR by Thomas Rousseau, at the time a 19 year-old VA member who locked Hopper out. Shortly after UTR, Rousseau rebranded the organization as Patriot Front, which is now undoubtedly the most active nationally organized neo-Nazi group in the US.
Hopper claims to no longer have any connection with VA (which effectively doesn’t exist anymore, except as Patriot Front), but for purposes of the Sines trial, he is its representative. He and Rousseau have both been deposed, but neither has been cooperative with respect to turning over evidence in the discovery phase of the proceedings (e.g., Rousseau claims he threw out his old computer and there are no backups).
Elliot Kline’s old group Identity Evropa (IE) was formed around the same time as VA by Nathan Damigo, another former Marine. With respect to organizing UTR, Richard Spencer once said, “I’d love to take credit for it, but it was more Nathan.”
Unlike Kline, Damigo did, in fact, go to Iraq and, while he is probably most famous for punching someone significantly smaller than himself in the face during an April 2017 protest in Berkeley, California, he once also robbed a cab driver with a Middle Eastern background at gunpoint and blamed it on his war trauma. He left IE shortly after UTR, at which point Kline took over for a short period. Damigo has since declared bankruptcy and Kline’s successor Patrick Casey attempted to rebrand IE as the American Identitarian Movement in 2019. The group then folded in late 2020. Both Damigo’s bankruptcy and the IE rebrand are widely suspected to be attempts to avoid legal consequences for UTR.
The Old School National Socialists
The National Socialist Movement (NSM) was formed in the mid-1970s by a faction of the declining American Nazi Party. In 1994, then 20-year old Jeff Schoep became NSM’s “Commander.” He retained that position until early 2019, when he allegedly signed over control of the group to a Black civil rights activist named James Hart Stern. Both Schoep and his successor Burt Colucci (who is NSM’s representative for purposes of the Sines trial) have contested Stern’s claims. However, that didn’t stop Stern from filing a hilarious, yet sincere motion for summary judgment in February 2019 in an attempt to bankrupt and, ultimately, dissolve the group. The motion was denied and Stern was barred from further participation in the case (he died in October 2019).
However, Hart’s intervention also seems to have given Schoep an opportunity to leave NSM, rehabilitate his image and, in the eyes of most anti-fascist activists, attempt to evade accountability. He joined the widely discredited “countering violent extremism” (CVE) group Light Upon Light and has implausibly recast himself as an anti-racist activist. He has done little to nothing in terms of repairing the damage wrought by his 25-year career leading a major Nazi organization and when asked to turn over evidence for the current trial, he has generally dragged his feet and provided often unusable materials (e.g., he claims he dropped his phone in a toilet, rendering it unusable). This too will likely turn up in a future post on defendants’ efforts to undermine the case against them.
The Nationalist Front (NF) is no longer a defendant in this case as, after a couple of years of total failure to cooperate in any way with the court, it was finally adjudged to be in default in late September of this year. But for informational purposes, it is (or, more likely, was) an umbrella organization that included NSM and fellow defendant organizations Vanguard America, the Traditionalist Worker Party, and the League of the South. For the purposes of the Sines trial, the question of who might represent NF was always contentious. Sometimes Schoep filled that role (despite his own objections), but in general the attorney for both Schoep and NF denied that was ever anything more than an agreement between groups.
The consequences of the default judgment will likely be minimal to none given that no one actually claims responsibility for NF and it has little or nothing in the way of assets or real or digital presence to indicate that it even still exists.
Matthew Heimbach founded the neo-Nazi Traditionalist Worker Party (TWP) in 2015 as an offshoot of his Traditionalist Youth Network. TWP was undoubtedly the most overtly third positionist (“beyond left and right”) of all the major organizations associated with the alt right: it idealized white male workers while attacking both capitalism and communism as Jewish constructs. Heimbach’s stepfather-in-law and right hand man Matt Parrott operated as TWP’s IT specialist and public spokesman. Heimbach was listed as a speaker at UTR.
The organization collapsed and Heimbach and Parrott fell out due to a bizarre love square now immortalized as the Night of the Wrong Wives. Afterwards, Parrott very publicly declared his intention to destroy TWP records, which would otherwise have been usable as evidence in the Sines trial.
After TWP fell apart, Heimbach worked briefly for NSM, but was kicked out for being a “communist.” In early 2020, he followed Jeff Schoep’s lead, superficially disavowed racism in favor of “working class solidarity,” and joined the ranks of Light Upon Light. Throughout pretrial proceedings, he has been overtly uncooperative and, like Kline, Cantwell, and Spencer, was dropped by his attorneys (he has recently reacquired representation). But that hasn’t stopped him from making amends with Parrott and talking publicly about restarting TWP.
For the purposes of the Sines case, TWP is represented by Tony Hovater, best known as the subject of a notoriously uncritical 2017 New York Times essay about “the Nazi next door.”
Michael Hill, who was scheduled to speak at UTR and is, ironically, a former professor at Alabama’s historically Black Stillman College, co-founded League of the South (LOS) in 1994 as a Southern pride and identity organization. (It was initially called the Southern League until a baseball league by the same name threatened a lawsuit.) In the years that followed, Hill’s increasingly overt and strident racism and antisemitism drove away most of the membership the group accumulated in the 1990s, making room for more radical, pro-secession neo-Confederates and neo-Nazis.
One of these was Michael Tubbs, now a member of LOS’ Florida chapter. A former Green Beret, Tubbs served four years of an eight year sentence in the 1990s after stealing munitions from an army depot and leading a plot to start a race war by attacking “journalists, TV stations and black- and Jewish-owned businesses.” Tubbs was a very visible presence at UTR. Standing a head taller than most of the people around him and sporting sunglasses, a white goatee, and shoulder-length salt-and-pepper hair, he was recorded leading a small army carrying LOS shields (white with a black saltire) in an attack on anti-fascist counter-demonstrators on the morning of August 12, 2017.
The Fraternal Order of the Alt-Knights (FOAK) was founded in 2017 by Kyle “Based Stickman” Chapman as the self-declared “paramilitary wing” of the Proud Boys. The organization was named as a defendant in the Complaint, however it defaulted early on. The reason: while federal law allows individuals to represent themselves in court, “artificial entities” (e.g., organizations) must be represented by licensed attorneys. Given that Chapman, who is not an attorney of any kind, attempted to file responses on behalf of the group himself, those responses were inadmissable and the group was deemed unresponsive. However, there is little evidence that the group currently exists in any meaningful way or, frankly, that it ever really had significant membership. The consequences of the default are therefore likely to be minimal to none. Chapman did not attend UTR and is not named as a defendant.
The former Austin Gillespie, an attorney from Florida who ran for Senate there as a Libertarian in 2016, has a sufficiently grandiose sense of himself that he legally changed his name to Augustus Sol Invictus in 2006. He was slated to speak at UTR and was also there in his capacity as the second-in-command of FOAK. His past is at least as checkered as Cantwell’s (pro tip: do a search for his name and the phrase “goat blood”). Most recently, he spent a couple of months in early 2021 in a South Carolina prison pending trial on charges of domestic violence and possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime. (The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.) Mr. Sol Invictus defaulted in this case in March 2018.
The Daily Stormer Circuit
Andrew Anglin, publisher of the notorious neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer (TDS), is no longer a defendant in the Sines trial as the process servers could not find him and he was therefore never served his summons. He was adjudged to be in default as a result. This is not surprising as the same happened when residents of Whitefish, Montana (the current home of Richard Spencer and his mom) attempted to sue him for inciting hordes of trolls to harass and threaten the town’s Jewish population. His whereabouts have been officially unknown for several years, although he’s probably still in or around his native Columbus, Ohio. He continues to run TDS and even gets published on high-profile far right websites like The Unz Review alongside former mainstream conservative figures like Michelle Malkin and Steve Sailer.
Anglin is also the founder of the shell company Moonbase Holdings, LLC, which exists so that supporters can donate to TDS without it turning up by name on any of their records. Moonbase was also named as a defendant in the Sines complaint, however it too defaulted as it is represented by Anglin and he has thus far avoided being served any papers.
One of the most prominent TDS writers in the run-up to UTR was a man then in his late 40s named Robert “Azzmador” Ray. He was indicted by an Albermarle County, Virginia grand jury in 2018 for “malicious use of gas” during the tiki torch march. Shortly thereafter, the Texas native was listed as a fugitive in Virginia. Furthermore, because of his total non-cooperation in Sines v. Kessler, he was held in contempt in September 2020. Through all of this, however, he has continued to write and produce podcasts for TDS. He remains a defendant and has not (yet?) defaulted.
A New School National Socialist
Mike “Enoch” Peinovich is another person who was once a defendant but is no longer. However, he is the only one of these who did not default. On the contrary, he bears the unique distinction of having his charges dismissed after he submitted a motion arguing that he was not involved in planning the torch march or the “rally” on August 12, nor did he have any connection with James Fields. Nonetheless, promotional materials named him as a speaker at the rally, he promoted UTR on his podcast The Daily Shoah (a staple of the US neo-Nazi media infrastructure), and, in the words of presiding Judge Moon, he “shared the names and addresses of [Charlottesville] businesses, allegedly in an attempt to have attendees intimidate them. Some of these businesses received various threats.”
Before UTR, Peinovich was best known for being outed as the husband of a Jewish woman in January 2017, an awkward revelation for a prominent neo-Nazi. They divorced shortly thereafter. He laid low for a few months after that, but had been welcomed back by the following April, when he spoke at a rally in Pikeville, Kentucky. It was the last significant far right rally in the US before UTR.
Two KKK organizations were initially named as defendants in Sines v. Kessler, however they both defaulted for the same reason that FOAK did: federal law allows individuals to represent themselves, but organizations must be represented by an attorney. Given that the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (LWK) and the East Coast Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (ECK) both attempted to file their own responses to the charges raised against them and failed to hire attorneys, they defaulted early on in the process.
LWK, based in Pelham, North Carolina, is responsible for organizing the July 2017 rally in Charlottesville against the removal of the Lee statue. That rally was supported by the ECK and both groups sent members to participate in UTR. Moreover, members of both groups have publicly stated their approval of James Fields’ actions and their pleasure at the harm done to their ideological enemies. Grand Dragon Justin Moore said in October 2017, “I’m sorta glad that them people got hit and I’m glad that girl died.” On the afternoon of August 12, 2017, one ECK member posted on Twitter “At least nobody important got hurt.” ECK is an organization in decline and the events page on its website shows nothing new listed since 2019.
[Please note that this post has been corrected to reflect the fact that Augustus Sol Invictus defaulted on this case on March 14, 2018. We apologize for the oversight.]