Sines v. Kessler: Using the Courtroom as a Public Platform

[The following is part of an ongoing series about Sines v. Kessler, the civil suit against many of the main organizers of the August 2017 Unite the Right (UTR) rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. For an overview of the suit’s objectives and its many defendants, please see the first post in the series here.]

Courtrooms have long been sites for grand ideological statements. Before he was sentenced to hang for the 1886 Haymarket bombing (despite a distinct lack of evidence against him and his co-defendants), August Spies renounced none of his beliefs and instructed the jury that “socialism, in short, seeks to establish a universal system of co-operation.” Before receiving a ten year prison sentence in 1918, Eugene V. Debs declared that “I ask no mercy. I plead for no immunity. I realize that finally the right must prevail. I never so clearly comprehended as now the great struggle between the powers of greed on the one hand and upon the other the rising hosts of freedom.”

As a venue, however, courtrooms are also available to actors with far less noble sentiments. For one example, a week and a half into the Sines v. Kessler trial, it is clear that defendant Christopher Cantwell intends to continuously take advantage of his status as a pro se defendant to bully witnesses in cross-examination, expound on his beliefs, and rehabilitate his tarnished image among his overtly fascist constituency.

The US Marshals Service has put up yellow tape around the federal courthouse in Charlottesville. Whether or not it’s a coincidence, co-defendant Chris Cantwell has been getting legal advice from fellow inmates who are in federal prison for planning to commit violence against a judge and a jury foreman. (Photo by the author)

By the time he went to prison last year for threats and extortion directed at neo-Nazi rivals, Cantwell had gone from being a popular movement podcaster in the days leading up to Unite the Right to virtual pariah status. The reason for his fall was not so much his aggression toward a fellow fascist or even the infamous teary rant that earned him the “Crying Nazi” nickname, but rather the fact that he had admitted publicly to being an informant for federal agents. Working for domestic intelligence services isn’t exactly uncharted territory among far right actors, but it nonetheless confers a treasonous stench that cannot easily be washed away (as Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio has been learning in recent months). Still, as a movement invested in gestures of hypermasculine dominance and obsessed with martyrdom, fascists often reward audacious displays, even when they are strategically ill-advised.

Jury Selection in the Unite the Right Civil Trial and the Limits of Legal Action

[The following is part of an ongoing series about Sines v. Kessler, the civil suit against many of the main organizers of the August 2017 Unite the Right (UTR) rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. For an overview of the suit’s objectives and its many defendants, please see the first post in the series here.]

After two and a half long days of questioning potential jurors, the jury in the federal civil suit Sines v. Kessler has finally been impaneled. The following are some notes about how the jury selection process played out in this case and some of the pitfalls of using the courts to pursue far right actors.

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Notes on the Upcoming “Unite the Right” Civil Trial: A Guide to Who’s Involved and Why It Still Matters

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.

UTR participants near the southwest corner of Emancipation Park on Aug. 12, 2017. James Fields is visible third from left holding a Vanguard America shield. (Photo by the author)

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.

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