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

Grandstanding for Fascism

Within the first few minutes of his opening statement on October 28, Cantwell asked the jury “if any of you have ever had the intellectual curiosity to read Mein Kampf,” attacked the “demonstrably false idea that all men are created equal,” and explained that “to solve the problems in the Black community, it’s going to, quote, ‘require that white people grow some backbone and courage and stop fearing being called a racist.’”

We may be able to infer from this that he was less interested in presenting himself as a sympathetic defendant to the jury than he was in appealing to the constituency that elevated him to a position of relative fame in the first place. However, we don’t actually need to read into his comments, given that he confirmed what he was up to the following day. While it may seem unwise for a defendant in a high profile case to speak openly to media outlets while the case is ongoing, Cantwell nonetheless called in to the podcast Free Talk Live later on the 28th. The host, who is a friend of Cantwell’s from his days harassing parking meter attendants in Keene, New Hampshire, noted that the opening statement “sounded like you were doing your show in front of these people.” Cantwell replied, “Yeah, I considered it a spoken word performance, you know? And I take that kind of thing seriously. Especially once I found out that people were going to be able to listen” (referring to the conference call line that enables people to listen to the proceedings remotely every day).

Approval from a Far Right Constituency

For those of us who are not actually fascists, one curious effect of Cantwell’s ongoing performance is that it seems to be working, at least within his base of support. On October 30, fellow co-defendant Jason Kessler posted a PDF of the official transcript of Cantwell’s opening comments on his own website. Kessler then published a link to it in his Telegram account, describing it as “the epic Christopher Cantwell opening statement.” Kessler did not make any other transcripts available, including the statement given by his own attorney on the same day.

On October 29, while Cantwell was cross-examining co-plaintiff Natalie Romero, who was attacked during the August 11, 2017 torch rally at the University of Virginia and suffered a skull fracture and other injuries the following day when James Fields drove his car into a crowd of antifascist counter-protesters, Eric Striker of the neo-Nazi National Justice Party wrote on Telegram that “Cantwell is bringing the heat in cross-examination. Let’s see how many of these Antifa ‘witnesses’ drop out once they realize they are going to be seriously grilled about their activities under oath by Cantwell.”

The Third Rail, a podcast in the Right Stuff network, also has a Telegram channel and, on November 3, an account admin wrote: “If anyone can pull off turning this phase of the trial into litigating the historicity of the Holocaust, and winning on those grounds, it’s Cantwell. Send our boy your energy.”

Just a Couple of Friends Chatting about Mein Kampf

Co-defendant Matthew Heimbach is one of the few leading far right figures in recent years whose rise and fall were more spectacular than Cantwell’s. After he founded the Traditionalist Workers Party (TWP, also a co-defendant) in 2013 when he was in his early twenties, he fairly quickly came to be regarded as a rising star due to his apparent talent for bridging divides within a notoriously fractious movement, despite his outspoken adherence to the Strasserist “left” wing of neo-Nazism. However, it all came crashing down amid a tawdry and convoluted sex scandal and the domestic violence that ensued.

The plaintiffs in the Sines trial called Heimbach as a witness on November 2 and his testimony continued into the next day, when Cantwell had a chance to cross-examine him. It was an unusual courtroom exchange from the outset, in that Cantwell began with a casual “Hello, Matthew,” to which Heimbach replied, “Hey, Chris.” Heimbach had been grandstanding throughout questioning by plaintiffs’ attorney Karen Dunn, giving extensive, ideologically loaded answers to what were intended to be yes/no questions over Dunn’s objections.

Neo-Nazi podcast The Third Rail being entertained by antisemitic trolling in a federal courtroom

However, once the dialogue was between him and Cantwell, there was relatively little to hold him back. The two men disagree on certain doctrinal points, but they also share quite a few common objectives, and so Cantwell frequently set Heimbach up with questions that would, for instance, allow him to resuscitate a dying far right myth about antifascists’ frequent use of bike locks as weapons (it happened once), expound on his esoteric theory of “white juche” (derived from the North Korean concept of “self-reliance”), and opine about the fairness of James Fields’ criminal trial.

However, the most remarkable exchange came at the end of the cross-examination, when Cantwell announced that he wanted to talk about National Socialism. He began by asking Heimbach to confirm that he has read Mein Kampf repeatedly and in more than one translation. From there, amid a barrage of objections from the plaintiffs’ attorneys, he created space for Heimbach to explain the conditions under which the book was written, what Hitler really believed, and Heimbach’s own blinkered conception of national liberation.

Near the end of cross-examination, they engaged in the following exchange:

– Have you ever unironically stated that Adolf Hitler did nothing wrong?
– Yes.
– When you said that, did you believe that Adolf Hitler murdered six million Jews?
– No.

That kind of thing is unlikely to win over a jury, but then there’s a good chance that they both expected to lose this case from the outset anyway (a prospect that Richard Spencer has most likely considered with dread). Nonetheless, the rehabilitation of these two fallen fascists is clearly well underway among their real target audience. Even if they do lose in court, that will remain a concerning development.