The Washington Post
By Ellie Silverman
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Devin Willis testified for hours about the racist vitriol he endured as a young Black man while a torch-carrying mob marched on his college campus four years ago, surrounding him and his friends, spraying chemical irritants and making “monkey noises.”
Now, one of those violent white supremacists, who is representing himself without an attorney in this trial, stood in front of Willis in a federal courtroom, badgering him to name his friends in public proceedings that hundreds of people are listening in on each day.
“I’m hesitant to name them,” Willis told Christopher Cantwell — a neo-Nazi defendant who is serving a prison sentence for extortion and threat charges from a separate case. “Some of them live here.”
Judge Norman K. Moon told Willis he had to answer the question.
Within minutes, the names of Willis’s friends, and photos of at least one of their faces, spread to far-right chatrooms where extremist supporters were following the trial. The chatroom was led by another defendant, who was also live-tweeting this information.
“Cantwell needs to keep drilling down for more names,” one user wrote in the chat the afternoon Willis testified.
The brazen display of doxing — or publicly uncovering personal information about a private individual — revealed the ways that white supremacists are weaponizing this federal civil trial about the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally weekend into a spiteful stage.
Some of the defendants have been ousted from social media such as Facebook and the dating site OkCupid, but in this courtroom, they’ve found a new platform to amplify their racist views, put on performances they boast about on podcasts, radio shows and in live during-the-trial chats, and to attack their opponents.
“This is kind of unprecedented in terms of real-time doxing that the defendants are able to facilitate in the middle of a court proceeding,” said Oren Segal, the vice president of the Center on Extremism at the Anti-Defamation League. “All of them understand that in some ways, the performance that they put on over the next month is going to sort of set themselves up for whether or not they still have whatever following they will have.”
The defendants are some of the most notorious white supremacists and hate groups in the country, and the plaintiffs allege they engaged in a conspiracy to commit racially motivated violence at the rally in Charlottesville. The lawsuit, which is backed by the nonprofit civil rights organization Integrity First for America, is underpinned by a Reconstruction-era statute designed to protect newly emancipated Black people from the Ku Klux Klan.
Hundreds of people are listening to the daily public audio broadcast of this trial brought by people who intend to hold white supremacists accountable for the rally violence. They hear the defendants repeat the greatest hits of right-wing extremist beliefs in the courtroom and double down on the racist personas they have crafted for their followers, many of whom are paying attention.
Neo-Nazi fans celebrated in far-right chatrooms Monday as some listeners on the public access line, which caps at 500 people, appeared to be able to unmute themselves during the trial’s afternoon break and troll the court — saying the n-word multiple times, declaring “Make America Great Again” and promoting a white supremacist podcast on which Cantwell recently spoke.
Since the trial began late last month, at least three of the defendants have called into far-right podcasts or radio shows, bragging about how well the defense is performing.
If the defendants’ behavior in court goes unchecked, experts warned of harmful consequences, raising questions about the ability of the country’s legal system to safely allow people to file lawsuits against violent racists.
“It screams the whole, if a Black person dares to try to hold a White person, particularly a White male, accountable that not only will they be threatened, but everyone around them,” said Shireen Mitchell, founder of Stop Online Violence Against Women, a group that has tracked online extremism since 2013 and supports women of color who are harassed online. “It’s a very clear indicator of organized and targeted attacks.”
Cantwell, a far-right podcaster who has been dubbed the “crying Nazi,” has pleaded guilty in a separate case to two counts of assault and battery stemming from his use of pepper spray near the University of Virginia rotunda during the Unite the Right rally weekend. He is also serving a 41-month sentence in an Illinois federal prison after being convicted of extortion and threat charges.
In a recent interview with an extremist podcast, he said that he was held in a communications management unit, which severely limited his ability to speak to the general public. But for this trial, Cantwell said he was transported to the Central Virginia Regional Jail, providing a respite from communication restrictions and an opportunity to call into podcasts and speak to his followers through court proceedings.
Cantwell is one of two defendants who have represented themselves in the courtroom, presenting unique circumstances in which they directly confront and question their accusers.
When Cantwell pressured Willis to name his friends, Willis’s attorney, Roberta Kaplan, tried to intervene, but he was permitted to ask again: “Could you tell me the names of the people in the car with you?”
“I’m sorry, real quickly,” Willis said, glancing over his right shoulder to look at Moon. “Judge,” he asked, “I have to name them?”
“Yes, you have to,” Moon said. “This is your lawsuit, and this is information that they have a right to ask.”
‘They know who’s watching’
On any given day, this trial sounds like an open spigot of hate. Defendants have dropped the n-word, admired Adolf Hitler, joked about the Holocaust and trafficked in racist pseudoscience.
A court reporter types their slurs into official transcripts, news media report on what’s said in the courtroom, and high-profile left-wing activists live-tweet the trial to their tens of thousands of followers.
“This is the Star Wars bar scene of extremism in that courtroom,” said Segal, of the Anti-Defamation League, “and they know who’s watching.”
The plaintiffs, nine people who allege physical harm and emotional distress that weekend, argue the violence in Charlottesville was planned, drawing on a trove of evidence, including racist and violent social media posts and messages. Their advocates say their biggest expense is security because of the violent — in some cases criminal — history of the defendants and their extremist followers.
According to court documents, Cantwell — whose attorneys quit before the trial after his alleged threats to opposing counsel — received legal help from other convicted violent white supremacists: Matt Hale, who is serving a 40-year sentence for soliciting the murder of a federal judge, and William A. White, who is serving a 42-month sentence for soliciting violence against the foreman of the federal jury that convicted Hale.
During jury selection, the defense submitted a question to the judge asking a potential juror whether they would fear repercussions in coming to a verdict in this case. The plaintiffs’ attorney Karen Dunn objected, stating that the question itself could be “experienced by the juror as threatening or potentially retaliatory.”
In the past several years, there have been massive efforts to silence the kinds of hateful, violent speech that can spur real-life harm.
Anti-fascist organizers and researchers have been pushing tech companies to deplatform white supremacists for their incendiary, threatening speech that often targets people of color, women and religious minorities.
Facebook has kicked off defendants Jason Kessler, the lead organizer of the Unite the Right rally, Cantwell and Richard Spencer, who coined the term “alt-right,” though Kessler and Spencer still appear to be active on Twitter. And OkCupid banned Cantwell.
The neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer, published by Andrew Anglin, also a defendant in this case, has been removed from domain registration systems including Google. As a result, many extremists have migrated to more obscure platforms.
Charlottesville activists have been urging journalists to avoid interviewing the defendants. After spotting a Vice reporter speaking with Spencer outside the courthouse, anti-racist activists issued this statement through a freelance journalist: “if vice sincerely wants interviews with us, maybe they should stop talking to Richard Spencer.”
Advocates for the plaintiffs said the lawsuit aims to bankrupt white supremacists and their groups, and there have already been results with default judgments against several defendants who did not cooperate in the case. Spencer called the suit “financially crippling” and at least three defendants already face tens of thousands of dollars in sanctions for flouting court orders, documents show.
Still, the trial seems to have given some defendants a boost.
Kessler, who has not yet been called to the witness stand, has been messaging his followers in a real-time chat during the trial. He includes his reactions to testimony, pictures of people named in court, and the transcript of Cantwell’s opening statement, with calls for donations to support Kessler’s legal defense.
Kessler also cross-promotes this on Twitter, where more people pile into the conversation. And he has appeared on a far-right congressional candidate’s YouTube show and another extremist podcast to talk about the trial.
Melissa Ryan, author of the Ctrl Alt Right Delete newsletter that tracks online extremism, called their use of the trial platform “desperation.”
“Part of it is the addiction to the attention; part of it is the need to raise money to keep the grift going,” said Ryan, the CEO of Card Strategies, a consulting firm that researches disinformation. “And part of it is just knowing that our systems, whether you’re talking about American media or whether you’re talking about courtroom, just weren’t designed for this kind of stress and behavior.”
‘The world was listening’
When Michael Hill, another defendant, was questioned by attorneys on Friday about his beliefs and planning ahead of the rally, he proudly repeated a pledge in which he called himself “a white supremacist, a racist, an antisemite, a homophobe, a xenophobe, an Islamophobe, and any other sort of ‘phobe’ that benefits my people, so help me God!’”
He was presented in court with a February 2019 tweet from a now-suspended account, in which he wrote about the deadly rally: “I would not go back and change a thing.”
Hours later, Hill called in to a far-right radio show and told listeners he was “very pleased” to share his testimony, knowing the court was “a public forum” where “a lot of people were listening.”
“I didn’t deny anything that I believe in,” Hill said on the radio show and, referring to the plaintiff’s attorney who questioned him in court, added: “I’m very honored … to have gotten to face off with this New York Jew attorney.”
Cantwell has used cross-examinations to re-litigate previous grudges, uncover information on people who oppose him and emphasize his views.
At one point, he asked co-defendant Matthew Heimbach to tell his “favorite Holocaust joke.” He also asked a historian and expert on Holocaust denial whether it was ever okay to tell antisemitic jokes.
From the beginning, Cantwell had known this trial was a chance to promote himself. After delivering his opening statements last month, he predicted on a right-wing radio show that he had the plaintiffs “shook up.” And comparing himself to other attorneys in the courtroom, he claimed: “I look like a star next to them.”
“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,” Cantwell said on the show. “I saw this as a tremendous opportunity both because of the cause at hand and because I knew the world was listening.”
Ellie Silverman covers protest movements, activism and local news. At The Post, she has also covered local crime and courts. She has previously reported on retail, breaking news and general assignment stories for the Philadelphia Inquirer, her hometown paper. She graduated from the University of Maryland, where she reported for the Diamondback.