Sines v. Kessler: Reckoning and Weaponization

Unite the Right rally

Related Content

November 29, 2021

Photo credit: Getty

On November 23, 2021, a jury returned its verdicts in the civil lawsuit against the organizers of the deadly 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. All defendants were found liable of Virginia state civil conspiracy charges, and the jury agreed to award the plaintiffs more than $25 million in damages. Jurors were unable to reach a decision on federal conspiracy charges.

Sines v. Kessler, the civil suit filed by Integrity First for America, was a groundbreaking effort to hold accountable more than two dozen organizers of and participants in the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, putting them under the Klieg lights of public scrutiny and demonstrating the months-long planning, communication and conspiracy leading up to the largest white supremacist event in recent memory.

But while the trial put the defendants’ bigotry, antisemitism and racism on full display, it also provided them a stage to share their bigotry and hate with a large, captive audience, while aggressively harassing their critics. Just as the 2017 Unite the Right rally unified white supremacists of all stripes around one event, so too has the Sines v. Kessler trial.

A number of defendants, including Matthew Parrott, Michael Hill, Jason Kessler, Matthew Heimbach and Richard Spencer, used their time in the courtroom to hurl racial slurs, rant about antifa or “Jewish-led” conspiracies, show white supremacist propaganda videos, praise Adolf Hitler and his autobiography Mein Kampf and in many ways attempt to make a mockery of a federal court proceeding. The trial, which was a critical step for holding the white supremacists accountable for their actions, simultaneously provided them with an opportunity to broadcast their ideology.

Defendant Christopher Cantwell, who represented himself during the trial after being unable to find an attorney willing to represent him, managed to harness the power of the trial for his own purposes.

In the years since the Unite the Right rally, Cantwell, best known for his “Radical Agenda” podcast and as “the crying Nazi,” a term coined when footage emerged of Cantwell crying after learning there was a warrant for his arrest, has been embroiled in legal trouble. Most recently, in February 2021, a federal judge sentenced Cantwell to 41 months in prison on extortion and threat charges stemming from a series of 2019 Telegram messages, including one in which he threatened to rape the wife of a Missouri-based white supremacist.

Unite the Right

Christopher Cantwell pepper spraying counter protestors at the 2017 Unite the Right rally on the University of Virginia campus. Image Source

Cantwell, who is currently serving jail time for past crimes, behaved throughout the trial like someone who had nothing to lose, as highlighted via his badgering of both plaintiffs and witnesses. Cantwell made his strategic weaponization of the trial clear in the November 1, 2021, episode of far-right podcast Free Talk Live, where he said, “I consider it [Sines v. Kessler] 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. I saw this as a tremendous opportunity both because of the cause at hand and because I knew the world was listening.”  

Throughout the trial, Cantwell plugged his “Radical Agenda” podcast and brought up a plethora of topics outside of the case, including Critical Race Theory.  He even used a portion of his closing argument to assert the innocence of James Alex Field, Jr. , the man who deliberately drove his vehicle into a crowd of protesters at the Unite the Rally, injuring 19 and killing Heather Heyer. Cantwell also made various guest appearances on white supremacist podcasts to be interviewed as a “political prisoner.”

Cantwell spent most of his time railing against “antifa” enemies or highlighting “Jewish-led” conspiracies. He argued that anyone at the Unite the Right rally wearing black, carrying a sign or flag, wearing sunglasses, a whistle or even a bandana was antifa. On his Radical Agenda podcast, Cantwell argued the real reason for the violence at the Unite the Right rally was the “deliberate negligence on the part of the city of Charlottesville and the Commonwealth of Virginia to enable antifa violence in order to deny us our right to assemble and speak.” 

On November 21, while the jury deliberated over the verdict, Cantwell appeared in an interview with the white supremacist podcast, The Right Stuff. The podcast’s host stated, “This [trial] demonstrates that we’re not dealing with old school of the Jewish elite, this is like the more degenerate level, they’ve been playing the game on easy mode and didn’t expect a wild card getting in there [Cantwell],” Cantwell responded, “I feel very good saying they screwed up by bringing me into this…I asked penetrative questions that dismantled those lies…I said to the plaintiff Kaplan, “Are you ready to lose to the crying Nazi?”

Cantwell’s conspiratorial rhetoric appeared to resonate with the broader white supremacist movement. Prior to the trial, Cantwell had largely lost his leadership within the movement, particularly after the media ridiculed him, labeling him as “the crying Nazi.”  However, Cantwell’s performance during the trial has gone a long way towards redeeming him among other white supremacists, where his many court outbursts were seen as “wins” by fellow extremists.

Unite the Right

Cantwell praised by a variety of white supremacist on Telegram during his defense in Sines v. Kessler.

White supremacists, including Warren BaloghMike Peinovich, Eric Stricker, and Tony Hovater, praised Cantwell, while the white supremacist and Proud Boys-affiliated Western Chauvinist channel posted, “It was a privilege to be one of the 500 on conference call when Christopher Cantwell made his closing remarks.  Without exaggeration we can say that it was one of the greatest moments of oratory skill in known history.  Comparisons to all-time great orators like Cicero or Hitler would not be out of the question…Cantwell is probably the only UTR defendant who will be relevant after the trial.”   

Unite the Right

This support for Cantwell spread beyond simple written words online. Various white supremacist channels urged followers to donate to Cantwell’s legal fund for “fighting the good fight,” or even doxed individuals during Cantwell’s questioning of witnesses. In one instance, listeners on the public conference call were able to unmute themselves, and repeated the n-word multiple times while promoting Cantwell’s podcast. 

Cantwell recently stated that he plans to return to the movement once out of prison, and the attention he’s received during this trial will likely bolster his future activism.