In Charlottesville, Rittenhouse and Arbery Cases, White Supremacy Is on Trial

Jurors in Charlottesville, Virginia, are hearing closing arguments today in a civil trial that seeks to hold white supremacists accountable for organizing the deadly “Unite the Right” rally there in 2017, and conspiring to commit racially motivated violence. Richard Spencer and Christopher Cantwell have been defending their positions in courtroom. They took the stand on Tuesday and tried unsuccessfully, despite using racial slurs throughout the trial, to have the case dismissed by the judge for lack of evidence. The jury will begin deliberations on Friday. Both Spencer and Cantwell have “failed utterly to take responsibility for the roles they played,” says SlateDahlia Lithwick is the legal correspondent and was in Charlottesville during the rally 2017. She is covering the trial, which is not being aired. She also discusses the homicide trial of white teenage gunman Kyle Rittenhouse and the broad use of the “self defense” argument by white supremacists on trial.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN:This is Democracy Now!, Democracynow.orgThe War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman joined by Democracy Now!Nermeen Shaikh, cohost. Hi, Nermeen.

NERMEEN SHAIKH:Amy, welcome to our listeners across the country as well as around the globe.

AMY GOODMAN:Today’s closing arguments in the civil trial of white supremacists are being heard in Charlottesville, Virginia. They are accused of organizing the deadly Unite the Right protest in 2017 and conspiring in racially motivated violence. Several hundred white supremacists marched with tiki torches at the time across the University of Virginia, chanting, “You will not replace us,” “Jews will not replace us,” and “White lives matter.” The next day, self-described neo-Nazi James Alex Fields slammed his car into a crowd of anti-racist counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring dozens more. He was sentenced for murder and hate crime and received a life sentence.

Richard Spencer, and Christopher Cantwell are the two white supremacists who have been defending themselves in courtroom. They took the stand on Tuesday and tried unsuccessfully, despite using racial slurs in the trial, to have the case dismissed for lack of evidence. When Cantwell cross-examined one of the witnesses, Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt, he asked her, “There’s no such thing as an innocent anti-Semitic joke?” After today’s closing arguments, jurors are expected to begin deliberations Friday.

For more, we’re joined by Dahlia Lithwick, Slate.comSenior editor and senior legal correspondent. She was in Charlottesville during the Unite the Right rally, and has been covering the trial. Her most recent piece is headlined Why the Nazis Are Treating Their Trial in Charlottesville Like a Joke. Dahlia, welcome back to Democracy Now!We are at the critical moment of three, one might say, white supremacist trial. This one is a civil one, you’ve got Rittenhouse and then you’ve got the case of the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. We’re going to start in Charlottesville. Talk about the uniqueness and civility of this trial. Also, what has been said and the fights between white supremacists representing themselves.

DAHLIA LITHWICK:One thing that struck me about this trial was the degree to which we thought the defendants would be organized. They were going present a coherent front. They would at least try to prove to the rest of the world that they were innocent. Instead, we have seen chaos. The plaintiff’s case was airtight, so much documentary evidence, reams and reams of testimony, compelling testimony. When the defense started to present its case, it was infighting, and catfighting. Richard Spencer was once questioning Jason Kessler (the local organizer) about why he believed he was a psycho. The n-word was being dropped, as you stated. Chris Cantwell, also known as the crying Nazi, was literally standing up while replaying video footage of himself attacking people. One of the real lessons of this trial to me is that when given four years to prepare a defense, these entities and people, all they could come up with was performance art, showmanship and a little bit of what you heard about Paul Gosar—just, “This is a joke. It’s fun. This was hilarious. Don’t you agree?”

NERMEEN SHAIKH:Dahlia: You mentioned the plaintiffs and their testimony. What struck you most about their statements?

DAHLIA LITHWICK:It is difficult not to feel traumatized. There were many plaintiffs, some with life-altering injuries, and some who have suffered from post-traumatic stress, which has left them almost paralysed. It was a truly tragic and horrendous trauma. When you heard them talk about what they sustained that day, how it has informed and affected their lives and really made them terrified, and then to see them being cross-examined, again, by the Chris Cantwells of the world, the Richard Spencers of the world, trying to imply that they were part of some nefarious Antifa plot and that this was a trap laid by anti-fascists in order to discredit the white supremacist movement—I think the thing that has struck me most is just the discordance, again, between the genuine life-altering suffering of the plaintiffs and the sense that this is just kind of a comedy tour, that it is neither serious nor sober nor warranting of action on the part of the defendants.

NERMEEN SHAIKH:Dalia, could someone please explain Richard Spencer and Cantwell to me?

DAHLIA LITHWICK:Richard Spencer rose quickly to fame after Donald Trump’s election. He was for a brief time the symbol of the newly-scrubbed preppy, new face of white supremacy. He is credited with inventing the term “alt-right,” which was supposed to be the freshly scrubbed Nazi. You may recall that he led a victory party in which people gave the Nazi salute, and shouted Nazi slogans, right after the election. That’s Richard Spencer. He has fallen from grace, it is important to note. He is now representing his self, his wife has made allegations of tremendous abuse and he is bankrupt.

Chris Cantwell was, I believe at the time, a shock jock and an entertainer. He mentions that he has an entertainment company, this podcast, at every opportunity he gets in this trial. He is just a funny, funny man who showed up in Charlottesville armed. After he was pepper sprayed, there was a viral video of him crying and sobbing about turning in to the police. I think in a sense, both of them are iterations of this face of what tried to be kind of cool, hip, Proud Boy era, funny, entertaining Nazis who a little bit got caught up in their own rhetoric and really failed utterly to take responsibility for the roles they played leading this movement and possibly—the jury will tell us—leading to some of the violence that day.

NERMEEN SHAIKH:What do you think is the larger significance of this case? Also, the closing arguments, as they’re set to begin today, what are you watching out for?

DAHLIA LITHWICK:One thing I want to highlight is the fact that this trial wasn’t televised. You must call 1-800 to access the courthouse to listen in. It was a fascinating experiment in how to cover Nazism and not amplify it. Certainly some of the defendants who have been deplatformed have been going on one another’s podcasts but one of the things that has been really striking is the extent to which it has contained some of the worst rhetoric, the dropping of the n-word, the joking with one another about which Holocaust jokes are funny. All of this has been kept from the public’s view.

I think in a sense for me, one of the lessons of this, is how you can have accountability—and again, it will be left to the jury starting this afternoon when they began to deliberate if they want to have accountability—but to have accountability without amplifying the really hateful, hurtful message, I think it has been a really powerful lesson in how you do that, how you don’t in some sense give attention to the worst elements of this.

In terms of the closing statements, I think one of the things that I have found really interesting in the last two days is the extent to which the defendants simply don’t understand conspiracy law. There was an attempt on Tuesday—they wanted the case dismissed. Richard Spencer and Chris Cantwell said to the judge, “We have nothing to do. There was no agreement. There is no evidence that we were in a conspiracy.” Judge Moon, who is this 84-year-old very Southern gentleman who has been really unfailingly fair to both sides, basically said, “You don’t understand anything about conspiracy law” and walked them through the evidence and more or less said, “That alone could lead the jury to find conspiracy.” So think whether the defendants fully understand the law and fully understand the extent to which they are on the hook is going to be the thing that I’m going to look for in the closing.

AMY GOODMAN:Before we move on to Rittenhouse homicide trial and the murder trial, let’s quickly explain why this case is different. They are not being tried for murdering Heather Heyer, for instance. This is a civil trial. They’re not going to go to jail. What is the point? What are the plaintiffs who brought this suit?

DAHLIA LITHWICK:Nine people were injured in the events that took place in Charlottesville on August 11th and 12. It is a civil trial in some sense because the Trump Justice Department didn’t stand up and didn’t in any way attempt to bring to justice the folks who were involved in organizing and performing this rally. I think that the plaintiffs in the case, and they are led by really masterful attorneys, Robbie Kaplan and Karen Dunn and their teams, what they essentially said was, “We will be the stand-in for the DOJ. We will bring a civil rights action that says if you, based on racial animus, deprive people of their civil rights”—this is rooted in the KKK Act, a 150-year-old statute—”we will effectuate your rights in civil trial.”

AMY GOODMAN:I would like to ask you a question about Kyle Rittenhouse’s homicide trial. Jury deliberations are now in their third day. Judge Bruce Schrader has not yet ruled on two mistrial requests by the defense, but he said he could still do so. He stated that he could rule on the matter even after a verdict has been rendered. If there was a guilty verdict, he could move for its annulment. Dahlia Lithwick, you’re a SlateSenior legal correspondent, have another piece headlined When Everything Is ‘Self-Defense’ and everyone gets a gun. It seems that this could also apply to the Arbery murder case where Travis McMichael (the son of the ex-police officer) and Bryan, the other man, are also being tried for murdering Ahmaud Arbery. They are arguing self-defense. Talk about Rittenhouse.

DAHLIA LITHWICK: I think you made this point in your lead-in, Amy, that we have now reached a moment where people are claiming self-defense when they bring their own weapon, in Rittenhouse’s case across state lines, a weapon he was not legally entitled to own. They bring their weapon into public and claim self-defense as they fear that it will be used against them. You cited Arbery as an example. Rittenhouse also claims that he was in danger. He is entitled to shoot all of these people within 120 seconds. They were going to take his weapon and kill it.

The point I was trying to make, and I think this is really connected to the U.S. Supreme Court hearing oral argument just a few weeks ago in a case that would probably strike down New York’s licensing law, is that if everybody has a weapon and everybody feels that their weapon can be used against them and then forward a self-defense claim, everybody will be reasonable. It is perfectly reasonable in a world where everyone is armed and everyone believes they are vulnerable because someone will shoot them with their gun. It doesn’t feel like a civil community; it feels like the O.K. To me, Corral seems like a civil society. The Rittenhouse jurors must face the fact that Rittenhouse may have felt that he was in danger because his weapon could be used against them. What does that say about a world that will allow everyone to use it as a defense?

AMY GOODMAN:We are grateful for your support. Slate.comSenior editor, senior lawyer correspondent. We will link all your coverage. When we come back, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of HumanityDavid Wengrow, and the late David Graeber. Stay with Us.