Posted on June 21, 2024

The Inside Story of Unite the Right

John Jackson, American Renaissance, June 21, 2024

Credit Image: © Zach D Roberts/NurPhoto via ZUMA Press

Subscribe to future audio versions of AmRen articles here.

Jason Kessler, Charlottesville and the Death of Free Speech, Dissident Press, 2024, 340 pp., $27.00 paperback, $44.00 hardcover

Jason Kessler, organizer of the infamous Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, has just written a book about it — and he saw everything from the inside. This is Mr. Kessler’s first book, but he does an admirable job.

Mr. Kessler explains the importance of free speech. It was eloquently promoted during the Enlightenment and is enshrined in first place in the Bill of Rights. As Milton explained in 1644, “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.” These words are inscribed in stone next to a “Free Speech Wall” in Charlottesville, but the rest of Mr. Kessler’s book proves this is only for show.

Inscription next to the Charlottesville Free Speech Wall.

The first proposal to remove the bronze Robert E. Lee statue in what was then known as Lee Park came from white city council member Kristin Szakos in 2012. It got new impetus in 2016 with a petition by a 15-year-old black girl named Zyahna Bryant. Rumor had it that Miss Bryant was put up to it by Miss Szakos, together with her black protege, Vice-Mayor Wes Bellamy. Mr. Bellamy also tried to “cancel” UVA economics professor John Muir, who had written on Facebook that Black Lives Matter was racist. Mr. Bellamy mounted a pressure campaign that included picketing an Italian restaurant Prof. Muir owned. The professor resigned from UVA.

During the controversy, Mr. Kessler attended an event by a local non-profit called the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression. A panel talked exclusively about persecution of left-wing activists and racial minorities, as if there was no threat to free speech for conservatives or white men. Mr. Kessler challenged the speakers, but the center’s director, Joshua Wheeler, would not defend Mr. Muir. He insisted that since the professor had resigned voluntarily, it was not a free speech issue.

Mr. Kessler searched Vice-Mayor Wes Bellamy’s Twitter account and found denunciations of black people who “act white” or “talk white.” Mr. Bellamy also wrote: “Lol funniest thing about being down south is seeing little white men and the look on their faces when they have to look up to you” and “I DONT LIKE WHIT [sic] PEOPLE SO I HATE WHITE SNOW.” He tweeted “word,” which is black slang for “I agree,” to this: “Eat it while she sleep if she moan it aint rape.”

Mr. Kessler publicized these tweets. Then-governor Terry McAuliffe removed Mr. Bellamy from the state Board of Education, but not a single member of the city council asked Mr. Bellamy to resign from the council. Mrs. Szakos claimed Mr. Bellamy’s account had been hacked and accused Mr. Kessler of lying.

Despite this political climate, Mr. Kessler thought it would be possible to hold a peaceful protest in Charlottesville, where he lived. First, in April 2017, unofficial Alt-Right spokesman Richard Spencer had been scheduled to speak at Auburn University in Alabama. Auburn tried to stop him, but with the help of veteran pro-white attorney Sam Dickson and the ACLU, he sued on First Amendment grounds. The event was held as planned, and police prevented hundreds of protesters from disrupting the event.

Second, also in April, pro-white groups held a rally in Pikesville, Kentucky. They called themselves the “hard right;” they thought the Alt-Right was too soft, and one group was explicitly Nazi. Again, police kept counter-protesters behind barricades. It seemed that even in a small town, and even with the most provocative speakers, an event could proceed peacefully.

Mr. Kessler led initial rallies in Charlottesville on May 13 and 14, when a group of people, mostly members of the pro-white group Identity Europa, met in Lee Park to protest removing the statue. Speakers included Richard Spencer, Jason Kessler and Sam Dickson. There was only a minor fracas the first day. During a torchlight parade, a drunken antifa named Jordan McNeish attacked a demonstrator, but was quickly beaten off with tiki torches.

There was trouble the second night. A group of about 1,000 counter-protesters, including antifa, Mr. Bellamy, and a local BLM leader, met in Lee Park to denounce “white supremacy.” A black Alt-Right figure and friend of Mr. Kessler named Emerson Stern livestreamed the event. Someone in the crowd recognized him and he was soon surrounded by hostile men. Mr. Kessler went to the park and tried to rescue him, but he was also surrounded. He managed to tear down a “fuck white supremacy” banner from the Lee statue and the crowd became even more aggressive. Police gave orders to clear the park, and demonstrators chased Mr. Kessler. Police arrested him for disorderly conduct and assault, but the charges were dropped for lack of evidence.

The city granted a permit for the Ku Klux Klan to hold a rally on July 8. Mr. Kessler suspects this was an attempt to smear his rallies by association, because the city announced a permit for his August 11 rally the same day. Many counter-protestors showed up for the Klan, and some tried to bar its way. The police kept order, and the rally took place without incident. After the Klan left, the mob attacked the police, claiming it favored the Klan. There were three orders to disperse, and the police had to use tear gas to clear Lee Park.

Unfortunately, this led the American Civil Liberties Union and National Lawyers Guild to warn city authorities and the governor against an “outsized and militaristic government response.” They accused the police of provoking the violence and hurting the rioters’ feelings by coming equipped with riot gear. Black chief of police Al Thomas was called to testify before the city council but refused. An anonymous source claiming to be within the police department sent Mr. Kessler two email messages warning him that Chief Thomas was very close to Mr. Bellamy and was terrified of losing his job.

The Charlottesville rally that got all the attention came next. Mr. Kessler wanted a peaceful protest to show a united front on the Right in support of free speech and Confederate monuments. The city initially approved a permit for Lee Park but later said it would have to be at McIntire Park, over a mile away. The city claimed it had heard that thousands would show up, so the rally could not fit in Lee Park. However, the thousands were antifa and other counter-protestors, to whom the city had granted permits for two different parks, McGuffey and Jackson. Mr. Kessler assumed the city wanted to shove Unite the Right out of the center of town, away from the Lee statue, where it would get little attention.

Mr. Kessler contacted the ACLU, which happily took his case. It cited a 2015 Sixth Circuit case called Bible Believers v. Wayne County in which a Christian group protested the Arab International Festival in Dearborn, Michigan. Muslims threw rocks at them, and police told the protesters to leave. The court ruled that “if the officers allow a hostile audience to silence a speaker, the officers themselves effectively silence a speaker and effectuate a heckler’s veto.” The ACLU also cited the famous Supreme Court case, National Socialist Party of America v. Village of Skokie, that established the right to protest, even if speech is offensive and likely to provoke a violent counter-protest.

Violence was always possible. The Jewish Defense League vowed that if Nazis showed up, it would “break their heads.” Max Collin, leader of the National Socialist Party of America retorted that “we don’t care how much violence they’re gonna bring on our heads. We’ll give it back to them three times as much.” The two groups had taunted each other in the past, but police had always kept them apart.

This book goes into much detail about disagreements between Alt-Right figures, but the upshot was that others involved in planning the event neither liked nor trusted Mr. Kessler. Elliot Kline, then-head of Identity Europa, Richard Spencer, and others “mutinied,” in Mr. Kessler’s words. They talked to city officials and police without his knowledge, which contributed to the chaos.

A torchlight march was scheduled for the night of August 11, which would pass through Charlottesville and end at the statue of Thomas Jefferson on the UVA campus. This event was not publicized but plans somehow leaked. At the end of the march, the demonstrators were met by a group that included a dozen antifa, some of them convicted felons. There were also young people chanting “black lives matter,” at least a few of whom were UVA students. Police were present, but were across the street, and fights broke out before they intervened. Both sides used pepper spray, and Christopher Cantwell of Unite the Right was later convicted of a felony for “malicious use of gas.”

Alt-Right marchers encircle counter protestors at the base of a statue of Thomas Jefferson after marching through the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville, August 11, 2017. (Credit Image: © Shay Horse/NurPhoto via ZUMA Press)

On the day of the main rally, the city broke its promise to Mr. Kessler and failed to keep the counter-protestors at bay. Police deliberately forced Unite the Right participants into the path of the angry mob, and the police made no effort to break up fights.

August 12, 2017 – Charlottesville, Virginia. (Credit Image: © Shay Horse/NurPhoto via ZUMA Press)

August 12, 2017 – Charlottesville, Virginia. (Credit Image: © Emily Molli/NurPhoto via ZUMA Press)

We now know that the city planned to use the violence as a pretext to shut down the rally before any speeches could be made. As then-chief of police Al Thomas said at the time, “Let them fight. It will make it easier to declare an unlawful assembly.” This shocking admission was confirmed in the Heaphy Report — an independent review written by a former federal prosecutor for the Western District of Virginia.

After the demonstrators dispersed and most had gone home, angry mobs of counter-protestors roamed the street for hours. The governor had declared a state of emergency, but it was not enforced against them. It was during this time that a lone rally attendee named James Fields drove down a street that should have been closed off. It had been guarded by a lone policewoman, but when she saw the mob of counter-protestors, she called for backup. She was relieved of duty and left the scene.

It is not clear whether the crowd recognized Mr. Fields from the rally, but it blocked the street in front of the car and hit the car with sticks.

Credit Image: © Michael Nigro/Pacific Press via ZUMA Wire

Mr. Fields initially backed up but then accelerated forward. He plowed through the crowd and injured many people. Heather Heyer died on the scene. Mainstream journalist Taylor Lorenz tweeted to the effect that the police did not think Mr. Fields meant to hurt anyone, but that he was “just scared.” She deleted the tweet.

Graffiti in 2024 near the spot where Heather Heyer was killed.

Antifa stickers near the same location.

There was little evidence Mr. Fields intended to kill anyone, but clear evidence of his politics. He had posed for pictures carrying one of the shields handed out by the Nationalist Alliance, one of the more hardline groups. When his mother texted him to be careful, he texted back a picture of Adolf Hitler, adding, “they’re the ones who need to be careful.” He had also shared social-media posts referring to running over protesters, although as Mr. Kessler points out, this was a common meme at the time. Mr. Fields was later convicted of murder by a Charlottesville jury and sentenced to 400 years in prison.

The press universally blamed United the Right for the violence. Mr. Kessler called a press conference the next day to clarify the situation, assuming that with television present and the police station close by, he would be safe from the mob. First, he was drowned out by a screaming mob, and then he was swarmed. One attacker was former Socialist candidate for city council Brandon Collins, who was arrested and convicted for assault.

August 13, 2017 – Jason Kessler after attempting to hold a press conference. The presser lasted about three minutes before Kessler was chased and beaten. He was evacuated by Virginia State Police. (Credit Image: © Shay Horse/NurPhoto via ZUMA Press)

Prominent liberal lawyers and activists, including Obama advisor Karen Dunn and Roberta Kaplan, who argued the case for same-sex marriage before the Supreme Court, filed a civil case against Mr. Kessler, Mr. Spencer, and others. In Sines v. Kessler, they claimed there was coordination with Mr. Fields to run over counter-protesters. Mr. Fields arrived alone, none of the organizers knew him, and there was no evidence of any communication with him.

The judge refused to admit much exculpatory evidence, even the Heaphy report that faulted the police for the violence. Astonishingly, Judge Norman Moon instructed the jury that someone can be guilty of a conspiracy with a person with whom he has never spoken.

The defendants were found guilty and ordered to pay a total of $2.35 million in damages. However, they have few assets and have paid nothing. Roberta Kaplan suggested that her intention all along had been vengeance, not help for the injured. She told the plaintiffs that “you’re probably not going to get a lot of money at the end.” Instead, as she said in an interview, “We . . . will bankrupt these groups. And then we will chase these people around for the rest of their lives. So if they try to buy a new home, we will put a lien on the home. If they get a new job, we will garnish their wages.”

The latest attempt at suppression was by Commonwealth’s Attorney Jim Hingeley who tried to make using tiki torches a crime. He has indicted 12 people, based on a novel interpretation of a law originally meant to stop the Ku Klux Klan from burning crosses. The first trial, that of defendant Jacob Dix, ended in a hung jury; eight of 12 jurors voted “not guilty.”

Mr. Kessler tried to sue the city for violating the constitutional rights of the protesters by ordering the police to stand down. Judge Norman Moon ruled that the protesters had no right to police protection. Mr. Kessler discovered that two people working as clerks for Judge Moon, Joshua Lefebvre and Hutton Marshall, were friends of Elizabeth Sines, the lead plaintiff in Sines v. Kessler. This is a conflict of interest, and they all should have recused themselves from the case.

The suit against Unite the Right was one of the more lurid examples of “lawfare” — the use of the courts for transparently political purposes.

Mr. Kessler has written a very detailed yet accessible account of one of the key events in modern race relations. Both he and the rally have been treated with hysteria by the mainstream, but his intentions were clearly honorable. The police sabotaged a peaceful rally and facilitated a riot, but most Americans still believe that the demonstrators started the violence and conspired to run down innocent people. This book casts a harsh light on the reality of race and law enforcement in the United States.