Defendants in the federal civil suit related to the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally attempted to connect a reverend’s opposition to fascism with “antifa” during a hostile series of cross-examinations Wednesday.
Rev. Seth Wispelwey, an ordained minister with the United Church of Christ and co-founder of Congregate Charlottesville, is one of nine plaintiffs in the federal Sines v. Kessler trial.
On Wednesday, in Charlottesville’s federal court, Wispelwey took the stand to share his experiences during the weekend of the 2017 Unite the Right rally, which included being attacked on Aug. 12, 2017 and trapped in a church during the Aug. 11, 2017 University of Virginia torch march.
Wispelwey said he was part of a group of interfaith clergy members who on Aug. 12, 2017 linked arms and formed a line on one of the streets outside of the park where the Unite the Right rally was set to happen. Wispelwey contends that the group was not blocking the main entrance to the park but was subjected to insults, slurs and physical violence.
“It was a sobering moment,” Wispelwey said, recalling when protesters with shields shoved through him and other clergy. “We checked in as a group, as I recall, and some were rattled and wanted to understand what had just happened. We could kind of feel the dread and the temperature kind of rise around us.”
Wispelwey said his physical injuries were minimal but he has incurred significant expenses related to mental health treatments in the wake of the rally. Wispelwey and the other eight plaintiffs are seeking financial compensation and alleging that key organizers and participants of the 2017 rallies conspired to come to Charlottesville and commit acts of racist violence.
Though not present on 4th Street during the vehicular attack by defendant James Alex Fields Jr., Wispelwey said he was among the first to arrive at the scene afterward. Describing it as “horrifying,” Wispelwey said he and other members of Congregate helped clear the scene and provide emotional support.
“The folks who were very grievously injured were taken away in ambulances, but there were still people with huge contusions, people in shock just collapsing because it was so hot and they couldn’t find their loved ones,” he said. “There were a lot of people trying to get to the hospital but who couldn’t go in ambulances and so [other Congregate members and allies] were parked nearby and I prayed with people and got them connected to their loved ones.”
Wispelwey was the subject of a lengthy and contentious cross-examination from several of the defendants or their counsel for statements seemingly in support of antifa that he made online following the rallies.
The term “antifa” has been something of an issue over the course of the trial as some defendants tend to use it to describe any counter-protesters despite it being more of an ideological term meant to identify people who oppose fascism. Jurors were questioned about their views of antifa during voir dire and Judge Norman K. Moon has, at times, appeared uncertain about how to best define antifa.
One of the tweets Wispelwey was questioned on read “Jesus is antifa” which he said was a “social-media type way” of saying that he believed Jesus would oppose fascism.
“I believe in a living and loving God that imbues each of us with an inherent belovedness and dignity and worthwhile quality no matter who we are and I believe Jesus modeled that in relationships and ministry,” he said.
“I understand in a short definition of fascism to be a form of authoritarian governance that seeks to privilege and put on a pedestal a few and give all rights to a few based on nationality or race, while explicitly keeping others down and deprived of rights and equality and dignity and safety, based on their nationality, race, or religion,” he said.
This view ran counter to “the dreams of God, and the visions of gods for this world and all of humanity,” Wispelwey said, and the tweet was his way of tailoring that view for Twitter’s consumption.
Pro se defendant Chris Cantwell spent the longest time cross-examining Wispelwey, spending most of his time pointing to a paragraph Wispelwey wrote for an Aug. 16, 2017 Slate article titled “Yes, What About the “Alt-Left”? What the counterprotesters Trump despises were actually doing in Charlottesville last weekend.”
In the article, Wispelwey wrote that antifa saved his life twice during the weekend of the rallies and that antifa “saved many lives from psychological and physical violence.”
Cantwell fixated on the term “community defense,” pushing Wispelwey to define it and asking if the term could include violence. Wispelwey denied that he ever advocated for violence and said that community defense has “many definitions.”
“To me it looked like showing up in prayer and song and solidarity, providing refreshments in the street, it can mean providing first aid or being an illegal observer, if we’re talking about rallies and protests,” he said. “It can actually be in so many beautiful, rich things, as I’ve come to understand it, like advocating for livable wages or affordable housing.”
Because defendants Cantwell and Richard Spencer are representing themselves, Moon has given the defendants a great deal of leeway, often allowing them to ask questions that appear far-afield of the conspiracy lawsuit.
Over objections from Wispelwey’s counsel, the pair separately spent much of Wednesday asking the reverend about his views on white supremacy and whether he believed Thomas Jefferson was a white supremacist.
During his turn at cross-examination, Spencer played in audio-clip from an interview Wispelwey gave in which he argues that Jefferson is, in many ways, the godfather of white supremacy in the United States.
“He wrote extensively about what he thought was the inherent inferiority of our African brothers and sisters to white people,” Wispelwey said in the interview. “And he knew towards the end of his life that God was going to judge America’s original sin. We are still needing to reconcile with that.”
Wispelwey said he stood by that comment and later affirmed that he believed white supremacy and hate speech would likely lead to violence.
The plaintiffs also called car attack survivor Marcus Martin the stand on Wednesday. Martin, whose leg was badly injured when he was struck by Fields’ car, gave brief testimony and largely discussed the impact of his physical and emotional injuries.
No longer able to play basketball, Martin said the emotional impact was also intense, eventually being a contributing factor in his separation from his wife.
The last witness called Wednesday was defendant Nathan Damigo of the white nationalist group Identity Evropa. During testimony, Damigo admitted to attending a party following the Unite the Right rally and stating that the event was “a huge success.”
In a 2016 Discord post from Identity Evropa’s server, Damigo admitted to participating in a conversation about creating a “psyop” in which members create fake accounts and pretend to be aligned with antifa to drum up violence.
“As many people as possible need to create accounts,” Damigo wrote. “Create multiple if possible, make them as realistic as you can and then post the link to the account here so other people can make them look realistic. I need a small fake antifa army.”
During cross-examination, Damigo said the plan was soon abandoned after it was decided it was a terrible idea.
The plaintiffs are expected to resume their case at 9 a.m. Thursday.