A plaintiff’s lawyer shocked one of the defendants in the Sines v. Kessler trial Tuesday when she confronted him with a post he made in which said suggested that hitting “leftist protesters” with a car would be a good idea.
“Leftist protesters blocking the road with weapons, threats, and violence while making you fear for your life? #HitTheGas,” defendant Michael Heimbach’s 2016 social media post reads.
A founder of the neo-Nazi Traditionalist Worker Party, Heimbach dodged questions and responsibility for the Unite the Right rally, as the plaintiffs in the Sines v. Kessler plied the defendant with dozens of messages detailing the organization of the deadly rally.
Heimbach is just one of more than a dozen defendants in the Sines v. Kessler trial and was an unexpected witness Tuesday in Charlottesville’s federal court, being called by the plaintiffs who are still arguing their side of the case.
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The Traditionalist Worker Party, or TWP, was a once-hundreds strong hate group that openly espouses anti-Semitic views while advocating for a white ethno-state.
Members of TWP and Heimbach were present at the Aug. 12, 2017 Unite the Right rally, which, along with the preceding University of Virginia torch march, serve as the basis for the lawsuit.
Filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia in the wake of the deadly rallies, the nine Charlottesville-area plaintiffs are alleging that 14 individuals and 10 groups conspired to travel to Charlottesville in August 2017 with the intention of committing racist acts of violence. If a jury rules in favor of the plaintiffs then the defendants could face steep financial repercussions.
As a defendant called by the plaintiffs, Heimbach often was hostile to attorney Karen Dunn’s line of questioning. Over the course of Tuesday, Dunn, a litigator at Paul Weiss firm who is representing the plaintiffs pro bono, presented Heimbach with a series of images and messages from the Discord server used to plan the Unite the Right rally.
Among the most shocking pieces of evidence presented to Heimbach was the social media post he made in November 2016 that related to striking protesters with a car.
Heimbach denied that the post had to do with “anything that happened in Charlottesville in 2017,” but stopped short of describing the actions of James Fields Jr. as an attack. Fields, who is also a defendant in the lawsuit, has been convicted on both a state and federal level for intentionally driving his car into a crowd of anti-racist protesters, murdering Heather Heyer and injuring dozens. Fields is currently serving 30 life sentences for his crimes.
“I asked you whether this was posted a year before the car attack and you declined to call it a car attack,” Dunn said, following up on Heimbach’s characterization of Fields’ actions. “All I’m asking you is whether you have a problem calling it an attack?”
“I have no opinion on that subject,” Heimbach responded.
He later described the rally and the car attack as “fundamentally separate events,” and said in a 2020 deposition that Fields “acted in self-defense and did not commit a crime.”
Dunn also presented to Heimbach a letter he sent to Fields in which Heimbach describes the two of them as “comrades” and called Fields a “martyr for our folk.” Heimbach also thanked Fields for his service in the letter, but denied Tuesday that “service” was in reference to the car attack.
Semantics proved to be a sticking point for Heimbach and his lawyer Tuesday, as the parties fought over how to best describe the defendants.
Despite being able to tie many of its ideologies to the National Socialist German Workers’ Party — better known as the Nazi Party — Heimbach’s attorney, Josh Smith, took issue with TWP and its members being described as Nazis, likening the term to a slur. Smith also took issue with the term “white supremacist,” which Judge Norman K. Moon has previously ruled cannot be used to describe the defendants but he did say they can be called “white nationalists.” It is unclear why the preferred term, “white nationalist,” is seen as better by the defendants, given its inextricable link to white supremacy.
Smith spent much of Tuesday objecting to Dunn’s questions, describing them as either “editorializing” or “argumentative.” Smith himself was subject to similar criticism Monday during the cross-examination of plaintiff and witness Devin Willis.
Dunn often interjected during Heimbach’s testimony, asking the court to strike some of the defendant’s responses that went beyond the scope of her yes or no questions.
Some of the defendants were given the chance to cross-examine Heimbach. James Kolenich, attorney for Jason Kessler, Nathan Damigo and Identity Evropa, sought to separate his clients from Heimbach, asking the defendant if he would characterize them as being part of the “hard right.”
Heimbach said he did not consider them part of the “hard right” and described Identity Evropa as being “more bourgeois” and of a different subculture. Similarly, Heimbach described TWP and defendant Richard Spencer as being of different subcultures during Spencer’s cross.
Despite Heimbach’s testimony taking up most of Tuesday, the day began with the jury being played the rest of a deposition video from Samantha Froelich. In the video, Froelich, a non-party, described her time as a member of Identity Evropa. After witnessing various forms of violence, racism and anti-Semitism, Froelich left the group in October 2017 and has since joined Life After Hate, a nonprofit that seeks to help people leave far-right groups.
Much of Froelich’s deposition revolved around her relationship with defendant Elliott Kline, a.k.a. Eli Mosley, a former leader of Identity Evropa. She described Kline as being deeply anti-Semitic and dedicated to fighting in “RaHoWa,” or “racial holy war” that would see white people kill people of all other races.
Much of the alt right’s more racist views were disguised as humor, Froelich testified, giving the movement plausible deniability.
“It was also a way to make it palatable for the people who already have a gallows sense of humor,” she said. “That also is a way that if someone were to call you out on it and say, ‘Hey, that’s really disgusting ideology’ you could turn around and say it’s just a joke, we don’t mean it even though they did.”
Cross-examination of Heimbach will resume at 9 a.m. Wednesday.