The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Charlottesville trial, jurors learn to decode the secret slang of white supremacists

Tensions mount during the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville on Aug. 12, 2017. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)
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CHARLOTTESVILLE — The jury in a federal courtroom listened as a longtime researcher of far-right movements parsed the style guide of the infamous neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer.

“The tone of the site should be light. Most people are not comfortable with material that comes across as vitriolic, raging, nonironic hatred. The unindoctrinated should not be able to tell if we are joking or not,” according to a guide section titled “Lulz” — which stands for “laugh out loud.” Continuing with a derogatory term for Jews, it read, “This is obviously a ploy and I actually do want to gas k---s. But that’s neither here nor there.”

This evidence, introduced in an ongoing civil trial against organizers of the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, appeared to highlight a sinister strategy expert witness Pete Simi was trying to teach the jurors: the ways in which white supremacists employ humor to shield their calls for violence, in an effort to render them legally ambiguous.

As jurors consider the plaintiffs’ accusation that the rally organizers conspired to foment racial violence, they have been presented with a trove of evidence that includes messages laced with slurs, memes of using cars to run over protesters and calls for cracking skulls. Over the past four weeks, plaintiffs’ attorneys have tried to make their case by carefully breaking down the jokes and catchphrases favored by far-right extremists, in an effort to teach jurors how to decode white supremacists’ secret vocabulary of hate.

Whether the jury takes this evidence literally or views it as exaggeration is the crux of many arguments in this trial.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys have called in experts to help the jury understand what is sinister about the numbers 1488 — which refer to “14 words,” a popular white supremacist slogan, and “Heil Hitler,” because “H” is the eighth letter of the alphabet. They have translated the phrase “RaHoWa,” which may sound like gibberish to outsiders but among hate groups stands for “racial holy war.” And they explained how a question that seems innocuous — “Did you see Kyle? — is actually a play on words for the Nazi salute “Sieg Heil.”

White supremacist movements use “lots of insider language and codes and specific references that would require kind of an insider’s knowledge,” Simi said in the courtroom. “They can talk about violence, they can advocate for violence, and then say, ‘Well, it was just a joke.’ ”

Deborah Lipstadt, a renowned Holocaust scholar, testified about the ways antisemitism is a bedrock of white supremacist ideology and one that was featured during the Unite the Right rally weekend, notably at the Friday-night torch march where a mob chanted, “Jews will not replace us!”

She said the ideology behind these chants comes from the “Great Replacement Theory,” the conspiratorial idea of an engineered demographic replacement of White Christians that is frequently repeated by right-wing pundits such as Fox News’s Tucker Carlson. In her testimony, Lipstadt called the chants at the torch march “a call to battle.”

On Sept. 22, Fox News host Tucker Carlson misrepresented past immigration remarks by President Biden to suggest the existence of the “great replacement theory.” (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

Heidi Beirich — a co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism and former director of intelligence at the Southern Poverty Law Center — said the subculture of extremism on display in this trial illustrates how the brazen racism seen on the streets of Charlottesville four years ago emboldened and radicalized racists across the country, including those who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6.

“It shows you how much the online world has pervaded the offline world,” Beirich, who has been following the trial, said in an interview with The Washington Post. “The fact is, I wish more Americans knew what the jurors are hearing right now.”

Attorneys for the plaintiffs — nine people who allege physical harm and emotional distress that weekend — and defendants are expected to begin their closing arguments Thursday.

The lawsuit backed by Integrity First for America, a civil rights nonprofit organization, is underpinned by a more-than-150-year-old statute designed to protect newly emancipated Black people from the Ku Klux Klan.

Throughout this trial, defendants have argued they were exercising their First Amendment rights in Charlottesville. Inside the courtroom, they have used the n-word, repeated slurs for Jewish people and openly praised Adolf Hitler.

And they have dismissed calls for violence as hyperbolic jokes. Jason Kessler, a defendant and lead organizer of the Unite the Right rally, testified that many of the messages presented in court were simply “s---posting,” or posting something provocative to get a rise out of someone. Defendants blamed the mayhem of that weekend on counterprotesters they labeled “antifa,” or antifascists, and police inaction.

Experts and attorneys for the plaintiffs say this deflection is part of a playbook to avoid accountability.

“Plausible deniability, just like mace and shields and flagpoles, was a tool of this conspiracy,” plaintiffs’ attorney Karen Dunn said in court. “Plausible deniability is when you set up a situation in such a way that you can claim later that you had nothing to do with it.”

Violence cloaked in humor

In the courtroom, plaintiffs’ attorneys played a podcast recording with the voice of defendant Christopher Cantwell, who became widely known as the “crying Nazi” following an emotional video posted when a warrant was issued for his arrest.

It was an episode from Aug. 7, 2017, days before Cantwell joined hundreds of white supremacists in Charlottesville for a rally that turned deadly when a neo-Nazi sped his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer. James A. Fields Jr., who was sentenced to life in prison for the car-ramming, is also a defendant in this civil suit.

“I’m not even a Hitler-ite, but I’m like ‘Okay, let’s f-----g gas the k---s and have a race war,’” Cantwell said. He then laughed.

“Can you explain, Professor, what’s going on in that clip?” plaintiffs’ attorney Roberta Kaplan asked Simi.

Simi pointed to the eerie juxtaposition of Cantwell’s laughter after his call for mass murder: “I can’t tell you how many times over the last 25 years I’ve seen similar instances where violent references, violent rhetoric is … cloaked with some reference to humor.”

One year after violent protests in Charlottesville, witnesses and victims reflected on the day a Nazi sympathizer plowed his car into counterprotesters. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

Cantwell has pleaded guilty in a separate case to two counts of assault and battery stemming from his use of pepper spray during the Unite the Right rally weekend. He is also serving a 41-month federal prison sentence after being convicted of extortion and threat charges.

Samantha Froelich, whose testimony was played in a deposition video by the plaintiffs’ attorneys, joined the far-right group Identity Evropa for about a year to appease her boyfriend. She explained how during that time, she often saw extreme concepts disguised as jokes to make them more palatable — and as a way to have plausible deniability.

“They’ll say that it’s just edgy humor, but it’s really just a way to push the envelope and say as heinous of things or as extreme ideas as they can and get away with it,” Froelich said. “If someone were to call you out on it and say, ‘Hey, that’s really disgusting ideology,’ you could say, ‘It’s just a joke. We don’t mean it.’ ”

‘Wolves in sheep’s clothing’

The jurors have seen two versions of Richard Spencer in court — the white supremacist spewing a racist tirade after the Unite the Right rally in a secretly recorded audio clip and the suit-and-tie-wearing defendant who claims his beliefs are simply “controversial.”

“What they say and do privately behind closed doors is going to tell us a lot about their true motives and plans in this case,” Dunn, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, told the jurors.

Simi and fellow sociologist Kathleen Blee worked with the plaintiffs to review defendants’ messages and concluded that they utilized a common white supremacist movement tactic, including this “front stage” and “backstage” behavior, “doublespeak” and a “new-age communication platform.”

The Unite the Right rally organizers’ and attendees’ planning messages presented in court come from a leaked trove from the group-chat platform Discord and other communications.

During his testimony, Simi read an email between Kessler and Jeff Schoep, the former leader of the National Socialist Movement, which at one time was the largest neo-Nazi group in the country.

“The number one thing that you guys can do is show up in plain clothes without flags or ‘white supremacist’ symbols ready to participate in and protect our event. There will be a thousand or more antifa and s---libs eager to start violence.”

Schoep replied: “So just keep in mind that we have ceased use of the swastika as of November 2016 so you will see swastikas in some of the videos which were filmed below before.”

Simi said this was a straightforward example of that “front stage, backstage” behavior: The National Socialist Movement stopped using a swastika as their symbol — not because they disavowed it, Simi testified, but because of the optics.

Defendants and their followers also spoke about ways to instigate fights with their enemies in Charlottesville in a way that would allow them to claim self-defense, according to evidence presented by the plaintiffs’ attorneys.

Froelich also testified to this, explaining how during her time with Identity Evropa, optics “were paramount.”

Her boyfriend, who worked at an exterminator company, shared with her how he wished he was killing Jewish people instead of cockroaches.

In public, Identity Evropa members had strict instructions to “speak with eloquence” and avoid racial slurs and Nazi references, Froelich testified in a deposition.

She was told to wear dresses, look feminine and avoid unnatural hair colors.

“They wanted to be presentable,” Froelich said. “It was like being wolves in sheep’s clothing.”

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