CHARLOTTESVILLE — Jason Kessler needed a friendly media outlet to vent and portray himself as a victim. So he dialed Stormfront Action, a white-nationalist online radio show.
He wanted to promote Sunday’s “Unite the Right 2” rally across from the White House, the sequel to last year’s deadly demonstration in Charlottesville.
During the hour-long interview last month, he unloaded a litany of hate-fueled grievances: The police in Charlottesville, he said, “screwed” him and other white nationalists last year. The media has turned him into “Damian, the son of Lucifer.” White people are “up against a wall.” Jews, he charged, “control the currency” and are “over-represented in Congress and the Supreme Court.”
“What’s happening to us is unjust right now,” Kessler told Stormfront Action listeners. “That’s why I don’t want to back down.”
In the year since Kessler, 34, organized the rally that flooded his hometown with hundreds of white supremacists and neo-Nazis and ended in bloodshed, the University of Virginia graduate has faced crushing criticism from within and outside his movement.
Prominent racists have broken ties with him. Friends have also parted ways, saying they don’t recognize the man they once knew as an Obama supporter. His father, in his first interview, told The Washington Post that he vehemently disapproves of Kessler’s actions and has tried to persuade him to stop. Many of his private messages planning the rallies have been leaked online. And Charlottesville residents have filed numerous lawsuits against him.
Wherever he goes in town, the man who bills himself as a “white civil rights” leader is often shouted at.
“I’ve been turned into an avatar of hate,” Kessler told The Post in a telephone interview. “I’ve made some powerful enemies, and I’ve gotten involved in some things that I didn’t know I was getting involved in. I think the alt-right thinks I am a cuck and not extreme enough and [liberals] think I am a white supremacist. None are true.”
It’s a deceptive statement for someone who touts his anti-Semitism on Stormfront Action and once told a crowd of white nationalists aligned with Richard Spencer, “I don’t give an g--d--- about being called a racist.”
Kessler didn’t seem destined for a career in uniting the right.
A decade ago, he worked the phones at night for Secrest Strategic Services, the now-defunct Democratic polling outfit. He voted for Barack Obama in 2008. He spent time at the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Charlottesville in 2011, until he was kicked out for trying to register homeless people, according to Luis Oyola, a fellow Occupy activist. He lived for a time in government-subsidized housing in Charlottesville with a roommate who was African and Muslim, according to a public Facebook post written by a former college friend, Jenny Rebecca.
Although he’d graduated from U-Va. in 2009 with a psychology degree, he struggled to find full-time employment. Kessler couldn’t get or keep a job for a long time “because of his social anxiety and he had trouble getting along with certain people,” Rebecca wrote in her Facebook post.
At one point, Kessler was rejected for a position at a local government agency that provides mental health services. He was upset he lost the job to a woman, explaining in a deposition for one of his lawsuits in June that, “I had been passed over due to protected characteristics.”
“He would write posts on Facebook about how women hated nice guys and asked why women wouldn’t give him a chance,” Rebecca wrote on Facebook. “Then he’d delete his Facebook for a few months, join again, delete it, and join.”
He started to dabble in creative writing. One of his poems, in a self-published book titled “Midnight Road,” seemed to presage his own future in the limelight: “[S]tupidity is ca-ching, ca-ching!/exchange your pride for fame./ignorance means ratings/they’ll put you on TV and doll you up for viewers’ perversity.”
His novel later that year, “Badland Blues,” is about “a homeless dwarf madly in unrequited love with a local waitress,” according to its Amazon page. The customer reviews are brutal: “I’m putting more effort into this review than the author put into this steaming pile of crap,” wrote one person. “A classic read . . . said no one ever,” wrote another. “Why buy a book from the scum that organized the alt right rally in Charlottesville?” asked someone else.
By the time Donald Trump announced he was running for president in 2016, Kessler’s political conversion was complete.
As he sought to make a name for himself in the alt-right world, Kessler looked for a political foe. He found it in Wes Bellamy, an African American teacher serving as the vice mayor of Charlottesville. In March 2016, Bellamy had angered Kessler when he held a news conference calling for the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue in a downtown park.
So, in late November, two weeks after Trump’s presidential victory, Kessler published an article on his website excavating Bellamy’s old tweets that had mocked white people. Then he went further.
At a Charlottesville City Council hearing the next month, Kessler slow-walked from the back of the room to the speaker’s dais. He blasted Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.” Before he took his turn to condemn Bellamy as a “black supremacist,” he rotated to face the crowd, lifting his arms. People laughed. Some carried signs that read, “No to White Supremacy” and “White Supremacist Go Home.”
“You’re finished. . . . Sir, sir, your time is over. Your time is over,” then-Mayor Michael Signer kept saying until Kessler took a seat.
Bellamy, who remains on the council, said Kessler whipped up the controversy to promote racism.
“He was mad because there was someone his age who was vice mayor, who was black, while he’s at home without work,” Bellamy said. “He wanted to bring me down all so he could become some national white hero.”
In 2017, Kessler befriended Richard Spencer, a fellow U-Va. graduate well-known for leading followers into chants like “Hail Trump” and declaring, “Let’s party like it’s 1933.”
They teamed up in May 2017 for a demonstration in Charlottesville protesting the council’s vote to remove the Lee statue. At one point, Kessler told the crowd: “I think one thing that I have in common with all of you here today is that I don’t give a g--d--- about being called a racist.”
His new friends whooped and clapped.
Two weeks later, Kessler applied for a permit for his own rally. In the category of “Event Purpose/Brief Description,” all he wrote was: “Free speech rally in support of the Lee Monument.”
A month before the “Unite the Right” rally, about 50 Ku Klux Klan members and supporters came to Charlottesville to protest the removal of the Lee statue.
David Caron, a computer and printer technician who has known Kessler since childhood and agreed with him about the statue, urged him to disavow the Klan.
Instead, as Kessler stood before news cameras after the Klan event, he denounced antifa, an anti-fascist group, as a “terrorist organization.” As for the Klan, Kessler gave them the benefit of the doubt.
“No one wanted them here,” Kessler said, “but they at least came and peaceably assembled.”
But Kessler knew there could be clashes at the rally, according to his private messages with other white nationalists on Discord, a group-chat app popular among far-right radicals.
“We should bring picket signs that can be used as sticks to bludgeon our enemies if they get violent,” he wrote in June, according to batches of the messages leaked to the alternative media site, Unicorn Riot — some of which are being used against Kessler and his cohorts in a federal suit accusing them of violating civil rights laws.
“Get ready for a real fight,” he wrote the next month.
On Aug. 12, the day of the rally, Charlottesville was transformed overnight into the country’s capital of white supremacy and Kessler into one of the movement’s most prominent leaders. Just as he had anticipated, there was violence.
One counterprotester, Heather Heyer, was killed when a car allegedly driven by a neo-Nazi rammed into a crowd downtown. A black counterprotester, DeAndre Harris, was savagely beaten in a parking garage, and others were pepper-sprayed by white nationalists at a torch-lit march the night before the rally on U-Va.’s campus.
For Kessler’s father, his son’s transformation has been devastating.
“I support him as a son, but not politically,” said Eric Kessler, 58. “The family is dismayed across the board about this situation. We’ve never identified with racial politics.”
He divorced Jason’s mother when Jason was about 10, he said, adding that at one point later, he was married to a black woman.
“I consider myself a Christian person, and I think everyone is equal,” Eric Kessler said. “I’ve always raised my sons that way, and anything that departs from that is something I have never done.”
Since he learned of Jason’s radicalism shortly before the rally, father and son have had little contact. Eric said his son earns money by working for a local contractor whose identity he does not know. He’s been staying, on and off, with his grandmother.
One thing, however, haunts the father. Eric said that when he learned the identity of the woman who had been killed at Jason’s rally, the name instantly clicked. Heyer was in the church youth group he volunteered for 20 years ago.
“It was shocking,” he said. “I felt bad for her and her mother. It was a terrible thing.”
For his son, though, Heyer’s death was an occasion for mockery.
“Heather Heyer was a fat, disgusting Communist,” Kessler tweeted just days after the rally. “Looks like it was payback time.”
As Kessler ramped up to hold a second rally, his friend, Hannah Zarski, a mother of five who lives near Charlottesville and supports white nationalism, kept telling him: Enough was enough.
“[Y]ou’re involved with the wrong people. Just saying,” Zarski, 32, wrote Kessler in private Facebook messages she shared with The Post.
“We’re on the cusp of changing our society and history forever and some people want to run away from that back to the status quo,” Kessler replied.
“Activism should be servicing our people,” she wrote. “We still have men in jail from the first go round . . . ”
Kessler was getting peeved. He told Zarski, who says she opposes violence, that “you might just want to go your own way and do something else.”
“Take a chance to make it something positive like fundraising,” she pleaded. “Jason your inability to have these discussions with the people closest to you is an issue.”
In May, he began courting the attendance of a Virginia man whose Facebook profile page says “Only crew 38 and people met off fb” — a reference to a support group for the Hammerskin Nation, a skinhead organization, according to messages obtained by prominent counterprotester Emily Gorcenski.
On Monday, Gorcenski tweeted images of Kessler’s conversation and of the man’s Facebook page, which is emblazoned with a logo of silhouetted figures brandishing weapons and the words, “Hospitalize Your Local Antifa Scumbag.”
“Mr. Kessler my boys and me will be there. Keep me updated on email,” the man wrote.
“Awesome, man. I’ll add you to the email list,” Kessler replied.
Kessler needed to boost his crowd numbers for Sunday.
One of the movement’s key figures — Christopher Cantwell, better known from Charlottesville as “The Crying Nazi” — wrote a blog post in late June warning, “Follow Kessler At Your Peril.” Spencer also declared he was out. Even Andrew Anglin, founder of the Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website, recently told readers to avoid the event, saying that “everyone knows that there will be violence” and that participants will “look like ruffians” and that no matter what “we get blamed for it.” He added: “You need to protect yourselves. You need to lay low.”
But, on Stormfront Action radio, Kessler urged listeners to bring flags on poles. Law enforcement, he said, will keep them safe from counterprotesters.
“Everyone,” he claimed, “is going to be protected.”