Christopher Cantwell, a self-professed white nationalist arrested in the days after the violent demonstrations in Charlottesville in August, has hosted an Internet radio show from the confines of a Virginia jail for more than two months.
Cantwell was prominently featured in a Vice News documentary about violence in Charlottesville, where another white nationalist allegedly drove into a crowd, killing a counterprotester during the Aug. 12 “Unite the Right” rally. Two state police officers who had been monitoring the protests also died when their helicopter crashed after leaving the scene.
After the rally, Cantwell was charged with one count of malicious bodily injury by means of a caustic substance and two felony counts of illegal use of tear gas. He has been at the Albemarle-Charlottesville jail since he turned himself in to police after posting an emotional video about his arrest warrant.
In response to the video, he was widely dubbed “the crying Nazi” on social media.
Since then, Cantwell, 36, has called into white nationalist Internet radio shows while also hosting his own from jail — all without violating jail rules. He discusses current events, solicits donations for his legal defense, refers to himself as a “talk-radio personality” and “political prisoner,” and appears with other white nationalists such as David Duke, Mike Enoch and “Unite the Right” organizer Jason Kessler.
Cantwell’s recordings are sometimes titled “Live from Seg” or “Letters from a Charlottesville Jail” — a take on Martin Luther King Jr.’s famed “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written in 1963 after he was incarcerated for participating in Alabama civil rights protests. In one episode, Cantwell says he was reading books sent by allies to “become a real expert anti-Semite” and describes seeing James A. Fields Jr. , who was housed on the same unit. Fields is accused ramming his car into the crowd of “Unite the Right” counterprotesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.
In his most recent recording, dated Oct. 26, Cantwell criticizes members of the alt-right who have distanced themselves from white nationalism in the wake of Charlottesville.
“This is a war,” he said. “You want to just play the center in a war between ideological extremes, all you’re going to be doing is getting shot at by both sides.”
Martin Kumer, the Albemarle-Charlottesville jail superintendent, said administrators know about Cantwell’s recordings but can’t stop them because inmates have a right to freedom of speech. He said Cantwell’s calls, except for those to legal counsel, are monitored.
“We certainly don’t allow a podcast from a cellblock. He merely calls someone else who’s recording his phone conversation, they digitize the phone conversation, they put it on the blog,” Kumer said. “It’s not as though we provide him with equipment to assist in this matter or condone it, we just don’t have any control.”
Jonathan M. Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, said the First Amendment protects Cantwell’s speech behind bars, regardless of how offensive some might consider it.
“Unless he’s running a criminal enterprise using the telephone, or encouraging criminal conduct through broadcasts or phone conversations, there’s very little that correctional officials can do to prevent it,” he said.
Paul Wright, who was released from prison in 2003 after serving time for felony murder, is the editor of Prison Legal News, a magazine that reports on criminal justice issues. He said prisoners, from former Black Panther and convicted murderer Mumia Abu-Jamal to white nationalists, are allowed to broadcast messages from prison in different ways. From about 1998 to 2000, Wright broadcast a radio show himself from a prison in Washington state.
“Just because we disagree with the guy, I’m not going to be the one that says, ‘Let’s shut him down,’ ” he said of Cantwell.
Cantwell and other white nationalists have been exiled from the Internet since the Charlottesville attack. Links from Cantwell’s website to his Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube accounts indicate that the accounts are no longer available or were suspended.
In the Oct. 26 broadcast, Cantwell said he hoped to be released after a preliminary hearing on Nov. 9.