On the day after a white nationalist rally rocked Charlottesville, Jason Kessler stood behind a bank of microphones and introduced himself as the organizer of the “Unite the Right” protest that had sparked the violence in the city.
Screams and boos drowned out Kessler’s voice as he tried to address the deadly unrest that had engulfed the Aug. 12 rally. The news conference was ultimately shut down; police officers, whom Kessler accused of not doing enough to stop the violence, rushed him to safety as angry counterprotesters chased him away.
Now, Kessler is scorned not only by those who screamed at him outside Charlottesville City Hall on the day after the death of counterprotester Heather Heyer.
Far-right figures have since distanced themselves from Kessler, as well, an indication that his fairly new allegiance with the loosely organized alt-right abruptly ended after a broadside against Heyer was tweeted from Kessler’s account nearly a week after she died.
Kessler, meanwhile, seems to have disappeared from public view.
“I’m not talking to reporters right now,” he said Monday when reached by The Washington Post, before hanging up.
Last week, Kessler told Fox News that he was in hiding because he was hit with a stream of death threats after the bloodshed in Charlottesville.
Condemnation poured in over the weekend after Kessler’s account tweeted inflammatory remarks about Heyer, the 32-year-old woman who was killed when a car allegedly driven by a Nazi sympathizer plowed into a group of counterprotesters. The disavowals suggested that the alt-right, a movement that blossomed on social media and the Internet, may be splintering online after the disaster in Charlottesville.
“Heather Heyer was a fat, disgusting Communist. Communists have killed 94 million. Looks like it was payback time,” read the tweet, which linked to a Daily Stormer article that disparaged Heyer.
Richard Spencer, a leader of the alt-right, which seeks a whites-only state, slammed Kessler, saying attacking Heyer was “morally dubious” and “beyond reckless.”
“It’s just the exact wrong thing that anyone should be saying at this point, from a moral perspective and from a strategic perspective,” Spencer told The Post on Monday. “This woman did nothing wrong. She might very well have disagreed with the rally, but she did absolutely nothing wrong.”
Spencer added: “I oppose communism as much as anyone, but historical payback is ridiculous. … I don’t know what he was thinking.”
On Twitter, Spencer urged others to stop associating with Kessler.
I will no longer associate w/ Jason Kessler; no one should. Heyer's death was deeply saddening. "Payback" is a morally reprehensible idea. pic.twitter.com/MTVDL9Av3s
— Richard ☝Spencer (@RichardBSpencer) August 19, 2017
It was a sentiment shared by others who took to social media to slam the Unite the Right organizer.
“Assuming this is a real tweet and his account was not hacked, I will no longer attend or cover events put on by Jason Kessler. Very gross,” tweeted James Allsup, a budding alt-right figure who resigned as head of Washington State University’s student GOP group after participating in the Charlottesville rally.
Tim Gionet, another prominent alt-right figure who is known online as Baked Alaska, said that insulting Heyer is “terribly wrong and vile,” tweeting: “We should not rejoice at the people who died in Charlottesville just because we disagree with them.”
Before going underground, Kessler acknowledged that the tweet sent from his account was offensive, though he did not say that he had written it.
“I repudiate the heinous tweet that was sent from my account last night. I have been under a crushing amount of stress & death threats,” Kessler wrote Saturday on social media, according to the Los Angeles Times. “I’m taking ambien, xanax and I had been drinking last night. I sometimes wake up having done strange things I don’t remember.”
The Times reported that a self-proclaimed hacker and Internet troll said on the social media service Gab that he had hacked Kessler’s Twitter account. The Post has not confirmed the veracity of that claim.
The alt-right movement grew through blogs, online message boards and social media accounts created by followers who believe that “white identity” is under attack by multiculturalism and political correctness, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Spencer reserves the National Press Club in Washington at least twice a year for a gathering of alt-right followers, noted the SPLC, which describes the alt-right’s self-proclaimed leader as “a suit-and-tie version of the white supremacists of old, a kind of professional racist in khakis.”
Kessler, like Spencer, attended the University of Virginia. According to the SPLC, he organized the Unite the Right rally after Spencer made headlines in May by leading a torch-bearing event in Charlottesville.
The SPLC described Kessler as a “newcomer to the white nationalist scene.” Known in Charlottesville as a local conservative blogger, he published an article on Nov. 24 calling the city’s vice mayor, Wes Bellamy, “a blatant black supremacist” and led an unsuccessful petition to remove Bellamy from office. Kessler said he had unearthed offensive and homophobic tweets written several years ago by Bellamy.
He founded the nonprofit Unity and Security for America, which calls for “defending Western Civilization.” He also sought to establish himself as the lone dissenter in the “capital of the resistance” that is Charlottesville, as declared by the city’s mayor shortly after President Trump’s inauguration.
Kessler found an ally in U.S. Senate candidate Corey A. Stewart, a darling of the alt-right who made several public appearances with the local blogger. In February, Stewart, then a GOP gubernatorial candidate in Virginia, attended Kessler’s news conference about an effort to oust Bellamy from office.
A few days ahead of the Charlottesville rally, Kessler told The Post, “The genesis of this entire event is this Robert E. Lee statue that the city is trying to move, which is symbolic of a lot of other issues that deal with the tearing down of white people’s history and our demographic replacement.”
But shortly after the rally turned violent, Kessler came under scrutiny from right-wing websites. Rumors about his political leanings and loyalty to far-right ideologies have since circulated online.
Some, including DC Whispers, pointed to suspicions that Kessler was involved in the Occupy movement and was a supporter of President Barack Obama. The website also said Kessler did not become a white nationalist until after Trump was elected.
“Who is this guy? Is this a mistake or is he indeed a liberal gone racist? Is he a plant and this whole thing a set up to pit Americans against each other? Lots of questions and very, very few answers,” wrote a blogger for Rightwing News.
Kessler told Snopes that he supported and voted for Obama in 2008 but became disenchanted with the administration and Democrats. He said that he had attended an Occupy rally in Charlottesville in 2011 but found that his views didn’t align with those of the protesters.
According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Kessler tweeted in November that many alt-right followers used to be liberals. He also said that he voted for Trump in the primary and general elections. “I like Trump more than I did Obama,” he wrote on Nov. 6. “My Trump enthusiasm is through the roof. I like people who push the edge.”
Spencer said that he met Kessler briefly several months ago. Kessler “really jumped on the bandwagon” after the success of the Charlottesville torch rally in May, Spencer said.
He also criticized Kessler’s handling of the Unite the Right rally. Law enforcement officers canceled the event after the clash between rally attendees and counterprotesters. “He’s not a very good organizer. It’s haphazard,” Spencer said. “I was skeptical of the whole thing. It took on a life of its own.”
Nevertheless, Spencer attended the rally. A flier listed him as one of the featured speakers, along with Kessler, Gionet (a.k.a. Baked Alaska) and Michael Hill, president of the Southern pro-secession group League of the South. Spencer told The Post days before the event that he was concerned about violence, but he said he worried it would come from antifascists, or “antifa,” activists.
“In terms of organization … maybe there’s some incompetence,” Spencer said Monday of Unite the Right. “Everyone has to make mistakes, and we learn from them.” But disparaging Heyer and rejoicing in her death should not be condoned, he said.
Eli Mosley, an organizer for the white separatist group Identity Evropa, said in a Twitter thread about Kessler that in the future, event organizers “will face extreme vetting like never before to ensure this doesn’t happen.” How, exactly, such vetting would occur for a movement with no formal membership, no formal leadership structure and mostly online followers, is unclear.
After Charlottesville, Spencer said, future demonstrations should be “tightly focused” and organized by people he trusts. “This is a serious movement,” he said of the alt-right, a term he coined. “And we need serious people leading them.”
Kessler has maintained that he did nothing wrong in Charlottesville.
He told Fox News last week that he had “never met” James Alex Fields Jr., 20, who was charged with second-degree murder in the deadly crash. Kessler said he met with police before the rally and went over safety plans. He also said he had not received calls or visits from police or federal investigators.
Asked by Fox about Heyer’s death, Kessler said, simply: “No comment.”