CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — An organizer of the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville appeared to instruct supporters to mislead law enforcement about the potential size of the 2017 protest, according to communications presented in court Monday.
Jason Kessler is one of two dozen defendants who are testifying in a federal civil trial to determine whether they engaged in a conspiracy to commit racially motivated violence during the rally, according to The Washington Post.
Kessler filed the permit with local authorities for the rally that brought hundreds of white supremacists to Charlottesville on Aug. 11 and Aug. 12, 2017, ostensibly to protest city plans to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
“If the police ask you how many people we have coming don’t tell them,” Kessler wrote in a July 18, 2017, Facebook message to another person. “If they think we have more than 400 they might be able to help the city pull our permit. Privately we can tout the 800-1,000 number better for our enemies to underestimate us.”
The weekend turned deadly when avowed Hitler admirer James A. Fields Jr. rammed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing one woman and injuring dozens. Fields is serving life in prison on murder and hate crimes charges. On Tuesday, a Virginia appeals court upheld the convictions.
The ongoing lawsuit in Charlottesville seeks monetary damages against two dozen white nationalists and organizations and a judgment that the defendants violated the constitutional rights of the plaintiffs.
Kessler testified during the fourth week of the trial after statements from white supremacists, experts on far-right extremism, and plaintiffs who allege physical and emotional harm from the violence of that weekend.
Another organizer, Chris Cantwell, was also questioned in court on Monday, testifying of the close coordination among defendants before the rally, The Washington Post reported.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys presented evidence on Monday from messages, social media posts, and podcasts that depict Kessler and Cantwell as two leaders looking forward to a weekend of violence in Charlottesville.
Kessler defended himself against the allegation that he sought to mislead police. He argued that he did not want protesters to speculate to the police and halt the permitting process.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Michael Bloch presented evidence that showed Cantwell using slurs and bragging about violence on his podcast, along with a video of him displaying several guns he had brought to the rally.
Cantwell acknowledged in court that when he shared a cell block with Fields, he greeted him with a Nazi salute and hugged him.
“I’m really sorry this is happening to you,” Cantwell said he told Fields, according to The Washington Post.
Kessler and Cantwell have both boasted to their followers online about how well they think the case is going for them. According to the newspaper, Kessler has been chatting in real-time with numerous fans during the trial, posting photos of the witnesses and providing updates on the testimony.
Through the trial, defendants have tried to deflect responsibility for the violence, turning the blame on each other, police, and anti-fascist activists.
Kessler testified on Monday that he proposed the torch march but said that other organizers “were in control” of leading it. Kessler maintained that he was eager to create a peaceful rally but plaintiffs’ attorney Karen Dunn presented evidence that seemed to show the opposite.
“If you want a chance to crack some Antifa skulls in self defense don’t open carry,” Kessler wrote in a June 2017 message presented in court.
The message is one of hundreds leaked from the group-chat platform Discord where, according to Dunn, Kessler was the event coordinator and moderator for a server dedicated to the rally. The leaked messages show groups discussing leadership and planning, with calls for violence.