CHARLOTTESVILLE — Three months before hundreds of white supremacists descended on Charlottesville in 2017, the founder of a neo-Nazi group suggested the dress code.
“Khakis and a polo,” Matthew Heimbach texted Jason Kessler, the lead organizer of the Unite the Right rally.
That look became one symbol of the deadly violence that engulfed Charlottesville on Aug. 12, 2017. But ultimately, when Heimbach and his followers arrived, they wore all black. In court this week, an attorney said the purpose of their uniform was to hide blood.
Heimbach was the first of two dozen defendants — some of the country’s most infamous white supremacists and hate groups — to testify during a federal civil trial alleging they engaged in a conspiracy to commit racially motivated violence during the Unite the Right rally weekend.
Heimbach, who rose to notoriety in 2016 for shoving a Black woman at a campaign rally for Donald Trump, was questioned for several hours on Tuesday and Wednesday about his hateful beliefs, providing insight into the planning leading up to the deadly Unite the Right rally weekend, including his deliberate outreach to violent groups.
“I wanted to invite you and pick your brain about how to conceive this thing,” Kessler wrote on May 22 to Heimbach in text messages presented in court.
Photos, videos and the planners’ messages — part of a leaked trove from the group-chat platform Discord — presented in court this week illustrate the ways Heimbach communicated and met in person with his followers, co-defendants and their associated groups.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has described Heimbach as “the affable, youthful face of hate in America” who is, in many ways, “the grand connector” between various hate groups.
“We’ve got 90% of all the real orgs in America together,” Heimbach said in a June 5, 2017, message to Dillon Hopper, the commander of Vanguard America, the group that car-rammer James A. Fields, Jr. marched with during the rally. “With the leadership being you, me, Jeff and Dr. Hill,” Heimbach added, referring to Jeff Schoep, the former leader of the National Socialist Movement, which at one time was the largest neo-Nazi group in the country, and Michael Hill, a neo-Confederate leader of the League of the South.
“Now all we need is Spencer and Damigo,” Hopper later replied, referring to Richard Spencer, who had coined the term “alt-right,” and Nathan Damigo, another defendant the SPLC calls “the racist, ex-felon force behind Identity Evropa,” a neo-Nazi group.
“Well this is where charlottesivlle [sic] comes in,” Heimbach wrote. “We’re all doing it together.”
During cross examination by Spencer and Christopher Cantwell, known as the “Crying Nazi” — who are also defendants but do not have attorneys and are representing themselves in the trial — Heimbach sought to distance himself from them. Attorneys and defendants argued during this case that they did not show up to Charlottesville looking for violence, despite messages indicating otherwise. They said their speech was hyperbolic and constitutionally protected, and blamed violence on police inaction and anti-fascist protesters.
Nine people who allege physical harm and emotional distress during the deadly rally weekend are bringing this suit, represented by prominent lawyers Karen Dunn and Roberta Kaplan. Integrity First for America, a civil rights nonprofit organization, is backing the lawsuit, which is underpinned by a Reconstruction-era statute designed to protect newly emancipated Black people from the Ku Klux Klan. The trial began last week and is expected to last until Nov. 19.
Throughout questioning, Heimbach and his attorney, Joshua Smith, pushed back. When Dunn displayed a photo posted on Discord in May 2017 of Hopper “Nazi saluting” Heimbach, Smith objected to the phrasing.
“It’s actually referred to as a Roman Salute,” Smith said.
When people say the United States fought “Nazis” in World War II, Heimbach said he views it as a slur. When his newborn son first opened his eyes, Heimbach said he thought of Adolf Hitler. When Dunn asked Heimbach how his followers would salute him, he replied: “Heil Heimbach.”
There were so many antisemitic messages displayed in court that Judge Norman K. Moon remarked early into questioning that Dunn had “established his feelings toward Jewish persons.”
Heimbach began his racist organizing in college, founding Towson University’s White Student Union. After graduating, he and his stepfather-in-law, Matthew Parrott, created the Traditionalist Worker Party, whose platform included the goal of establishing a White ethno-state in North America as a “Homeland for Whites” and stated that they are “at war” with “international Jewry.”
At the group’s height, The Post previously reported, there were about 1,200 paying members in at least eight states, reporting to regional commanders who in turn reported to top leaders, including Heimbach, who was living in a trailer park in Paoli, Ind.
Eight months after the Unite the Right rally, the movement fractured. The Traditionalist Worker Party — which the SPLC designated a hate group — dissolved, following a tempestuous family feud between Heimbach and co-founder Parrott: Heimbach in 2018 was arrested for allegedly assaulting his wife, Parrott’s stepdaughter, and choking Parrott unconscious. This was after Heimbach was caught allegedly having an affair with Parrott’s wife.
But for the weekend of Aug. 12, 2017, Heimbach’s group was intact and ready for Charlottesville.
Ahead of the rally, Kessler asked Heimbach to contact to two specific violent skinhead groups: the Hammerskins and Blood & Honour social club.
In court this week, Heimbach called these groups “rough around the edges” and said they were invited to discourage counterprotesters from showing up. Heimbach also said he reached out to “comrades in Greece” to see if a representative from the violent neo-Nazi group Golden Dawn would come to the rally.
Those who showed up to counterprotest that weekend said they wanted to stand up to hate. They included clergy and students, and held signs denouncing white supremacy as the neo-Nazis shouted slurs, sprayed chemical substances and wielded weapons.
“Your testimony, Mr. Heimbach, is that the purpose of inviting violent, or I’m sorry, ‘rough and tumble,’ skinhead groups was to make things less violent?” Dunn asked.
Breaking News Alerts
“Yes,” he said, “so there would be a deterrent effect.”
However, Dunn played a video from Aug. 12 in which Heimbach smiles at the camera and says “just a day in the park,” before shouting “shields up!” His group is then seen charging into counterprotesters.
Dunn also showed the jury a still frame from a video of white supremacists beating DeAndre Harris, a Black man, in a parking garage that day. She asked Heimbach to identify in the image Michael Tubbs, a co-defendant, in the crowd, as well as symbols of Vanguard America and his own group, the Traditionalist Worker Party.
The previous year, according to evidence Dunn presented, Heimbach tweeted a photo of a foot on a gas pedal, with the instructions: “Leftist protesters blocking the road with weapons, threats and violence while making you fear for your life? #HitTheGas.”
On Aug, 12, 2017, defendant James Alex Fields Jr. sped his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, striking four of the plaintiffs in this case and killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Fields was later sentenced to life in prison.
In the aftermath of this act of terror, Heimbach wrote to Fields in a letter presented in court to say that although they never met, they are “comrades” and he knows he is “a good man.”
“You my friend,” Heimbach wrote, “are a martyr for our folk.”