It’s becoming clearer over time that the right’s eliminationist smear campaign against antifascists—which originated as an extremist conspiracy theory, and then blossomed into right-wing conventional wisdom thanks to media outlets like Fox News—was a phenomenal success. One need look no farther than the jury selection process in the Charlottesville civil-lawsuit trial against the neofascist planners of the deadly 2017 “Unite the Right” rally, which started Monday.
Queried on the stand about their views on “antifa,” many of the prospective jurors made clear that they had absorbed the smear into their worldviews. One described antifa as a “terrorist organization.” Another called them “troublemakers.” Asked on a questionnaire if he thought antifa was responsible for the “Unite the Right” violence, one potential juror answered, “most likely.”
Indeed, the view of the pool of jurors about antifa seemed to be a critical factor in their selection. The defendants and their attorneys argued strenuously against anyone who might have a favorable view of the movement—including whether or not they read Daily Kos. The plaintiffs’ attorneys, meanwhile, were concerned about people who indicated they believed the smear.
An attorney for the plaintiffs, arguing for one potential juror to be dismissed, told Judge Norman Moon: “People with extreme views of antifa may be less inclined to believe the defendants were responsible [for the violence at the ‘Unite the Right’ rally] and inclined to believe the defendants' claims of [violence used in] self-defense.”
When asked why he had described antifa as “troublemakers,” one potential juror said: “All I hear about antifa is what I hear on TV. It seems like they’re always involving themselves in racial riots and causing a lot of problems with their political beliefs,” he said.
Another prospective juror, as Vice’s Tess Owen reported on Twitter, described antifa as domestic terrorists in his questionnaire. "I just seen what I know on television and the internet," he wrote. He added that he doesn’t consider antisemitism to be a serious issue. "I just don’t believe that today we have this problem... where I live, it doesn’t seem to be a problem."
While several of these jurors were removed, Judge Moon denied the plaintiffs’ request to strike the juror who described antifa as a “terrorist organization.” He was similarly reluctant to strike jurors who had more neutral views.
One juror who wrote that antifa “fights the far-right movement” was attacked by defendants Richard Spencer and Chris Cantwell, who claimed that was “not a balanced perception of antifa” and was “leaning toward their side.” Moon, however, said that he felt that the juror was qualified.
Another prospective juror, numbered 220, was questioned about his politics because he reads Daily Kos. Unicorn Riot reported on Twitter that Cantwell and Spencer heavily cross-examined this juror.
Cantwell asked the juror where he placed Daily Kos on the political spectrum, and he answered, “I don't think it’s as far left as antifa.” He was also queried about listening to Thom Hartmann’s radio program.
Cantwell then asked Moon to strike the juror, saying he has "extreme views about antifa." He cited the smear campaign’s oft-repeated myth blaming antifa for “burning and looting in the second half of 2020”—which both statistics and studies of law-enforcement reports definitively demonstrate was not the case.
"He has an extremely favorable view of a group that hunts the defendants like dogs in the streets,” Cantwell complained. Another defense attorney told Moon that the juror "went right up to the line of identifying himself as an antifa.”
Spencer chimed in, saying that “the idea that he's a Daily Kos reader and watches the Thom Hartmann program and hasn't heard of Richard Spencer is incredible.” He added: “I think he's lying to get on the jury.”
Moon was not persuaded, and told the defendants that he thought the juror “could set aside preconceived notions and try the case based on the law and the evidence. I do not think he is disqualified.”
This will not be the first trial in which jurors’ preconceived notions about antifa appear to be playing a role. In the 2019 trial of an alt-right couple who shot an antifascist at a January 2017 protest in Seattle, the jury ended up deadlocked because of three members who believed the victim had it coming:
Finally, on Tuesday, Aug. 13, five weeks after the trial began, a mistrial was declared when it became apparent that, despite the majority voting otherwise, three jurors would never be persuaded to find the Hokoanas guilty in the shooting of an antifascist. Nine of them voted to convict Elizabeth, and seven were convinced of Marc’s guilt, but the three holdouts—who apparently were all Trump-loving Republicans—could not be budged.
“The jury was biased,” its foreman, a man named Luke, told The Seattle Times. He said that, during deliberations, he had requested a repeat viewing for the entire jury of an informational video about bringing bias into the jury chambers, but “it didn’t do any good” for a small handful of jurors who “sympathized and held similar views” to those of the Hokoanas.
… One of the jurors approached [chief prosecutor] Raam Wong afterward in an effort to set the record straight. She told him that the jury’s deliberations were tainted from the outset by the three Trumpites, led by one particularly bellicose male: “I guess from the very first moment he just kind of sunk his heels in, and said there's no way in hell I'm going to ruin this woman's life because of some antifa ringleader who he thought he was human trash and probably deserved to be shot.”
There’s an irony in the spread of these attitudes among would-be jurors in Charlottesville. Most people, after all, had not even heard of antifa prior to the violence at the “Unite the Right” riots. It was in the wake of those events that what had been primarily a fringe conspiracy theory about a communist plot to depose Donald Trump became a mainstream right-wing media standard. Multiple stories on Fox and in right-wing outlets began demonizing the antifascist movement, apparently with the intent of blunting the growing chorus of concern over the rise of white nationalist violence that Charlottesville represented.
This essentially created not just a “bothsiderist” narrative readily adopted by other mainstream outlets, but an eliminationist one in which antifa were depicted as so demonic in nature that they deserved no free speech or protest rights, and ultimately deserved only to be thrown out of helicopters (as the Proud Boys and other far-right thugs would have it). This narrative was used by Trump’s henchmen in the Department of Homeland Security to attempt to blame the summer 2020 violence in Portland on antifa, which turned into an incompetent shambles of an investigation—but still provided Trump with an excuse to deploy an army of DHS contractors on the streets of the city.
The same phony narrative, amplified incessantly by far-right actors on social media, also inspired a wave of “antifa bus” hoaxes that inspired hordes of heavily armed “patriots” to swarm the streets of various small towns across the nation last summer. When wildfires began burning up the West Coast, the same disinformation artists convinced their audiences that “antifa arsonists” were setting the fires, inducing clusters of right-wing goons to set up paramilitary checkpoints in rural areas.
These attitudes, based almost entirely on right-wing disinformation, have clearly spread widely, from Seattle to Charlottesville and all points in between. Just this week, the judge in the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse—the teenager who gunned down three protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last summer—informed attorneys in the case that they could not describe the three men as “victims,” but would permit defense attorneys to describe them as “looters,” “rioters,” or “arsonists,” even though none of the three were ever accused of those crimes. In other words, the judge has greenlighted Rittenhouse’s attorneys to put the victims on trial.
The underlying attitude at work here—namely, that antifascists are evil incarnate, fit only for elimination—seems to have soaked into the American justice system at multiple levels. One can only hope that the jury in Charlottesville is able to begin turning the tide.