First, the question was “Where’s Jason Kessler?”
Then the question became: “What’s Jason Kessler doing?”
Kessler, a racist white rights activist, on Tuesday dropped his request for a federal judge to force the city of Charlottesville, Virginia, to grant him a permit to hold a rally on the anniversary of the deadly “Unite the Right” protest on August 11.
The move, which took U.S. District Judge Norman K. Moon by surprise, came at the end of a hearing that proved to be as strange as it was brief.
“He’s not going to hold a rally in Charlottesville on August 11 or August 12,” said his attorney, James Kolenich, after the hearing. “But he doesn’t need a permit to walk around with a bullhorn with less than so many people. I don’t know if that is his intention.”
Kessler, a Charlottesville resident, filed a federal lawsuit against city officials after they rejected his request for a permit to hold a second “Unite the Right” rally at a park near downtown. Kessler modified that request multiple times, giving different estimates of how long he would use Emancipation Park, which is home to a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, as well as how many people might attend. As part of the lawsuit, Kessler asked Judge Moon to issue an injunction forcing the issuance of a permit for the rally.
The first “Unite the Right” rally, which took place on August 11 and 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, attracted a large number of armed neo-Nazis, white nationalists and other racist "alt-right" figures, as well as large crowds of counter-protesters. Just before it began, the planned rally was declared an unlawful assembly by the authorities and, as crowds began to disperse, a large group of counter-protesters proceeded down Charlottesville’s 4th street. It was there that a car sped into a crowd, killing Heyer. James Alex Fields, Jr., faces a murder charge in state court and federal hate crime charges stemming from the death.
Kessler is planning to hold a second Unite the Right rally in Washington, D.C.’s Lafayette Square Park, across the street from the White House on August 12.
When Tuesday’s hearing started, neither Kolenich nor Kessler were present in court, leaving only attorney Elmer Woodard to begin arguing the case. Woodard said the city rejected Kessler’s request for a permit because they didn’t like what he was going to say or what he had to say at the first Unite the Right rally.
“This boils down to whether or not the city of Charlottesville can restrict speech,” Woodard said.
After noting the multiple changes in Kessler’s permit request, Judge Moon pressed Woodard on what, exactly, Kessler was asking to do.
“I don’t have a dog in this fight. I’m not going to be there,” Judge Moon said. “What is he asking for?”
Woodard clarified that Kessler wanted Emancipation park for two hours on Sunday, August 12.
“That’s not a burden on the city,” Woodard said.
Judge Moon zeroed in more on Kessler’s involvement with various groups, including some that took part in 2017’s violence.
“Does Mr. Kessler have a group he represents?” Moon asked.
“Mr. Kessler has a group that he represents in name only,” Woodard said. “There are a couple of groups that he is a member of and he is the only member of.”
Woodard declined to name the groups Kessler belongs to.
As John Longstreth, a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer representing the city, began arguing his case, Judge Moon noted that Kessler still wasn’t present and that Kolenich was late.
When Kolenich showed up 15 minutes late — blaming troubles with a flight between Cincinnati and Charlottesville – he also said Kessler’s whereabouts were unknown.
“Is this a serious matter that you are going to treat seriously?” Judge Moon asked Kolenich.
“Yes,” Kolenich replied. “As far as Mr. Kessler’s whereabouts, I don’t know where he is.”
The Judge was not amused by the absence of Kessler, and noted that Kessler had changed his application for a permit several times, giving varying amounts of time he would need the park and wildly varying estimates on attendance.
“Your client is not here. You were not here,” Moon to Kolenich. “I want to know what’s going on. I think he should be here to say what’s going on.”
After a short recess, Kessler stumbled into the courtroom 30 minutes late, but didn’t speak publicly. Instead, he met briefly with Kolenich and Woodard before leaving.
After meeting with Kessler, Kolenich said the request for an injunction to force a permit was being dropped, but the lawsuit would continue.
Judge Moon quickly granted the city’s request to reject the injunction and ended the hearing.
After the hearing, Woodard declined to speak with reporters.
“I told you I’m not going to give you any information,” said Woodard, a Blairs, Virginia, lawyer who represents several alt-right figures.
Kolenich, a Cincinnati attorney who also handles cases for various members of the alt-right, said after the hearing that the main lawsuit challenging Charlottesville’s permitting process for another rally would go forward. A trial in the case is set for April 8 through 12, 2019.
“He wants to get this all straightened out for next year,” Kolenich said.
Kolenich said the decision to drop the case came during the brief recess after Kessler arrived in court.
“He has a good reason for what he does,” Kolenich said. “He hasn’t said he will (hold a rally in Charlottesville),” Kolenich said. “I can’t tell you he won’t do it.”