A prominent figure in the white nationalist movement argued he is a “shock jock” who runs a “racist podcast” before he was denied bond on Thursday evening.
Christopher Cantwell, 36, faces two charges of illegal use of tear gas, phosgene or other gases and one count of malicious bodily injury by means of a caustic substance or agent. The charges stem from clashes Cantwell had with protesters during the torch-lit march that occurred at the University of Virginia on Aug. 11, the night before a violent white nationalist rally overtook Charlottesville’s downtown, resulting in the death of one woman and dozens of injuries.
Two people testified to a magistrate that Cantwell had used pepper spray on them during the clashes. Both in court and in a teary video he posted before his arrest, Cantwell contended that his actions were taken in self-defense.
Cantwell turned himself in last week in Lynchburg after UVa police announced that warrants were out for his arrest. On Thursday morning, an Albemarle County judge set bond for Cantwell at $25,000, but the county’s head prosecutor had until 4 p.m. to appeal that decision.
Albemarle County Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert Tracci did so, and after a bizarre hearing that lasted nearly four hours, Judge Cheryl Higgins reversed the lower court judge’s decision.
While Cantwell rose to prominence in the white nationalist and other, similar pro-white movements through his podcast, “Radical Agenda,” he came into the public spotlight just this month after a Vice News documentary profiled Cantwell and his cohorts during and after the rallies in Charlottesville.
In the documentary, Cantwell is seen calling for an “ethno-state” and making several comments about the death of 32-year-old Heather Heyer during the Aug. 12 rally. Heyer was killed when 20-year-old James A. Fields allegedly plowed his car into a group of anti-racist demonstrators; while Fields is charged with second-degree murder in the incident, Cantwell is shown in the documentary calling the killing “justified.”
Excerpts of the video were very nearly played during Thursday evening’s court hearing, which saw Tracci squaring off with Pittsylvania County attorney Elmer Woodard, who repeatedly claimed during the early portions of the hearing that the video should not be shown.
Woodard said during the hearing that Cantwell would not be a flight risk were he to be released on bond, because he’d found a person to stay with in Virginia while his case is adjudicated and because he had voluntarily turned himself over to police upon hearing of warrants for his arrest.
Offering photos taken from the Aug. 11 clashes, Tracci asked for the opposite, saying that Cantwell’s “act of supreme bravery” in turning himself in “doesn’t amount to much” in the eyes of the court. He then pointed to excerpts from the Vice News documentary as evidence that Cantwell had a “proclivity toward violence” that would pose a public safety risk were he to be released.
Before the video could be shown in court, Woodard objected to Tracci’s notions, calling Cantwell a “radio personality” akin to comedian Jackie Mason and prone to saying “outrageous things.” He further called the video hearsay and lamented having not had the time to authenticate it himself, adding that the video could have been edited or doctored.
When this prompted Higgins to ask if the hearing should then be delayed to allow time for Woodard to authenticate the video, he demurred, saying it was the prosecution’s job to do so. When Higgins then allowed the video proceed, Woodard reversed course, saying that he’d “misspoken” and would prefer a delay in the case.
The reversals led Higgins to call for a recess, with the intent of exhibiting the video when court resumed. When court was back in session, Higgins said the defense should be permitted to present evidence before the commonwealth by procedural custom, prompting Woodard to call Cantwell to testify.
On the stand, Cantwell claimed that he’d been “distressed” during the Aug. 11 rally and reiterated that he’d used his pepper spray to ward off attacks by protesters. He added that he’d lost track of the number of death threats he’s faced since the rally, and added that Woodard had been his fourth choice of an attorney after several others declined to take his case.
On cross-examination, Tracci asked Cantwell to clarify what kind of topics he spoke on in his capacity as a “shock jock.” Cantwell stated that his platform focused on “race relations” before eventually stating that he “do[es] a racist podcast.”
This prompted Tracci to ask if Cantwell was in fact a white supremacist, but Higgins sustained Woodard’s objection of the question, calling it irrelevant to the hearing at hand.
During further questioning, Cantwell said that if he was released, he would be able to stay in Virginia with someone he met during the rally but did not know very well.
The need to view the video was negated when Tracci then asked Cantwell to verify comments he’d been seen making in the video, which included claims that white nationalist groups had “shown restraint,” that Heyer’s killing was “justified,” that “more people are going to die before we are done here,” and that he and his cohorts had “gassed up those k---- and t-------.” Cantwell admitted to each comment, with slight revisions on some.
Asked whether he meant those comments, Cantwell again chalked them up to his “radio personality,” saying that his radio program was intentionally shocking and that “the purpose is to make money.”
“His business is to shock people,” Woodard said later in the hearing, further adding, “If he was a flight risk, he would have flown.”
After a long review of the evidence, Higgins said there were too many questions raised about the clashes to consider the self-defense metric raised by Woodard, and that while he may be a “shock jock,” his comments following the rally should not be ignored and “tend to show a certain level of approval of the violence that was used.”
She further noted that his living situation in Virginia was “simply too tenuous,” and ordered him held at the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail without bond. His next court appearance is set for Oct. 12.