Assault charge dismissed against antifascist professor

Defense puts right-wing hoax on trial

0
556
Big League Politics editor Patrick Howley takes the witness stand in Orange County court on Nov. 15. (photo by Jordan Green)

An Orange County district court judge dismisses a misdemeanor assault charge against a UNC-Chapel Hill professor that was brought by the editor of the alt-right website Big League Politics.

The scene was chaotic at McCorkle Place on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill on the evening of Aug. 20. The mood among students and other antiracist activists was angry after brief skirmishes with the university police, but mostly determined that the Confederate monument known as Silent Sam would come down.

They were also on edge as neo-Confederates and other far-right activists milled around the periphery in the semi-darkness, watching with grim resignation. Some walked up to students holding banners and verbally sparred, and at least one is accused of charging a student protester while another is accused of threatening someone with a knife. Among the crowd at the base of Silent Sam before the statue was pulled down that night was Dwayne Dixon, a 46-year-old UNC teaching assistant professor, and a group of friends.

Dixon might be the most renowned antifascist activist in the state because of his role with the left-wing militia Redneck Revolt in providing armed security for a park held by antiracist activists during the Aug. 12, 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., and then a week later when he carried a rifle in response to a threatened Ku Klux Klan rally in Durham. He had been charged with going armed to the terror of the people and bringing a weapon to a downtown demonstration for his involvement in the Durham incident, but a judge dismissed the charges, finding that they were unconstitutional.

Some of the far-right activists stationed at the periphery of the crowd recognized Dixon at the Silent Sam protest on Aug. 20.

Dwayne Dixon, in pink shirt, encounters far-right hecklers on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill prior to the toppling of Silent Sam. (photo by Jordan Green)

“There’s Dwayne Dixon, that communist leader!” one unidentified man exclaimed angrily. More than one person stalked Dixon with a camera phone, accusing him of “chasing” James Fields Jr. with a rifle, and causing him to kill Heather Heyer when he rammed his car into a crowd of people in Charlottesville. One of the accusers, who declined to give his name, was observed by this reporter accosting Dixon. Another was Patrick Howley, the 28-year-old editor of the alt-right website Big League Politics.

The hideous falsehood — that Dixon caused Fields to kill Heyer because of his armed defense of antiracists — is among the most durable hoaxes to grow out the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. Popularized by the far-right outlets InfoWars and Gateway Pundit, along with Howley’s outfit Big League Politics, the hoax has been widely embraced as a deflection of responsibility by Unite the Right participants, from organizer Jason Kessler to James Campbell and Manuel Luxton, two Triad residents who helped form a battlement with shields at the rally.

Sometime on the evening of Aug. 20, 2018, Howley approached Dixon near the base of Silent Sam.

“Dwayne, why did you chase James Fields with a rifle right before he hit those people?” Howley asked Dixon. The 68-second video posted on YouTube by Big League Politics reporter Peter D’Abrosca shows the two men arguing; at one point the lens is obscured and the shot jumps as if the person holding the phone is getting jostled. The next day, Howley published an article on the Big League Politics site with the title “VIDEO: UNC Antifa Professor Assaults Big League Editor At Statue Tear-Down.”

Accompanied by his friend, a Chapel Hill-based political consultant named Noel Fritsch, Howley later went to a local magistrate’s office and swore out a warrant resulting in a misdemeanor charge against Dixon for simple assault. In a victim statement, Howley wrote that Dixon “rushed me, grabbed my left hand and armed with my phone in it, and struck me repeatedly.”

Dixon stood trial in Orange County district court on Nov. 15. His lawyer, Scott Holmes, mounted an elaborate defense, attempting to impeach Howley’s credibility as a witness by building a case that Howley’s coverage is driven by an ideological motive and monetizes a pattern of falsehoods based on dubious sourcing. Holmes also argued that the video contradicted Howley’s testimony about the alleged assault, resulting in a “fatal variance.” But Judge Samantha Cabe didn’t have to rule on any of those questions. Holmes was holding an ace card — an apparent typo by the magistrate that the district attorney’s office failed to correct before taking the case to trial.

“Finally, the reason that it’s really defective is that it names Dwayne Dixon as the victim and not only the perpetrator,” Holmes said. “They have not proven that Mr. Dixon assaulted himself.”

Judge Cabe quickly announced that she was dismissing the charge because of a “fatal flaw” in the charging document.

‘It shows his level of competency as a witness’

UNC-Chapel Hill professor Dwayne Dixon addresses the media on the steps of the Orange County courthouse before standing trial. (photo by Jordan Green)

Flanked by supporters before the start of the trial, as cold rain spat from the sky, Dixon gave a brief statement on the steps of the courthouse in Hillsborough. He accused Howley and his colleagues of continuing “to create falsehoods in order to create a narrative to maintain power — a power that they can only finally ever acquire by actually killing people, by killing Heather Heyer, by killing the 11 people who died in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. This is the truth that needs to be told: that these individuals are working in collusion with the very killers who are now incarcerated for murder.”

Although he would benefit from skillful representation, Dixon made it clear that whatever the outcome of the trial, he viewed the legal process as illegitimate from the start.

“I have no truck with this legal system,” he said. “I have no faith in it. And yet if we as a larger society are going to be in agreement about something, it’s that putting people in the ground is not the way to create a healthy, beneficial and open life for all of us. So when I go in today the things that are going to happen today are largely immaterial. I’m not concerned. This was completely based on untruths.”

Holmes cross-examined Howley for more than an hour — roughly seven times the length of the time used by the prosecutor for direct examination and showing the video of the incident. Throughout the trial, Howley displayed evasion and even defiance. On eight different occasions, Judge Cabe admonished him to answer Holmes’ questions, and three times she told him to not speak unless he was responding to a question. The judge also expressed impatience with Holmes, sharply ordering him to “move on” at one point.

Holmes reminded Howley that Aug. 20 was not the first time he had approached Dixon with a camera phone and attempted to ask him about James Fields. Howley admitted that when he and Noel Fritsch accosted Dixon in the hallway of a UNC academic building in February 2018, he did not have an appointment to meet Dixon and did not give him notice that he was coming. And although Howley publicly accused Dixon of assaulting Noel Fritsch — identified on the site as a “Big League cameraman” — Howley testified that Fritsch opted to not pursue charges.

Howley presented himself on the witness stand as a neutral interlocutor who remains open-minded while attempting to pose questions. He said in addition to asking Dixon about James Fields, he wanted to ask Dixon if he stood “behind the violence that Redneck Revolt has perpetrated across this country” — another leading question based on a faulty premise.

Howley, like other activists and media figures on the far right, latched on to a Facebook comment by Dixon — since deleted — in retort to an anti-“antifa” viral social media post by the firearms maker Spike’s Tactical, in which Dixon said he was proud to have carried a Spike’s firearm when he “chased off James Fields” from the block he was patrolling when Fields drove past, shortly before Fields rammed into a crowd of antiracist marchers three blocks to the south. Later, Dixon clarified in a talk at Harvard University that Fields “paused right in front of me, and I waved him off with my rifle.”

During the Nov. 15 trial, Holmes asked Howley if he had seen the video presented by prosecutors in the Fields case that showed the defendant putting his car in reverse for more than a block, and then accelerating into the crowd. Howley’s responses were evasive, and after Holmes asked a third time, he finally said, “I saw the video. That’s your interpretation of what happened.”

Judge Cabe said she didn’t understand “the purpose of rehashing what happened in Charlottesville.”

“It shows how his level of competency as a witness — to somehow accuse Mr. Dixon of — to have seen the video of what happened and want to go to UNC campus and stick a camera in his face and accuse him of any responsibility shows that this person lacks all credibility whatsoever.”

Holmes called Howley’s attention to an article in which he described Dixon as “the de facto leader” of the Aug. 20 rally that ended with the toppling of Silent Sam. After initially refusing to answer the question of how many sources he had for the statement, Howley finally responded, “Based on my research, I count myself as a source on that. I did my research. There are many sources who would say that Dwayne Dixon is the leader of this network. There are two sources that I can think of right now.”

Holmes also asked Howley about a statement he published that “Dixon mostly carried out his activist plots in anonymity until Charlottesville,” asking Howley if he himself “had any knowledge of anonymous plots that Mr. Dixon participated in.” After deflecting by referencing events in Charlottesville and at the Silent Sam protests, Howley finally conceded that one “source said Mr. Dixon was acting anonymously prior to Charlottesville and him being exposed in Charlottesville forced him to change his strategy.” His final testimony dropped any reference to “plots” prior to the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.

Howley acknowledged on the stand that he was put on suspension from Breitbart News for four days, prior to founding Big League Politics.

“And that incident working with Breitbart News had to do with an incident where a reporter was accusing someone else of assaulting them,” Holmes said. “Isn’t that correct?”

Howley acknowledged the incident, in which he expressed skepticism in a series of tweets about the allegation that Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski assaulted his Breitbart colleague Michelle Fields during a campaign event in March 2016. According to screen-grabs of deleted tweets that were shared by CNN reporter Hadas Gold, Howley insinuated that Fields’ allegation was manufactured to sabotage Trump in the mainstream press. “This shoulder incident certainly is getting a lot of attention from the mainstream press,” he wrote at the time. “A whole lot of attention….’”

A news outlet owned by a political consultant

After initially brushing aside the question as “irrelevant,” Howley reluctantly testified that Big League Politics is partially owned by Mustard Seed Media, “which is owned by my friend, Reilly O’Neal.”

Howley testified that Big League Politics receives revenue through advertisements, but when asked if the site has a list of subscribers, he responded, “I really don’t want to get into that.”

“Is it true or untrue that you have subscribers?” Cabe asked impatiently.

“True,” Howley said.

“Isn’t it true that one of the sources of your revenue is selling your subscriber list to political campaigns?” Holmes asked.

Howley responded, “I believe it is possible. You’d have to ask my business partner.”

O’Neal, a Raleigh-based political consultant who owns Tidewater Strategies, could not be reached for comment for this story. Tidewater Strategies has worked on campaigns for far-right Republican candidates, including Greg Brannon, who ran for US Senate against Thom Tillis in the 2014 primary; Corey Stewart, who lost his US Senate race this year in Virginia to Democrat Tim Kaine; Alabama US Senate candidate Roy Moore; and Paul Nehlen, who unsuccessfully sought to replace House Speaker Paul Ryan in Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District. Tidewater Strategies’ Twitter account follows Augustus Invictus, a marquee participant in Unite the Right who was kicked out of the far-right group American Guard for being too racist.

Howley has publicly sought to play down his right-wing ideological orientation.

“I consider myself to be an independent,” he said in Orange County court on Nov. 15. “I consider myself to be a populist and a citizen. I’m not a conservative or a liberal.”

Tidewater Strategies is more straight-forward about its orientation.

“We are a full-service political consulting firm working exclusively with conservative candidates and organizations across the country,” the website announces.

Some of the messaging in the campaigns that O’Neal has worked on align with Big League Politics’ drumbeat of coverage promoting the idea of antifascists being as violent and out of control. O’Neal acknowledged that he helped set up a political action committee called Principled Leadership Project in response to an inquiry from WBTV 3 in Charlotte. The PAC ran a controversial ad in support of Republican Karen Handel during the 2017 special election to fill the vacant 6th Congressional District seat in Georgia.

The ad, which ran after a Bernie Sanders supporter shot Republican Rep. Steve Scalise at a congressional baseball game in Alexandria, Va., urged voters to “stop” Handel’s opponent, Democrat Jon Ossoff, while claiming that the “unhinged left is endorsing and applauding shooting Republicans.”

“When will it stop?” a narrator asks in the ad. “It won’t if Jon Ossoff wins on Tuesday, because the same unhinged leftists cheering last week’s shooting are all backing Jon Ossoff. And if he wins, they win.”

Fritsch, the cameraman who accompanied Howley onto campus to accost Dixon inside an academic building in February, is also a political consultant, who, like O’Neal, has worked on the Nehlen, Stewart and Moore campaigns.

Howley gave a contradictory explanation of Fritsch’s involvement with Big League Politics during his testimony on Nov. 15.

“Does he work for Big League Politics?” Holmes asked.

“No, he’s my friend,” Howley said. “He works with me…. Yes, I suppose you could say he’s a photographer for Big League Politics.”

“You just said he wasn’t,” Holmes said.

“Well, I changed my answer,” Howley replied. “He is.”

Howley was listed as a witness in the charging document for the Aug. 20 incident, but was not called to testify.

After Judge Cabe’s dismissal of Dixon’s charge, Howley stood up in the courtroom and walked out, uttering aloud: “Unbelievable. Wow.”

As Dixon and his supporters were leaving, Howley returned with his cell phone. Howley turned on his camera near the courthouse’s security checkpoint and started filming Dixon as he stood near the front entrance. Howley’s question was predictable.

“Can I ask you a question now about Charlottesville?” he asked.

“Can we get an officer of the court to intervene here please?” Dixon asked.

Frustrated once again, Howley turned his ire on the court system, and the mainstream media.

“Obviously it was rigged on a technicality, but the facts are clear that Dwayne Dixon did assault me and he is a very violent person,” Howley said. “And I think that people in Chapel Hill are put in harm’s way by the radical, violent riots he and his friends cause on campus and elsewhere in this country. And until the media, sir — until the media starts reporting on this violence, we’re not gonna be able to come together and have rational conversations in this country because we’re just gonna descend into street fighting out there. And is that what the media wants? That’s not what I want.”

Howley and Big League Politics gave ample coverage through articles posted on the site and tweets about the case in the run-up to the trial. To date, both the site and its editor’s Twitter account have remained silent about the disposition of the charge four days ago.

Comments

comments