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Religion scholars aid theology student arrested protesting a white supremacist

Clergy and faith leaders march to counterprotest the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 12, 2017. RNS photo by Jordy Yager

(RNS) — Theologians, religion scholars and activists have rushed to aid a theology student arrested while protesting a white supremacist’s appearance in Charlottesville, Va., raising money for his legal fees and calling his demonstration against racism a “model” of “scholar-activism.”

In April, students at the University of Virginia expressed outrage when one of the organizers of last year’s Unite the Right rally near campus — a white supremacist gathering that resulted in widespread violence and the death of one counterprotester — entered the law school’s library. When the man, Jason Kessler, was spotted in the library again a week later, a protest was swiftly organized.

Among the demonstrators was Eric Martin, a Fordham University theology student who is living in Charlottesville while writing his dissertation. Martin reportedly entered the room where Kessler was studying, sat down across from him at a table, and began to quietly read a book entitled “The Rise and Fall of Apartheid.” An administrator asked Martin to leave, and when he refused he was promptly arrested by police.

Kessler was eventually banned from the campus, but Martin — who was among the cadre of faith-based protesters who stared down racists at the Unite the Right rally — remains mired in legal limbo. At a trial currently set for July 24, according to his supporters, he will face charges of misdemeanor trespassing that could result in a yearlong sentence.

Faith leaders and scholars defended Martin, according to the National Catholic Reporter. In May, a group of more than 400 religious scholars signed a petition calling on UVA to “desist from pursuing any further sanctions” against Martin, who has been active in Catholic Worker communities in New York, Charlottesville and other places.

“As you prepare to reach a judgment with respect to Mr. Martin’s case, we respectfully urge that you consider the context within which and the reasons for which he acted,” the letter reads. “And we affirm without hesitation that in this, as in his life and work more broadly, Mr. Martin has enacted a tradition of scholar-activism that is held up as a model in our field.”

Supporters also launched a GoFundMe page in July to help with Martin’s legal fees, and had raised more than $4,500 by Monday (July 16).

The fundraising site says the theology student was reluctant to solicit money, but acquiesced when supporters agreed that a third of the funds would go to a local charity that meets “the needs of people who face undue hardships imposed upon them due to structural oppression, including … through the criminal legal system.”

UVA officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

This story is available for republication.

About the author

Jack Jenkins

Jack Jenkins is a national reporter for RNS based in Washington, covering U.S. Catholics and the intersection of religion and politics.

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