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Religion scholars aid theology student arrested protesting a white supremacist

DO NOT USE AGAIN! 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.

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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  • Frankly, this one sounds suspicious on both sides of the table. Banning wacko Kessler from the campus seems appropriate, but it also looks like wacko Martin could really use a “Sabbatical in the Slammer.”

  • I’m inclined to agree with you. While working on my grad degree, I occasionally used the law library for research. I wouldn’t want demonstrations taking place in a library. There are plenty of other venues for such activity (I am not against peaceful protests, etc.).

  • We tend to disagree so much on everything, I figure I’d better give you an Upvote this time, just to celebrate a decent snippet of agreement.

  • If you can’t do the time, don’t commit the crime. Good intentions or not, a crime is a crime. A yearlong sentence is overkill and I doubt he’ll get more than a slap on the wrist.

  • Look, there’s Cornel West! Every single one of them is a religious lefty, I bet. You won’t see any right-wing religiosos backing somebody fighting white supremacists, because the entire religious right is predicated on white supremacy.

  • How would you regard someone like Dwight McKissic, the black Southern Baptist pastor from Arlington Texas? He’s not apart of this story but he is challenging his denomination when it comes to these types of things.

  • Do you always insist on jail time for trespass of this kind? Why not just ban Martin from the campus as well? Kessler, in fact, is a UVA alumnus, and they banned him. All the more so they could ban Martin and save the expense and show of a trial that will likely yield not even 1/365ths of the year-long maximum as a sentence. It’s what CVS does to shoplifters, I don’t see why Thomas Jefferson’s magnum opus can’t do it to someone protesting a deadly white nationalist.

  • The RNS article mentions a possible “yearlong sentence” so that’s what I went with.

    But frankly, when a guy thinks he’s so big & bad that he’s refusing a reasonable and polite administrator request to leave the premises, there’s nothing wrong with police arrest followed by Jail Time. Martin sounds like there’s something wrong somewhere. A good Hoosegow will help with stress reduction.

    Martin may only get a slap on the wrist, of course. But meanwhile, library customers really do need to see that at least short-term, the library’s security/safety boundaries will be quickly enforced.

  • While quietly reading a book on the end of apartheid across form Kessler certainly is a form of protest especially when he then refused to leave the library , not sure that actually constitutes being a wacko. And not sure whether the University would have otherwise banned Keller on their own without public dissent- unless other facts are missing from this story. Just interesting to see how people all read the same information and come to different conclusions as to what transpired and who deserves what. Not sure he deserves anything more than a a university ban from being in the law library, This simply seems over-reach to me.

  • Here’s the problem. You deliberately get in a person’s face with an identifiable visual “protest” at a public library, when your target is not bothering anybody and is merely trying to do his or her private homework, that’s a direct bullying move. Period.

    Bullying moves are Wacko moves, especially at libraries and other public spaces, at which people of all opinions and causes are allowed to study and work in silence. But then this guy (a clergyman? seriously?) decides to pile on the Wacko with an additional bullying move, directly dissing the authority of a library administrator to reasonably ask disruptive persons to leave.

    The first Wacko move, a simple “University Ban” might suffice. But I’ve seen how the second Wacko intimidation move works as well, and I lose all sympathy for Wacko Bullies at that point. Stick Martin’s patootie in the Cooler till he gets his Brain back online.

  • A Mexican being proud of his Race — Natural and Normal
    An Asian being proud of his race — Natural and Normal
    A Jew being proud of his race — Normal and Natural
    A white person being proud of his race — Racist, n.azi who wants to gas 8 gazillion jews.

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