When about 40 protesters gathered at the University of Virginia School of Law library in April to chase off Jason Kessler, one man was arrested—and it wasn’t the one who brought hundreds of torch-wielding white supremacists to Grounds last summer.
As Kessler sat doing legal research for his upcoming lawsuits in a room that wasn’t open to the public, it appeared to those who wanted him gone that the university had offered him a safe space. UVA law spokesperson Mary Wood says Kessler was not given an office, and was being assisted by a law librarian in the librarian’s office.
But to clear up the confusion at the time, Eric Martin decided to study with Kessler, and was escorted out in handcuffs shortly thereafter.
“I just thought it would help clarify the status—does he have a private office or not?” says Martin. “And the second thing I thought was, ‘Hold up. They had eight months to protect their students by barring this white supremacist who brought people that maced and beat students and beat one of the librarians into a stroke.’”
Martin, a part-time Charlottesville resident who also lives in New York while teaching and working toward his Ph.D. at Fordham University, was reading The Rise and Fall of Apartheid as he sat with Kessler and was told by multiple people that he wasn’t allowed to be there.
One of those was Stephen Parr, the law school’s chief administrative officer, who brought a few law enforcement officers with him.
“The police were clearly waiting for him to make a decision,” says Martin, who adds that Parr told him he was trespassing and asked him to leave. The alleged trespasser who, among other things, teaches Christian nonviolence, says he replied with something along the lines of, “That’s fine. I’m not going to. The students don’t feel safe and I’m going to stay here until Kessler leaves.”
Laughing, Martin says, “And then he had me arrested. I understood that it was possible when he said I was trespassing, but I didn’t think they’d be dumb enough to walk me out of there in cuffs and leave [Kessler] in there. They made their choice on who was the bigger threat at that table.”
Though Martin says some students were in tears, too afraid to attend their classes near the building that Kessler was holed up in, the university is following through with the trespassing charge. He’s scheduled to appear for a preliminary hearing May 22, after C-VILLE goes to press, and says the hearing will be continued to a later date because he’ll be out of town.
Martin will be defended by Jeff Fogel, who has represented several other community activists, and says he will plead not guilty.
After being cuffed, escorted out of the library and taken to jail, Martin was banned from the university. Kessler was also later banned, which Martin says is a sign that he was correct in his peaceful protest of allowing the “white supremacist” access to a private room that day.
“I would imagine that this is extremely embarrassing to [UVA],” says Martin. “I can’t believe they’re pressing charges.”
The ban presents a problem for Martin, who has been using the law library to do research for his dissertation. At the time of his arrest, he had 20 books checked out from Alderman Library and received an email from staff, which said he needed to return them, but couldn’t do so on campus. They arranged a meetup at the university police department, which Martin calls “high comedy.”
In addition, he will no longer be allowed to drive his wife, with whom he shares a car, to the Curry School of Education, where she works as a research assistant. He also faces a year in jail for the trespassing charge.
“That’s a very small sacrifice compared to what Corey Long and Donald Blakney are facing, so it’s hard to complain,” says Martin. “I’m getting the straight white guy treatment. …I have a whole lot of privilege. It’s easier for me to do this than other people.”
Adele Stichel, a rising third-year law student who was at the library on the day of Martin’s arrest, is calling for UVA to rescind the no trespassing order against him.
“I remember being shocked that [Martin] had been arrested while Mr. Kessler had not,” she says. “I think what Eric did was very brave and helped to reveal a troubling attitude that I and others have often sensed from the UVA administration, which is that resistance to white supremacy is somehow a greater threat than white supremacy itself.”
Martin says other supporters—the majority of whom he doesn’t know, including parents of students—have reached out to check on him, thank him or offer to pay his legal feels. In a letter of support from 250 signatories across the country, including many professors and students at Fordham, he’s called an “exemplar of the kind of activist-theologian the academy (Fordham) is presently cultivating.”
Over the past year, Charlottesville has been ground zero for white supremacist action and counterprotest, and some critics say it would all go away if ignored.
“That’s an argument that pays no attention to facts or empirical data,” says Martin. “That’s exactly what UVA tried to do, and clearly, eight months later, it did not go away. It keeps coming to the heart of their campus and terrorizing their students.”
Updated May 23 at 1:44pm to clarify that Martin’s books were checked out at Alderman Library.