“I was already run over by a car, I will not be bullied by the federal government,” said Star Peterson, a victim of the August 12 vehicular attack in which a white supremacist bowled over a group of counterprotesters with a dark gray Dodge Challenger.
Peterson was among about 20 members of activist group Solidarity Cville, who gathered in front of the United States District Court on West Main Street on December 13, to protest what they call state repression.
The group says at least two victims of the summer’s Unite the Right rally have been subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury about the events of the tragic day that left three people dead and dozens injured.
An assistant U.S. attorney has justified the subpoenas by saying he’s only seeking to indict the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who took over the town, such as James Fields, the alleged driver of the Dodge, according to Ibby Han of Solidarity Cville.
“Yet, we don’t know if they are also seeking to indict the anti-racist activists who defended our community this past summer,” she said at the protest.
U.S. Attorney’s Office spokesperson Brian McGinn offered a written statement dated August 13, and said the office is unable to comment further because it is an ongoing investigation.
“The Richmond FBI Field Office, the Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Virginia have opened a civil rights investigation into the circumstances of the deadly vehicular incident that occurred earlier Saturday morning,” said U.S. Attorney Rick Mountcastle in the statement. “The FBI will collect all available facts and evidence and will ensure that the investigation is conducted in a fair, thorough and impartial manner.”
Han says people who have been subpoenaed and refuse to cooperate with the federal prosecutor and grand jury face serious jail time.
“The survivors of a terror attack should not be subjected to 18 months in jail simply for refusing to participate in the unjust process of a grand jury,” she said, adding that people who are called to testify aren’t allowed to have their attorney present in the room. “The prosecutor may ask any and all questions they deem relevant, and they are not obligated to reveal the subject of their investigation.”
Legal expert Dave Heilberg says if a witness doesn’t show up to testify when summoned, she can be held in contempt and sanctioned, possibly in jail. If a witness appears and refuses to testify before the grand jury and invokes her Fifth Amendment rights, she is sometimes given immunity and required to answer questions anyway, even if incriminating.
The Fifth Amendment protects people from being forced to be witnesses against themselves.
“If they then refuse to answer, they can be held in contempt and face the same sanctions,” Heilberg says.
In Han’s plea for subpoenaed victims to not cooperate, she claims grand juries have historically “been used as a tool of political repression to surveil and incriminate social movements.”
And so far, federal prosecutors have “backed down” when at least one victim refused to be cooperative, she said. “Resistance works.”
Advises Heilberg, “Nobody who is subpoenaed as a grand jury witness for any reason should follow the unqualified and unauthorized legal advice of any third party or organization.”