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By David Potter 3-16-2018

This morning in the Charlottesville General District Courthouse, DeAndre Harris — a black man who was notoriously beaten by six white nationalists in a parking garage adjacent to the Charlottesville Police Department during the Aug. 12 “Unite the Right” rally — will stand trial for misdemeanor assault charges.

In October of last year, Harold Ray Crews, a self-avowed Southern nationalist, filed a charge of “felony unlawful wounding” against Harris. After Crews’ personal statement was verified by a Charlottesville law enforcement official, local magistrate, Merlyn Goeschl, issued an arrest warrant. Three days later, Harris turned himself in and was immediately released without bail.

A demonstrator at the alt-right rally, Crews — who is a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and chairman of North Carolina’s League of the South, both groups of which are tracked by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hatewatch — claims he sustained injuries from the parking garage confrontation after being struck by Harris.

Given recorded video of two separate incidents, these claims have been especially controversial and widely disputed. Recordings of the first incident show a scuffle over a confederate flag that leads to Harris’ brutal beating, while other recordings show a second incident occurring later that day showing Crews being struck by a white male who appears to be an Antifa associated counter-protestor.

For some in Charlottesville, however, the specifics of this case are merely an aside to what is described as the “premeditated violence” of rally demonstrators.

Solidarity Cville, a community defense network of multiple local activist groups, is pressing Charlottesville Commonwealth Attorney Joe Platania to drop all charges against Harris. In addition to holding a vigil outside the police department in the district courthouse on Thursday evening, the group is preparing a sustained response to Harris’ trial on Friday.

Rev. Seth Wispelwey of Congregate Charlottesville, which exists to organize local clergy, faith leaders, and partners in broader community anti-racism efforts, spoke with Sojourners.

“[Platania] has taken what he calls a race-blind approach, and we’re in the business of restoring sight to the blind,” he said. 

Today’s trial is the first of three separate cases in which the commonwealth attorney is attempting to prosecute black men who were present in the city on Aug. 12, some involved in counter-protests, others not — DeAndre Harris, Donald Blakney, and Corey Long. Members of the local community are unclear why Platania is seeking these prosecutions, especially given the commonwealth’s notable resistance to prosecuting neo-Nazis and Klansmen identified in violent acts during the rally.

“The three prosecutions, [whose] trial dates are all within a few weeks of each other, are sending a dangerous message to white supremacists who have continued to watch our town closely and threaten it, ” said Rev. Wispelwey.

For Wispelwey, these prosecutions carry a danger to the country because of the “both sides narrative” that many have tried to perpetuate.

“To normalize this ‘both sides’ narrative and bring law enforcement to bear on those who were meant to be protected is a very dangerous message that undercuts the reality that white supremacy is violent." 

“For white people of faith especially, “there’s not an enough we can do; there’s an embodied solidarity we must be.”

David Potter is Special Projects Manager for Sojourners. 

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