Charlottesville Continues to Be a Battlefield Between Far-Right Forces and Protesters

Today we bring you a conversation with Molly,* an activist in Charlottesville, Virginia. Molly discusses updates on trials of Charlottesville protesters, how local activists are facing resistance from the city in the creation of a police civilian review board and what actions are coming to Charlottesville this summer.

Sarah Jaffe: What has it been like on the ground … nearly a year since the multiple white supremacist rallies arrived in Charlottesville and drew everybody’s attention?

Molly: The simplest way to answer that is that it is not over. People refer to Charlottesville as an event, as that one day, but what is going on here didn’t stat on August 11 or 12 [2017] and it didn’t end there. We are still dealing with not just the repercussions of that day, but the systemic conditions that caused it. They picked our town for a reason.

One of the things that is not over is that Corey Long — who became very famous very briefly for the photograph of him defending someone against white supremacists armed with all sorts of things — was convicted this week. Can you tell us of what and why and how?

There were two charges for Corey’s trial last week. It was a misdemeanor assault charge and a disorderly conduct charge. The assault was no process, which means they didn’t prosecute it at the trial because the complaining witness could not be reached by the commonwealth. The prosecutor was have trouble getting in touch with Harold Crews, who is the North Carolina chairman of the League of the South, which is one of the more established white supremacist hate groups. That charge didn’t end up getting pursued, but he was convicted of the disorderly conduct for — we have all seen that picture of him with the flamethrower. He was defending himself against Richard Preston and some others. Richard Preston is a Klan leader from Maryland who recently pleaded no contest to a felony for discharging a firearm at Corey at that time….

It is interesting to see the way that these prosecutions have happened. This is not the first person who was defending himself or was just straight up assaulted by a white supremacist at the rally who then has faced charges.

DeAndre Harris was prosecuted as well. Again, we have all seen those photographs of DeAndre’s gruesome injuries. He was assaulted by a gang of white supremacists. He was prosecuted … and acquitted in March. I don’t know if it is just a matter of people looking at the two of them and one of them is a more “worthy” victim, because DeAndre suffered injuries. I am not sure what the difference was, because in both cases, the commonwealth attorney — the prosecutor in Charlottesville, Joe Platania — he sort of soft-pedaled both cases.

In DeAndre’s trial, his closing argument sounded like he was making the defense’s closing argument. If you didn’t want to prosecute this, you had the option to not do that. In that case, it worked. The judge acquitted him. These were bench trials. They were misdemeanors. Our district court judge, Judge Downer, was the one making these calls. But again, Platania sort of soft-pedaled this. It really seemed like he was going out of his way to make it clear that he didn’t think Corey did anything wrong, but that is not how prosecutorial discretion works. You don’t get to prosecute the case and act like you didn’t want to. If you didn’t want to, you didn’t have to.

You mentioned the one particular white supremacist … pleading guilty, but have there been other trials of the people who were there who were part of the rally and were assaulting people?

There have been a number of cases. I have attended quite a few trials lately. Three of the men who participated in the assault on DeAndre Harris have been identified and prosecuted. They are still searching for a couple of them. I don’t know how hard they are searching. The ones they did find were either turned in by their friends or identified by people like Shaun King, which police have conveniently not mentioned when they are put on the stand, in this case. But Jacob Goodwin, Alex Ramos and Daniel Borden have all been convicted….

In Virginia, juries make sentencing recommendations. For Ramos and Goodwin, those were jury trials. The jury made a recommendation for both of them, but ultimately the judge will hand down the sentence in August for Ramos and Goodwin and in October for Gordon. Those three men could face up to 20 years in prison…. It is really hard to convince a lot of people that you were defending yourself when you are beating someone who is lying on the ground. They didn’t take kindly to that.

You mentioned that people … who are now known to be pretty unapologetic white supremacists are still finding ways to get money and support.

Yes, that is mind-blowing. There has been a lot of de-platforming and I think that is a really successful strategy. I think that is something we need to continue to hammer away on. There was a ThinkProgress article about a law firm in California that is processing donations for both Jason Kessler and Chris Cantwell, who your listeners may know better as “The Crying Nazi” from the Vice documentary. They have been quietly processing payments at least for Cantwell for months. He mentions it on his podcast three times a week.

When I looked at this last summer, before all of this was going off, there was active Black Lives Matter organizing in Charlottesville, there were actions around the police, working for a police review board and looking to change the culture broadly there. Tell us what has been going on, on the proactive front.

We are moving toward the successful establishment of a police civilian review board (CRB). It is not going 100 percent according to plan because things never do, but at our last city council meeting, they announced the members of the first board.

Normally, boards and commissions in the city … people apply and they are appointed by council, but there is no discussion, there is no public involvement in the process. It just happens behind closed doors and they make the announcement. In this case, we got to have a public forum with all of the candidates for the CRB, people who put in their applications, people who live in the city, and we got to watch them answer questions. That was a big step. They had people fill out a survey after the forum for who we would like to see on the board. Then, they did not use the results of that survey to make their selections.

Obviously, they had no obligation to do so…. They were just surveying us. But the person with the most votes, the person that most people wanted to see on that board was Jeff Fogel, a local civil rights attorney who has been very vocal throughout this process…. His voice would be critical in this first round of the board. This first group of people on this board are going to write the bylaws. Excluding the civil rights attorney who was one of the loudest voices in calling for this board seems like an oversight. It was intentional and it sent a message. It said that city council does not want this board to have teeth. They don’t want these bylaws to be written by someone who knows what they are doing.

This is not the first time the city has targeted Jeff. He ran for commonwealth attorney last year and two weeks before the election, he was hauled out of his home in the middle of the night by the police on a simple assault charge that he was later acquitted of. That is not standard procedure. You do not go to an old man’s home in the middle of the night and drag him out of bed and take him to jail. There is a lot of animosity toward Jeff because he knows what he is doing.

We are making progress on the CRB, we are glad that it is moving forward, we are glad that the city has been at least somewhat receptive on the surface to the idea of having this, but in refusing to appoint two of the top three vote-getters — the other one being Rosia Parker, a local Black Lives Matter activist — that sends a message. We told you who we wanted and you explicitly did not select them because you don’t want their voices represented in that room and that means something.

I want to circle back to Corey Long because I wanted to ask what next steps are in his case, in particular, but also, I know that there were protests after the verdict, and that people were arrested during this protest.

… After Corey was convicted, the judge sentenced him to 360 days active confinement with 340 suspended. That is a 20-day sentence that you actually have to serve. Typically, around here, you serve half of a misdemeanor sentence. You serve 10 days. He has the option of serving it on weekends. So, he could serve five consecutive weekends. Again, the prosecutor requested during sentencing that there be no active incarceration and the judge chose to sentence him to that anyways. Typically, if both the prosecutor and the defense agree on what the sentence should be, the judge just goes with that. He was choosing to send a message here.

… It is the same speech every time. I have it written down maybe 20 times across six notebooks. “The whole day was very chaotic, very unfortunate. It cost the city its reputation. We went from a world class city to the city where this happened. This behavior is very serious. We have limited resources for keeping people incarcerated.”

And yet, you still chose to sentence Corey to active incarceration. And the fact that he chose that moment to say that, “What really was damaged here was our city’s reputation.” Not that this young man’s life was in danger. Not that someone died. Three people died…. But, “This city’s reputation was damaged and it is important to send a message.” This young man who defended himself against a known imperial wizard in the Ku Klux Klan was sentenced to serve jail time and 100 hours of community service and two years of good behavior and up to one year of active supervision by offender aid and restoration.

He already served this community. He serviced this community by protecting himself and protecting us on August 12. So, [that] Friday night, we gathered in Justice Park…. We were marching down the downtown mall … chanting for Corey.

We were marching in the street and I have heard from activists around town that the police used to let us do that. They used to let us take the street because it was easier to just let us quickly move through the street like we were going to do and everyone can move on with their lives than it would be to arrest eight people, like they did on [that] Friday. All eight people were served … they were getting summonses for traffic violations. They are not criminal charges. It is pretty unusual to take people to jail for a traffic violation.

So, eight people were taken to jail, one of whom was Star, one of the people more seriously injured on August 12. She is still using a wheelchair…. These are people who are still very much living with what happened last August. They couldn’t figure out what to do with her and her wheelchair. They had already hauled off seven people and taken them to jail and she is just still in the street with her wheelchair telling them … “I am not moving.” I think it took more than an hour and they finally sent an ambulance from our all-volunteer EMS [Charlottesville-Albemarle Rescue Squad]…. These people did not have to do this. They do not work for the police. They came in that ambulance and they loaded that woman — a competent conscious person who did not need medical care and was not being taken to the hospital, into that ambulance. Which is, to me, a clear violation of medical ethics. It is appalling.

And within 48 hours, cars of Charlottesville-Albemarle Rescue Squad had updated their official policy that they will no longer transport patients to jail. It makes a difference. What they did was wrong. But there was community outrage and they recognized what they did was wrong and they changed their policy.

We all went to the jail Friday night to wait for our people to get out because that is what you do. When I arrived at the jail, an officer approached my car while I was parking and told me that I should maybe try and talk to my people….

They had locked the doors to the magistrate’s office so that no one could get in and they weren’t letting attorneys in. They weren’t letting Jeff Fogel in to see his clients and at no point did any attorney actually gain access to the building to see their clients. These people were arrested and taken to jail for a traffic violation and denied access to representation. It is horrifying. And everyone was out within a couple of hours. No one seriously injured. But the way they put their hands on people for these arrests … I don’t think I will ever get used to seeing a cop kneel on someone I care about.

Is there any appeal for Corey Long?

That, I don’t know. I think he and his counsel are still mulling that over. So, in Virginia, you have [the] right to appeal to the circuit court. You have your misdemeanor bench trial in general district court and you can appeal to the circuit court. But the problem with that is if that circuit court judge — you get a whole new trial. That judge could decide, “Yeah, Judge Downer was right. We are going to stick with this. You are going to serve the 20 days.” Or he could say, “No, you are acquitted. You are free to go.” Or he could say, “I think you should serve the full year.” It is kind of a toss-up. You have to know your judge. You have to weigh that risk.

I don’t know what I would do in his position because Judge Moore is fairly conservative. He is the judge that issued the decision that we had to remove the tarps from the statues. If people aren’t familiar, our two Confederate statues in town that are the lightning rod for all of this, are [Robert E.] Lee and [Stonewall] Jackson statues. Our city council voted to shroud them in black tarps after the events of last August. In February, our circuit court judge, Judge Moore, ruled that shrouding those statues was causing irreparable harm to people [who] wanted to see them and they had to be removed. Irreparable harm. So, I don’t know that I would want him to do my appeal.

What are next steps going forward? What are people organizing around this summer? Are there any things that people outside of Charlottesville can support?

Some local folks have written a call to action. There are still a lot of unknowns here. The city is really sleeping on being proactive here. They are not moving forward as quickly as I would in their position. Jason Kessler is suing the city for a permit for that weekend and the city is not talking about it. The city has made no comment about this to my knowledge. But, from what Jason says, he expects a decision in that case in late July, which again, is so close to the anniversary. This is what happened last year. They were litigating it down to the wire and no one was ready.

People don’t know if Jason is going to get permits for August. I don’t know what will happen with that. He is saying he is trying to get backup permits for Lafayette Park in Washington, DC, which is ludicrous to me that they would give him a permit for directly outside the White House. I don’t imagine that happening….

But, what this community is asking is that people be ready to stand with us, whatever does end up happening. We can’t tell you what that is going to be yet, because we don’t know….

Back to the de-platforming. Zyniker Law is taking donations for those guys…. Kessler has a website … hosted by Cloudflare … if folks wanted to contact Cloudflare and let them know, Maybe, don’t let a Nazi organize for a Nazi rally on their web space, that would be great.

And we are still calling for the city to expunge Corey’s record and to drop the charges against Donald Blakney. Donald Blakney is another Black activist who is still facing charges from August 12, [2017]. His trial is at the end of August and I believe he is facing felony charges, which is ridiculous…. I don’t think he should be held accountable on felony charges for striking a Nazi in self-defense. We are calling for the city to free Corey Long, to drop the charges against Donald Blakney and for Joe Platania to step down. I don’t think he gets to play it both ways. He doesn’t get to press charges against activists and then wring his hands like he is sorry about it….

Both of our local prosecutors need to maybe step down and let someone maybe a little bit better step up. One more court date I want to mention is June 29, Jason Kessler is suing our friend Donna, a local activist, for hurting his feelings.

What?

It is an old anti-dueling statute that is still on the books in Virginia about words that incite violence. That if you live here, you defend someone’s honor and you make them duel you. Outside of DeAndre Harris’s trial, actually, in March, the courtroom filled up so Jason couldn’t get in. So, he was stuck outside with the crowd that was supporting DeAndre. A local activist [Donna] gave him a piece of her mind. I believe what was enshrined in his complaint was that she called him a “racist” and a “crybaby” and I guess that hurt his feelings real bad. So, he is suing her for $500. Which is a small amount of money. He is wasting so much time on such a small amount of money because he got his feelings hurt…. He is representing himself…. It will be a real treat if anyone can make it out for that to support Donna.

How can people keep up with you and what is going on in Charlottesville? And for people who are from outside who either can’t come to visit or would like to be supportive, how can they do that?

The only fund that I know of that has actually disbursed money to survivors and to activists in this community for bail funds and legal defense, medical bills, emergency housing — the only fund that is actually dispersing those moneys is the Charlottesville [Community] Resilience Fund…. That is @CVilleFund on Twitter, you can follow us there. They are a 501(c)4. They are run by activists in this community. It is all volunteer, horizontal decision-making…. They are actually helping people here in this community and that would be a great place to send your money if you have money to send.

There is a local media collective that is doing incredible work, Solidarity CVille. You can follow them on Twitter at @SolidCVille. They are covering stuff around town. You can follow me if you wanted to … I am at @SocialistDogMom…. You can also find me on Patreon.

*Molly preferred not to share her legal last name since she has been targeted by far-right activists.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.