Click here if you don’t see subscription options
Eric Martin, far right, a Fordham University theology student, marches with clergy and faith leaders to counter protest the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville 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.

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.

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.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.

The latest from america

On “Preach,” host Ricardo da Silva, S.J., and Victor Cancino, S.J., explore how preachers might respond to generational trauma, particularly in Native American communities. “I think doing the work of looking at your own life,” says Victor,“ allows you to be vulnerable, and you give the freedom to
PreachDecember 04, 2023
Monsignor Paolo Braida reading Pope Francis’s message on Dec. 3 (Vatican Media)
Speaking by live television from Santa Marta, the 86-year-old pope, who clearly has not yet fully recovered from a week-long bout of acute bronchitis, issued his heartfelt appeal for “a new ceasefire agreement.”
Gerard O’ConnellDecember 03, 2023
In a speech to the COP28 meeting of world leaders in Dubai read by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Pope Francis decried the ‘inordinate greed that has made the environment the object of unbridled exploitation.’
Pope FrancisDecember 02, 2023
A Reflection for Saturday of the Thirty-fourth Week in Ordinary Time, by Molly Cahill
Molly CahillDecember 01, 2023