Support for Scholar-Activist Eric Martin

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One of our Daily Theology guest contributors, Eric Martin was recently arrested in a nonviolent action to support students at the University of Virginia. Eric is a doctoral candidate in theology at Fordham University. He works closely with the Catholic Worker community and is committed to nonviolence and racial justice. Eric is an active member in the Charlottesville, VA community. We have included a summary of the events and a petition letter to the UVA Leadership developed by members of the Fordham University community . Please consider signing the letter here.

The Event

On April 25, Jason Kessler, the organizer of the August 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, entered the University of Virginia Law Library. The presence of Kessler upset staff and students. In August Kessler brought neo-Nazis to campus who beat students and employees with lit torches, and one week before he confronted students who appeared Jewish and told them Jews and women should not be at the law school.

Martin responded to a call a community leader and arrived to see 35-40 people staring at a private study space given to Kessler, apparently guarded by several police officers. . Several students told Martin they did not feel safe in the vicinity of a white supremacist who had already brought violence against students on campus. Martin watched students asking law school personnel why Kessler was allowed on campus and receiving no clear answers. He called the president’s office to ask whether the president was aware of the situation and the receptionist hung up on him before he could finish the question.

Distressed that over eight months had passed since the initial attacks and even after Kessler harassed students the university had taken no action except to give him police protection from the students, Martin decided to enter the room where Kessler was studying and read. Careful not to harass, annoy, touch, intimidate, mock, speak to, or even look at Kessler, Martin simply sat down and began reading The Rise and Fall of Apartheid (part of his dissertation research) across the table.

When ordered to leave by employees, Martin replied that they would have to decide who the threat at that table was, and that he would leave if Kessler were escorted out. Stephen Parr, the law school’s chief administrative officer, ordered police to arrest him, and he received the ban from campus that students had long demanded be given to Kessler, who continued to study in the office with police guard while Martin was cuffed and sent to jail.

On April 27, Kessler received a 4-year ban for offenses predating this incident. Martin faces up to a year in jail for trespassing. A trial date will be set on May 22. The university has until May 25 to consider his appeal.

A statement from Eric highlights his perspective: “Please know this is just one small part of a much larger movement in Charlottesville to combat white supremacy, led by dedicated groups at much more risk than me. Your attention is better paid to the charges against Corey Long and Donald Blakney for defending themselves and others in the midst of the violence on August 12.”

The Letter of Support.

Please consider signing on to this following letter to the leadership of the University of Virginia at the link here: 

May 18, 2018Mr. Patrick Hogan
Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer
University of Virginia
Charlottesville, VA 22903

Dear Vice President Hogan,

As scholars, clergymembers, and activists for social justice, we write in support of Mr. Eric Martin. Several weeks ago, as you know well, Mr. Martin was arrested by University of Virginia police after he peacefully occupied a space in the Morris Law Library that was set apart for the use of a White supremacist who had played a leading role in organizing the demonstrations on Grounds last summer that President Sullivan condemned as “behavior… so odious they threaten the very essence” of a university community. Mr. Martin’s actions were nonviolent and in keeping with our country’s finest traditions of civil disobedience; he responded to University officers with respect and civility; and following his actions, the University took decisive action to ban the white supremacist leader from its facilities. For all these reasons, we urge you and the University to desist from pursuing any further sanctions against Mr. Martin.

We begin with some words about Mr. Martin’s character and about his many academic and public achievements. We affirm without qualification that Mr. Martin is an outstanding scholar, a contributing member of the academy, and a committed theologian who bridges religious, denominational, and racial divides in his work and witness. In short, Mr. Martin is an exemplar of the kind of activist-theologian the academy is presently cultivating.

Mr. Martin is currently in his fifth year of studies as a candidate for the Ph.D. in Theology at Fordham University. His capacity as a scholar is demonstrated through the exceptional work he has already begun in his dissertation. Determined to undertake work that would be not exclusively an academic pursuit, Mr. Martin is writing a dissertation at the intersection of the fields of history and theology that comprises a close reading of the life practice of anti-war activist Daniel Berrigan, S.J. Mr. Martin has already published the letters between Berrigan and his brother (The Berrigan Letters: Personal Correspondence Between Daniel and Philip Berrigan (Orbis, 2016), co-edited with Daniel Cosacchi), and he is building on an intimate knowledge of this public figure with further archival research. Given the progress and promise Eric has demonstrated, Fordham’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences recently awarded him its most competitive dissertation fellowship in order to ensure completion of his dissertation in the coming year.

Both Fordham’s Department of Theology and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences recognize in Mr. Martin a young scholar whose commitment to activism grounds action in the face of injustice in our world. In addition to the extensive time that he has dedicated to archival research, Mr. Martin has been committed to a methodology that does not only think about Berrigan’s theologically-grounded activism, but thinks with this approach to Christian life and thought by placing Mr. Martin’s own body in places analogous to those in which Berrigan was willing to place his. Among the many manifestations of this scholar-activist methodology have been Mr. Martin’s public witness at Standing Rock (as documented in an op-ed he published in the New York Times, “At Standing Rock and Beyond, What is to be Done?” https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/25/opinion/at-standing-rock-and-beyond-what-is-to-be-done.html) and his courageous witness in Charlottesville. He is recognized nationally as the young White man in shorts and a stole in the iconic images of the clergy counter-protesters against last August’s “Unite the Right” melée. All of these opportunities for moral witness have deepened Mr. Martin’s understanding of the role of the scholar in the public square.

We provide this background to contextualize and place within the broader framework of his scholarly and theological commitments Mr. Martin’s actions this past month in the University’s Law Library. As they have been described in the press, Mr. Martin’s actions unfolded peacefully, did not disrupt the work of the University, and embodied the methods of nonviolent demonstration that our nation has long revered in the persons of Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, Daniel Berrigan, and countless others.

In addition, while we recognize that the public is not privy to all the University’s decision-making processes, we rejoice with Eric that his public witness to the possibility that nonviolent acts of civil disobedience can bring to light specific injustices appears to have been borne out in the subsequent ban of Jason Kessler, the known White supremacist, from Grounds.

Mr. Martin has not asked that we write these words, and we know from our conversations with him that he recognizes that theological commitments, enacted in the face of injustice, can have their costs. Yet as citizens, just as much as in our professional capacities, we firmly believe that justice would not be served by the severe penalties that the University appears to be contemplating imposing on Mr. Martin. We acknowledge that the public remains divided on the complex issues that underlay last August’s demonstrations in Charlottesville, but we believe that public discourse will not be advanced by stringent institutional, much less criminal, sanctions against a protest that was neither violent nor disruptive in nature.

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. 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.

Sincerely yours,

Please consider signing on to this following letter to the leadership of the University of Virginia at the link here: 

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