Charlottesville Protest Driver Faces Hate Crime Charges One Year After Deadly Rally

On Wednesday, 29 charges of federal hate crimes were filed against James Alex Fields Jr., the 21-year-old accused of deliberately ramming his car into a crowd at an anti-white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August of last year. The alleged attack, in which Mr. Fields accelerated directly into a crowd of protestors, resulted in the death of Heather Heyer, with dozens more injured.

The Department of Justice announced that Mr. Fields, who has remained in custody since the rally, will be charged under two hate crime statutes, with federal prosecutors arguing that he ‘willfully injured the victims because of their actual or perceived race, colour, religion and national origin.’ Wednesday’s federal indictment revealed Fields’ history of demonstrated racism, where he regularly ‘expressed his belief that white people are superior to other races’ through his various social media accounts and promoted violence against racially, ethnically and religiously diverse individuals.

“Last summer’s violence in Charlottesville cut short a promising young life and shocked the nation,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement. “Today’s indictment should send a clear message that we aggressively prosecute violent crimes of hate that threaten the core principles of our nation.” In a news conference disclosing the charges, FBI special Agent Adam Lee said “Peaceful protest is every American’s birthright. James Fields killed Heather Heyer in the name of hate.”

Marcus Martin, one of the individuals injured in the vehicle attack and friend of the late Ms. Heyer, stated that Fields deserves the charges, explaining that “he has to deal with the life consequences and everything he did’. According to Vanita Gupta, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, “this very important and robust indictment stands in stark and painful contrast with a president who has refused to this day to unequivocally denounce the white supremacists, some of whom marched in his name.”

Session’s forceful denunciation of Ms. Heyer’s death and swift efforts in opening a civil rights case must be applauded. In an apparent effort to separate himself from President Trump’s refusal to criticize white supremacist views following the rally, Mr Session has become a somewhat unlikely but nonetheless effective leading figure in enforcing hate crime laws across the United States.

Ms. Heyer was killed on the final day of a weekend-long rally organized by Unite the Right, protesting the decision to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from Charlottesville Park. The high-profile event drew supporters from several far-right groups, as well as counter-protesters to the university town in Virginia. The rally quickly descended into a chaos of racial taunts and violence between the protestors and counter-protestors. The governor declared a state of emergency, calling in the police and National Guard to disband the area before Fields plowed his car into a remaining crowd.

The rally has become a platform for wider debate over U.S. race relations. President Trump faced significant backlash for his comments blaming “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides” for the events that followed, controversially stating that the far-right demonstrators included “some very fine people.” As is summed up perfectly by the former Mayor of Charlottesville, Mike Signer, “[it is] important to keep in mind that this violence was much bigger that Mr. Fields, and there’s much more that needs to be done to answer and stop today’s extremism.’

In light of the fact that Unite the Right is organizing a rally anniversary event across from the White House on August 12, Wednesday’s indictment against Mr Fields sends an important message that racially motivated violence and hate crime will never be tolerated. Attorney General Session’s quick condemnation of the alleged attack as “domestic terrorism,” coupled with his commitment to enforcing hate crime laws as part of his civils rights agenda, only reinforces this further.