The white supremacist who murdered Heather Heyer and injured dozens of others with his car in Charlottesville, VA last August now faces federal hate crimes charges, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and subordinates from the Department of Justice announced Wednesday.
Hate crimes laws — long a bugaboo among both right-wing lawmakers and civil libertarians — add penalties for crimes motivated by the actual or perceived race, religion, or nationality of the victims. Heather Heyer was white, but the feds say that James Alex Fields targeted the marchers he ran over because they were chanting and carrying signs in support of racial equality.
Fields “willfully caused bodily injury to Heather Heyer, because of the actual and perceived race, color, religion, and national origin of individuals in a crowd,” according to the indictment. “Many of the individuals in the crowd were chanting and carrying signs promoting equality and protesting against racial and other forms of discrimination.”
The decision to treat the targeting of anti-racism protesters as sufficient grounds for hate crimes charges is novel for Sessions’ team. In the ongoing mass prosecution of anti-Trump protesters arrested on Inauguration Day, Sessions’ subordinates in Washington, D.C. have argued that leftist anti-racism and anti-fascism protesters who decided to make themselves hard to identify during that march were guilty of felonies.
But such activists take pains to hide their identities for fear of being targeted by people like Fields, with either “doxxing” or direct violence. Many of the Charlottesville counterprotesters who challenged white supremacist attendees at the “Unite the Right” rally there last year adhere to similar beliefs and participate in similar organizing which went into the Inauguration Day action.
Sessions’ DOJ now finds itself arguing two near-opposite perspectives toward such left-leaning street activists. In Charlottesville, they were a protected class targeted for violence specifically because of their political views and political speech. In D.C., they were co-conspirator hooligans trying to stymie police so that some in their number could have impunity to break shop windows.
It’s especially interesting to see Sessions embrace the fundamental logic of hate crimes laws he had vehemently opposed as recently as a decade ago. He gave an impassioned floor speech in 2009 arguing that the laws result in unequal penalties for equally abhorrent violence. The quotes attributed to him in Wednesday’s press release suggest he’s unwilling to apply that same belief to Heyer’s killer. Where Senator Jeff Sessions would have said you don’t need special sentencing enhancements to make sure a murderer doesn’t get away with murder, today Attorney General Jeff Sessions is quoted as saying the Fields charges prove “that hateful ideologies will not have the last word and that their adherents will not get away with violent crimes against those they target.”
The move to shelter a street protest from harm with the full weight of federal criminal law also stands in sharp contrast to Trump’s broader take on such on-the-ground activism.
He’s slurred professional athletes for quietly protesting police violence and seized on the movement started by former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick as a political target because his voting base despises black political activism and revels in his ugliest responses to it.
He’s cultivated political allies who call for protesters to be jailed and punished. He leads a party whose elected members are prone to suggesting that it should be legal to run someone over with your car if they’re blocking the street as part of an unpermitted march or protest. Within hours of being sworn in as president, Trump’s White House website had posted a warning that protesters could expect a crackdown should any populist action boil over into civil unrest.
The nuances of the DOJ’s newly-flexible approach to the rights of so-called “antifa” and other left demonstrators are not likely the message the agency hopes to send in intensifying its pursuit of Fields.
White supremacists have openly celebrated not just President Donald Trump’s victory and policies, but his mealymouthed public commentary on Fields’ murderous conduct in Charlottesville and on the race-hate ethnostate ideology espoused by Unite the Right attendees. Trump specifically blamed antifa counterprotesters for initiating violent clashes with neo-Nazis earlier in the day in Charlottesville, prompting the prominent white-hate site Daily Stormer to rejoice.
“There was virtually no counter-signalling of us at all. He said he loves us all,” one writer for the site said at the time. “When asked to condemn [us], he just walked out of the room. Really, really good. God bless him.”