CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA—DeAndre Harris, the black 20-year-old who was beaten with metal poles by six white men during the Unite the Right Rally here last summer, was acquitted of misdemeanor assault charges on Friday afternoon to the applause of a courtroom packed with local supporters and activists.
Harris, a former teacher’s aide, appeared before General District Court Judge Robert Downer Jr., as well as the man who accused Harris of inciting violence, less than a block from the parking garage where members of the neo-Confederate group League of the South split open his head and fractured his wrist.
Though Harris was accused of dealing League of the South’s North Carolina state chairman Harold Ray Crews a “life-threatening” blow to the head with a flashlight, Downer ruled that Harris had been coming to the defense of another black man, Corey Long, whom Crews was attempting to stab with a metal pole. (Crews alleged that Long attempted to grab his flagpole and that he reacted by thrusting the butt of the pole at Long’s torso.) Downer determined that Harris hadn’t seen the beginning of the clash between Crews and Long. Whether Long was the first to engage will be tried next month.
“I frankly don’t see that [Harris] did anything wrong that day, at all,” Downer told the courtroom in a statement before reading the verdict. He added that, because so many videos of the attack were recorded by bystanders, the details of the incident—like the fact that Harris had been walking with his back turned to Long and Crews as they fought, and that the members of the League of the South acted in a coordinated fashion—were clear.
“I don’t have to take one person’s word over another,” Downer said. “It’s all on tape.”
While Harris’ acquittal came as a welcome relief to the activists who gathered to support him, they’re far from finished. They’re now demanding that charges also be dropped against Long and fellow counter-protester Donald Blakney, who are being tried for misdemeanor assault and malicious wounding, respectively.
“There is no ‘both sides,’” Lisa Woolfork, an organizer with Black Lives Matter Charlottesville, told Splinter. “[White supremacy] is a pernicious, dangerous ideology that has a purpose, which is the destruction of black people for the establishment of a white ethno-state. The idea that fighting this, combating this, is just as bad—it’s an utter falsehood.”
Grace Aheron, an organizer for Charlottesville’s chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), argued that Harris being taken to trial at all was an injustice, and proof that white supremacists successfully played a legal system they knew was already tilted in their favor.
After the attack, a member of League of the South reported Harris’ actions to the city’s magistrate, who is overseen by the state supreme court, rather than local judges, and is empowered to field individual complaints and issue warrants in response. That they were able to successfully induce the state to charge Harris after the fact—for a charge that could carry five years of jail time, though that was later downgraded to a misdemeanor assault—will likely follow Harris into the future, Aheron said.
“Not only did he have to live through the trauma of the last six months in limbo, but now it’s going to come up on his background check,” she said. “He’s going to have to explain that for the rest of his life. And he may never be able to pursue his career as a teacher he dreamed of. It’s weaponizing the judicial system against black people.”
Harris was already forced to resign from his position as a teacher’s aide and move out of the city in the wake of the incident. In a press conference, Harris’ lawyer, Rhonda Quagliana, told reporters and activists that she has a painful memory of walking with Harris to the courthouse, where he told her about the life he had only just started making for himself in the city. “He looked at me and said, ‘I just loved it here,’” she said.
When the trial ended, supporters streamed out of the courtroom and joined those chanting outside. The group of about 100 marched, chanting and singing, to the newly uncovered statue of Robert E. Lee, whose slated removal had been the galvanizing issue for the Unite the Right rally.
“Charlottesville has become a symbol,” said Ben Doherty, another organizer with SURJ. “And we need to show that you don’t have to wait for a bunch of white supremacists to show up and be violent in your city, you can tear down the structures of white supremacy on an everyday basis.” Showing up for fellow counter-protesters is one way, he said, but so is organizing and working to break down white supremacy into the future. Charlottesville specifically has to prevent history from repeating itself, Doherty said.
Jason Kessler, who organized last year’s Unite the Right rally and whose appearance at the trial on Friday was met with loud booing, sued Charlottesville after his permit to hold an anniversary rally this summer at the same park was denied. And as these activists know, white supremacists understand that the judicial system has historically failed as an arbiter of racial justice.
“It really speaks to the ways in which the Nazis have learned to weaponize the criminal justice system,” Woolfork said.
Samantha Schuyler is a freelance writer living in the American South.