As Trial Begins In Charlottesville Protest Death, Community Reflects Charlottesvile, Va., is bracing for the murder trial of the man accused of ramming his car into a crowd during a white supremacist rally in 2017. The community wants accountability, and healing.
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As Trial Begins In Charlottesville Protest Death, Community Reflects

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As Trial Begins In Charlottesville Protest Death, Community Reflects

As Trial Begins In Charlottesville Protest Death, Community Reflects

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The man accused of ramming his car through a crowd of protesters at a white supremacist rally goes on trial this week in Charlottesville, Va. Jury selection starts today. James Alex Fields Jr. is charged with murder in the death of Heather Heyer. He also faces additional charges for wounding others. Here's NPR's Debbie Elliott.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: When the August 12, 2017 Unite the Right rally erupted in violence, Star Peterson was with a multiracial group of counterprotesters marching downtown. She didn't see the gray Dodge Challenger coming from behind, accelerating down a hill on a narrow one-way street.

STAR PETERSON: I just heard three bumps. And I - two of them were his left tires going over my leg.

ELLIOTT: Sporting neon pink pigtails and a Black Lives Matter T-shirt, Peterson, who is 38, uses a cane for walking now. She's had five surgeries and has not been able to go back to work due to the severity of her injuries.

PETERSON: So he broke both of my legs, two parts of my spine and one rib. And then I also had a pretty big laceration that had to be sewn up.

ELLIOTT: Peterson plans to testify at the trial this week. James Fields is charged with first-degree murder and malicious woundings. Authorities say he deliberately plowed his car into the antiracist demonstration and had earlier participated in the rally with chants promoting white supremacy.

Fields is a 21-year-old white man from Ohio. He's pleaded not guilty and has not spoken publicly since his arrest. Fields' court-appointed defense attorney declined to comment on the case. Key evidence from prosecutors will include graphic videos shared on social media by witnesses.

SUSAN BRO: I feel like court's going to be watching my daughter die again over and over and over.

ELLIOTT: Susan Bro is Heather Heyer's mother. She says no matter how difficult, she wants to see the case through.

BRO: I have never hated Mr. Fields because I've felt like he's in the hands of justice now. But I do pray that justice prevails here.

ELLIOTT: What does justice look like to you?

BRO: I don't know - at least locked away.

ELLIOTT: The broader community is also looking for justice as it seeks to reconcile the forces that made Charlottesville shorthand for racial strife. Don Gathers is co-founder of the local chapter of Black Lives Matter.

DON GATHERS: Where we go from here, I don't - I don't know. As a society and as a world, we've got to figure out how to make Charlottesville more than just a hashtag again and more than just a blip on the racist history of this country.

ELLIOTT: Gathers has served on several citizen advisory panels, including a commission on race memorials and the police review board. He says there's been an awakening, that this is a new civil rights battle.

GATHERS: So we've reached a point now that we've got to stop having the conversations about race and start talking about the real elephant in the room, which is racism.

ELLIOTT: Addressing systemic racism is a goal of the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation, says President Brennan Gould. It's raised over a million dollars for the Heal Charlottesville fund.

BRENNAN GOULD: Part of what we heard from our community that was needed for the healing was opportunities to act, opportunities to really be good and honest about our collective history and also to start to act in ways that will help address the impacts of that history.

ELLIOTT: It's funded an initiative to increase teacher diversity, for instance. But Gould says the primary focus is helping survivors with rent and utilities, medical bills and counseling.

GOULD: It seemed like the world had moved on, in a way. And yet, people were still very much living and dealing with the consequence of that tragedy.

ELLIOTT: One way it helps survivors is through a grant to social worker Matthew Christensen at Partner for Mental Health. He serves as a navigator, helping people deal with things like filling out disability applications or finding accessible housing.

MATTHEW CHRISTENSEN: It's a lot of whatever they need.

ELLIOTT: Right now, they need help coping with the trial, which he says could be retraumatizing. But Christensen says it is an opportunity for accountability.

CHRISTENSEN: For the perpetrator to face real consequences - 'cause that's something that people struggle with, is not seeing the organizers, like Jason Kessler, Richard Spencer, face real consequences legally for organizing this rally.

ELLIOTT: While rally organizers have not been charged with any crime, they do face a civil lawsuit brought by Charlottesville residents who sued under the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871. Four participants have been convicted related to the violence. Survivor Star Peterson is bracing for her testimony. But she thinks justice will be elusive.

PETERSON: There can't really be justice. We can't undo what's been done. We can't bring Heather back.

ELLIOTT: If convicted on the Virginia charges, Fields could be sentenced up to life in prison. He's also been indicted on federal hate crime charges, which allow for the death penalty. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Charlottesville, Va.

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