U.Va. arrest reignites race conversations

Sarah King
News Editor

Twenty-year-old University of Virginia junior Martese Johnson required ten stitches for his head wound from arrest. photo courtesy of black dot uva / Bryan Beaubrun

“Yo, his head is bleeding! His head is bleeding!” shouts an unidentified eyewitness in the grainy  cellphone footage of third-year University of Virginia student Martese Johnson’s arrest around 1 a.m. outside Trinity Irish Pub near campus Wednesday.

Students and St. Patrick’s Day celebrators quickly walk past, some glancing over their shoulders, others crying, holding hands and turning away as a uniformed officer pins Johnson to the pavement.

“I go to U.Va. I go to U.Va.,” Johnson yells from the ground. “I go to U.Va. you fucking racist. (…) How did this happen? How did this happen? You fucking racist, how did this happen?”

Johnson’s voice trails off as handcuffs click into place, blue lights flash in the background and the video ends.

From there, Johnson would be taken to the University Hospital and receive 10 stitches for his head before being charged with public intoxication and obstruction of justice without threat of force around 4 a.m. Both charges are misdemeanor offenses.

He was released at about 6:30 a.m. Wednesday on a $1,500 unsecured bond. A court hearing is set for March 26. Johnson has sought council from Richmond attorney Daniel Watkins of Williams Mullen law firm.

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On Wednesday night, student protestors at U.Va. shut down University Avenue in response to Johnson’s arrest. Seventy miles away in Richmond, VCU students shut down Broad Street in solidarity.

The arrest of Johnson, a 20-year-old Chicago native and member of the Honor Committee, Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity, the IMPs (a U.Va. secret society) and Black Student Alliance quickly reignited a national conversation about race, arrest tactics and officer brutality.

“He’s definitely a really well-known and well-respected guy,” said Madelyn Luansing, a second-year computer science major who was an orientation leader with Johnson last summer. “He actually is the only black guy in Honor. Which is sad for U.Va., but he’s always been about instilling change even if it might put him in an uncomfortable position.”

An email from the student organization Black Dot sent to the U.Va. community Wednesday morning included a photo of Johnson’s bleeding face during the arrest and demanded “swift and thorough” investigation of the incident and use of excessive force at the state, local and university level.

U.Va. vice president for diversity and equity Marcus Martin and Dean of African-American affairs Marice Apprey issued a public statement expressing their “outrage by the brutality against a University of Virginia undergraduate,” on Wednesday.

“The way people are reacting is varied. You definitely have your supporters of Martese and the #BlackLivesMatter movement that feel very strongly about this issue, then you have people saying it isn’t about race, mostly expressing themselves anonymously through YikYak,’” Luansing said.

Black Action Now at VCU organized a protest in solidarity with Johnson on Wednesday night. Photo by Craig Zirpolo

U.Va. president Teresa Sullivan also issued a statement Wednesday stating she had contacted the governor’s office about issuing an independent investigation on the incident and urged witnesses to work with the Virginia State Police investigation regarding the use of force during Johnson’s arrest.

Virginia ABC spokeswoman Valerie Hubbard said the Virginia State Police has begun its investigation of the incident and the agency has no further comments. A formal statement from the agency said the ABC will cooperate with the investigation and the agents involved have been restricted to administrative duty.

A Facebook post from the U.Va. Black Student Alliance stated that students were also threatened with possible arrest if they did not leave the scene.

“We have marched and shouted that we are Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, but the proximity of this morning’s brutality to a member of our community has deepened that wound,” the post continued.

The Cavalier Daily reported that in response, hundreds of students, faculty and community members attended a rally organized by Black Dot on Wednesday night and another Thursday afternoon.

At VCU, the student organization Black Action Now organized a march in Richmond and staged a die-in on Broad Street.

This is not the first highly controversial incident concerning Virginia ABC agents at U.Va., however. In 2012, undergraduate student Elizabeth Daly filed a $40 million lawsuit after she was approached by armed, plainclothes ABC agents who wrongly assumed a bottle of sparkling water was beer.

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