Photo of Bloody Student Drives Protest Over Excessive Force on Campus

The arrest of University of Virginia student Martese Johnson has reignited debate over police brutality.

Martese Johnson. (Photo: Facebook/Twitter)

Mar 19, 2015· 2 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

The hot-button issue of police brutality against African American men—sparked when a white cop killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager in a St. Louis suburb, last year—reached the college campus Tuesday night. That’s when white law enforcement officers allegedly attacked a black University of Virginia student suspected of using a fake ID to get into a bar on St. Patrick’s Day.

The bloody arrest of Martese Johnson, caught on videotape and broadcast on social media, outraged black students on the UVA campus, put the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control office on the defensive, and spurred the school’s president to ask the governor for an investigation.

At the same time, however, the purported attack against Johnson, a third-year student and member of the University of Virginia’s Honor Council, exposed long-standing racial tensions at arguably one of the country’s most prestigious universities. It also seemed to confirm what African American men have asserted for years: that racial profiling can happen to them just as easily on an affluent, predominantly white college campus as it does in hardscrabble black neighborhoods.

Johnson, who reportedly suffered head wounds that needed nearly a dozen stitches to close, was charged with resisting arrest, obstruction of justice, and drunk and disorderly conduct, yet he wasn’t charged for allegedly using counterfeit identification, according to local news reports. He was released on $1,500 bail the morning after his arrest.

The incident happened just before 1 a.m. outside Trinity Irish Pub, a bar on the edge of Virginia’s Charlottesville campus. The Cavalier Daily, the school’s newspaper, reported that it started when a bouncer at the pub doubted Johnson’s ID was real and refused to let him in; within minutes, an agent with the state ABC bureau, the agency responsible for enforcing the state’s liquor laws, arrived at the pub.

“Martese was talking to the bouncer, and there was some discrepancy about his ID,” student Bryan Beaubrun told the campus paper. “[An] ABC officer approaches Martese and grabs him by the elbow…and pulls him to the side.”

Moments later, officers from both the Charlottesville and University of Virginia police departments arrived on the scene, and things quickly escalated, Beaubrun told the paper.

“It happened so quickly. Out of nowhere I saw the two officers wrestling Martese to the ground. I was shocked that it escalated that quickly,” he said. “Eventually [Johnson was] on the ground, they’re trying to put handcuffs on him, and their knees were on his back.”

At some point during the altercation, Johnson suffered a head wound; bystanders took pictures and recorded the arrest on cell phone cameras. It didn’t take long for the images to appear on social media.

Within hours of Johnson’s arrest, a coalition of African American students circulated an email accusing police and the ABC agent of unnecessary force and demanding action. They also organized a “teach-in” and an on-campus march Wednesday evening to demonstrate their anger.

Reacting to that anger, university president Teresa Sullivan emailed the school’s faculty, staff, and student body, and her spokeswoman said she’d asked Gov. Terry McAuliffe to open an investigation.

“Governor McAuliffe is concerned by the reports of this incident and has asked the Secretary of Public Safety to initiate an independent Virginia State Police investigation into the use of force in this matter,” Brian Coy, the governor’s press secretary, said in a statement.

The ABC department issued a statement of its own Wednesday, saying only that agents, after observing and questioning Johnson, decided to arrest him. “In the course of an arrest being made,” according to the statement, “the arrested individual sustained injuries. The individual received treatment for his injuries at a local hospital and was released.”

Johnson’s arrest, however, underscored racial issues at a state school where in-state tuition tops $10,000 a year, average SAT scores regularly exceed 1300, and there are typically fewer than 1,500 African American students among the 21,000-member student body. The university has struggled with diversity in recent years, and black students say they often feel ostracized on campus.

Earlier this year, New York Times columnist Charles Blow complained that his son, a biology major at Yale University and an African American, was accosted at gunpoint by police. And African American students at Harvard University launched a Tumblr account, “I, Too, Am Harvard,” because “our voices often go unheard on this campus, our experiences are devalued, our presence is questioned—this project is our way of speaking back, of claiming this campus, of standing up to say: We are here. This place is ours.”

Johnson seemed to echo that sentiment at the UVA protest Wednesday, urging demonstrators to use the incident as a rallying point for unity. “We’re all part of one community,” he said. “And we deserve to respect each other, especially at times like this.”