For all the teaching that occurs at the University of Virginia, student Martese Johnson got what may be one of the most important lessons of his life while sprawled on a sidewalk outside a bar just off campus.
Two state Alcohol Beverage Control cops arrested him outside the Charlottesville bar. Johnson suffered head injuries that left bloody streaks down his face. The officers took him to a hospital and then carted him off to jail, where he was charged with obstruction of justice.
“As the officers held me down, one thought raced through my head: ‘How could this happen?’” Johnson said through a statement read by his lawyer the next day.
You shouldn’t have to go to the school of hard knocks to learn the answer. Johnson, a 20-year-old African-American in this third year at U-Va., had been denied entrance to the Trinity Irish Pub during the waning hours of a St. Patrick’s Day celebration. He was questioned by a pub employee about the Zip code on his ID, which was different from the one Johnson named, according to the bar’s owner. When Johnson was turned away, the ABC agents decided to intervene.
Sprawled on his stomach, his face streaked with blood, the knee of one officer in his back while the other twisted his arms around for handcuffing — it was too late to ask how it could happen.
He needed to know that before even leaving the house.
“Martese was talking to the bouncer, and there was some discrepancy about his ID,” Bryan Beaubrun, a U-Va. student and eyewitness, told the Cavalier Daily, the student newspaper. An “ABC officer approaches Martese and grabs him by the elbow … and pulls him to the side. 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.”
Authorities said that Johnson had become “very agitated and belligerent.” Beaubrun disputed the characterization, but that’s beside the point. Belligerence is perceptual; a cop who thinks a suspect is being uppity is also likely to feel threatened. And that’s all it takes to justify hurting you.
“I go to U-Va.,” Johnson yelled as agents held him. Poor kid. U-Va. would certainly sound better than, say, being a high school dropout if he were applying for a job. But these state-sponsored bouncers would likely be more resentful than impressed.
Of course, you can’t blame Johnson for trying to distinguish himself. He is an exceptional student, hailing from Chicago’s tough South Side and getting a full scholarship to the school, where he is majoring in Italian and Media Studies. A member of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity, he was recently re-elected to the university Honors Committee and serves on the executive board of the Black Student Alliance.
During his arrest, Johnson called the agents “racists.” It was not a characterization that he is known for using; quite the contrary, when it came to his regard for police officers.
“Martese told me a story about growing up in Chicago, how he was walking down the street and some brothers in the neighborhood were about to rob him,” recalled M. Rick Turner, president of the Albemarle-Charlottesville chapter of the NAACP and former dean of the Office of African American Affairs at U-Va. “He said that all of a sudden, a police cruiser pulls up, right between him and the other guys, and saves him. He had a real good feeling about cops, and then this happens.”
A cellphone video of a bloodied Johnson on the pavement went viral on social media. But Beaubrun’s eyewitness account of how the incident began was just as instructive. “They did not need to tackle him,” Beaubrun told Charlottesville’s Daily Progress. “He wasn’t being aggressive.”
Johnson, whose head wounds required 10 stitches, was also charged with using profanity in public and public intoxication. In a statement read by his lawyer after the incident, Johnson said, “I trust that the scars on my face and head will one day heal. The trauma from what the ABC officers did yesterday will stay with me forever.”
But lessons learned will stay as well.
His experiences had amounted to a crash course in racial reality, and although he had not been ready for the test, he had managed to pass — by not getting himself killed.
© 2015, The Washington Post