#MarteseJohnson: Scarred, still alive and seizing the moment

Martese Johnson 's lawsuit claims he was "permanently disfigured" during his encounter with ABC agents. Photo: Jackson Smith Martese Johnson ‘s lawsuit claims he was “permanently disfigured” during his encounter with ABC agents. Photo: Jackson Smith

March 17—St. Patrick’s Day—was a pretty typical day for third-year Martese Johnson at the University of Virginia. A Tuesday, it was one of the heaviest academic days for the media studies and Italian major, and he was in class until mid-afternoon. That evening, “I hung out with friends on the Lawn for a time,” he says, “and people said, let’s go out and have fun and party.”

Then everything changed.

Johnson, 20, was arrested by three Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control agents early March 18 outside Trinity Irish Pub and charged with obstruction of justice and public intoxication or swearing after he gave owner Kevin Badke, who was checking IDs at the door, his valid driver’s license.

Johnson wouldn’t have gotten in that night anyway because Trinity was allowing only 21-year-olds and over in after 10pm, but when he gave Badke the wrong ZIP code on his driver’s license, that raised enough doubt for Badke that he didn’t bother to check the birthdate, he told the Cavalier Daily. Both men describe the exchange as “cordial,” but Johnson drew the attention of nearby ABC agents when he was turned away from the bar.

The world awoke to a photo of a bleeding black man on the ground surrounded by police. In a year of black men being killed by police, it was—sadly—not a new image. Johnson joined the list of other hashtags: #michaelbrown, #ericgarner, #freddiegray.

“The thing that stands out the most,” said Johnson in August, “I was the first hashtag that’s still alive today.”

This doesn’t happen to (white) UVA students

The photo that went viral: Martese Johnson’s encounter with the ABC on the Corner. Photo: Bryan Beaubrun
The photo that went viral: Martese Johnson’s encounter with the ABC on the Corner. Photo: Bryan Beaubrun

Mr. Jefferson’s U was not South Side Chicago-born Johnson’s first choice. He yearned to be a University of Southern California Trojan, but he cast wide his college application net.

“In high school, I was very indecisive and ambitious and so I applied to 26 colleges,” he says. “I narrowed it down to three.”

His first visit to UVA was a summer Darden business program. “I hated it,” says Johnson. “It was my first introduction to southern preppy culture.” He committed to USC at 17, but was too young to legally agree.

UVA was a last-minute decision, he says, after making an eastern college tour and reaching out to his RA here. He discovered that UVA is a different place in the fall than in the summer. “Students were here and I saw how tight the community was,” he says. “There was a larger family vibe and I really appreciated that.”

Nonetheless, during his first year in Charlottesville he experienced the isolation and discomfort a lot of students experience, particularly black students. He learned that music chosen for homecoming, for instance, was something more likely to appeal to white culture, like Taylor Swift or country music, than to what black students may be listening to.

First-years can’t go to bars and the four black fraternities don’t have houses. “Everybody goes to fraternity parties,” Johnson says. “If a black student tries to go to a white fraternity, they’re typically turned away.” That happened to Johnson several times.

“I’ve been called nigger and physically threatened by members of white fraternities,” he says. “That’s very common.”

“These are the factors that push us to the outskirts. And we come together in the outskirts.” A lot of black students choose to live more than a mile away from the Lawn in the Faulkner dorm complex on North Grounds, “which is really far out,” says Johnson. “It’s the culture that promotes that behavior.”

His experience at UVA has been “drastically different” from most African-American students’, he says. “Ninety percent of them remain part of the black community and never explore other facets of the university and organizations that are influential in the university,” he says. “If there are no black students on Student Council, no black voices will ever be heard on Student Council.”

Johnson himself nearly stayed on the outskirts, getting involved in black organizations such as his fraternity, Kappa Alpha Psi, and the Black Student Alliance.

“It was my love for the black community that sort of propelled me into the white community and the larger community at UVA,” he says. “Minority students and athletes are disproportionately reported for honor violations. At that time, no one black was on the Honor Committee. I realized there was no black voice.”

In the video of his arrest, Johnson is heard saying, “I go to UVA. I go to UVA, you fucking racists.”

He explains why. “Since I got here, UVA, in my mind, has been my safe haven where I could grow as an individual, academically and personally,” he says. “Also I realized I’m part of a larger society. UVA is not a larger society and when I step off Grounds, I’m a random black kid who’s near a bar.” And being on the Honor Committee at UVA was no protection.

“He was shocked and hurt,” says third-year Aryn Frazier, who met Johnson through several black organizations, including the Black Student Alliance. “He was not shocked in that he didn’t know police brutality happened. He was shocked and hurt in a community where he’d made it one of his main goals to bridge gaps and experience the university to its fullest that he would become subject to police brutality.”

“How could this happen?”

Students took to the street March 18, shocked and angry over Martese Johnson’s arrest. Photo: Will Kerner
Students took to the street March 18, shocked and angry over Martese Johnson’s arrest. Photo: Will Kerner

Frazier, political action chair for the BSA, had gotten up at 5am March 18 to catch up on school work and the first thing she did was check her phone. “Seeing that picture was jarring,” she says. “I immediately called my mother because she knows lawyers.”

She went to her first class, and skipped the rest to figure out what was going to happen next. “Martese was my friend and that happened to him, whom I know personally,” she says.

Frazier helped organize the demonstration that night attended by hundreds, including students, faculty and community members, both black and white. Johnson was present, the 10 stitches visible on his forehead.

When he first saw the bloody picture of himself that went viral, Johnson was appalled. “In the moment, I didn’t realize I was hurt with the adrenaline pumping,” he says. He was taken to the hospital and when he reached the jail, he says his wounds were still bleeding. “You’ll be fine,” he says police told him.

Dean of African-American Affairs Maurice Apprey referred Johnson to his lawyer, UVA law school grad Daniel Watkins, now with Williams Mullen in Richmond.

Watkins had his own brush with the law while at UVA when an ex-girlfriend accused him of stalking and assault in 2011, charges that were later dismissed. “After I got arrested, my goal was to go into the public defender’s office,” says Watkins. He says he’s defended more than 60 criminal cases in the past three years.

“I told [Johnson] about my case, that I had been wrongly accused and also faced public ridicule,” says Watkins. “What I regret to this day is that I never talked about my side of the story.”

Watkins says he had two priorities for Johnson: to not get convicted and to protect his reputation.

UVA President Teresa Sullivan asked Governor Terry McAuliffe for an independent Virginia State Police investigation. Charlottesville Commonwealth’s Attorney Dave Chapman asked state police for a criminal investigation of the arrest. Rector George Martin said investigation wasn’t enough and the state needed to do something to make sure this didn’t happen again. And supporters packed the courtroom for Johnson’s first court hearing March 26.

“I was outraged,” says Dean Apprey, “because it’s a long stretch from checking an ID with the wrong ZIP code to an intracranial injury that requires 10 stitches. What is law enforcement doing to teach de-escalation between an arresting agent and a suspect or student?”

With the groundswell of support, Johnson was taken aback with remarks he found on anonymous sites such as Yik Yak, which included, “He probably wouldn’t have been seen as resisting arrest if he’d shut his smart ass mouth. Drinking underage and talking shit to ABC. Real smart.” Or, “Please go protest where people are not TRYING TO DO THEIR FUCKING HOMEWORK.” Frazier, too, noticed the “very mean-spirited comments” about Johnson. “I think he was glad to see a large part of the community rally around him,” she says.

On June 12, charges against Johnson were dropped—and the prosecutor decided to not bring charges against ABC agents Jared Miller, John Cielakie and Thomas Custer, whom the ABC refused to identify to the media but who are named in a defense motion.

The agents had “articulable” suspicion to detain Johnson after he was turned away from Trinity, said Chapman, who determined the bloody arrest was more from a clumsy fall than police brutality. And the whole incident took place in fewer than 30 seconds.

“Oftentimes interactions with police can quickly go sour and just as often, it isn’t precipitated by criminal conduct on the part of the arrestee,” says Watkins. “You can be a student at a No. 1 public university and walking across the street and find yourself bloodied on the ground.”

Although the ABC agents have been cleared criminally and administratively, Johnson questions the need for a Prohibition-era agency to go after young people. In 2013, UVA student Elizabeth Daly, 20, and her friends were terrorized by ABC agents who mistook her sparkling water for beer in a Harris Teeter parking lot. Daly was charged with three felonies when she fled an agent banging on her window with a flashlight and one with a drawn gun, and spent the night in jail. Her $10 million lawsuit against the agency was settled for $212,500.

Johnson has not said whether he will sue the ABC.

And yes, he believes race was a factor. “There was no reason for me to be treated like that,” he says. “I’ve seen this happen with white students. They’re never physically harmed.”

ABC Special Agent Miller, who grabbed Johnson’s arm, according to a defense motion, claimed that his eyes were glassy and he could smell “the strong odor of alcoholic beverage coming off him,” the state police investigation says.

Johnson disagrees with the agent’s assessment. “I was not drunk that night,” he says.

To Johnson, the more important question is “not whether I was drinking, but why did these officers feel like treating me that way?”

He says he was “disheartened” that the state police investigations found no wrongdoing and said no policy was broken. “That’s what upsets me the most,” he says. “A policy that allows any person to be harmed to that extent.”

Now, not later

Johnson spent the summer as an intern for the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank in Washington. “This is my first summer being thrown into the real world,” he says.

Often he was recognized, and although he’s always been comfortable interacting with people, walking down the street in D.C. and having to stop and have a conversation “can be stressful,” he says. “I never wanted this public figure image, but now I’m hoping to use it to better society.

“I’ve always been passionate about issues of all kinds of social justice, criminal justice and the plight of minorities in our country,” he continues. “I always knew I would address those issues some way. I didn’t know how. When everything happened to me, it threw me into the moment and it made me understand now is the time to create change.”

Johnson says he’s committed to creating cultural change in the communities in which he lives—such as putting a multicultural center on the Corner, which is not always seen as welcoming to minorities and where Charlottesville residents who don’t go to UVA usually aren’t found, Johnson says—and to larger policy changes. “It’s motivated me to create change in the moment instead of waiting for me to have some sort of official position,” he says.

His experience also has made him more empathetic and understanding of people going through a variety of situations. “I’ve seen personally how quick people judge who you are, your character and your intentions before having any insight into what has gone on,” he says. “By being subjected to that, I have a stronger awareness of how complex every situation can be. Humans are complex in themselves, and I think we forget that and try to make situations black and white when they’re not.”

For example, when people ask him if the three officers who arrested him should be punished, he says it’s not that simple. “Perhaps we should punish their parents,” he says. “Perhaps we should punish the community they came from. Punishing those three officers won’t solve the larger societal issues.”

Has UVA changed as a result of #Martese Johnson? Yes and no, he answers. In the no column, he lists the Cav Daily’s now-removed-from-its-website April Fools’ issue with the headline, “ABC agents tackle Native American students outside Bodo’s Bagels.” Johnson calls it “racist satire,” and notes the CD didn’t satirize the Rolling Stone’s now-discredited gang rape story. And he lists anonymous student comments made “on a daily basis” on Yik Yak.

In the yes column, he says minority communities at the university are coming together to prioritize issues. “We want a multicultural center on the Corner,” he says. “Con-
versations on race are happening. It shows this problem has become a big priority.”

Over the summer he made a number of speeches, including one in New Orleans the week before he returned to Charlottesville, and he headed to Chicago for the 60th anniversary of Emmett Till’s death on August 28.

It wasn’t much of a break from dealing with his St. Patrick’s Day trauma, but Johnson seems okay with that. “Me having a break is a smaller priority than using the platform I’ve been given to promote the change I think is so important,” he says.

The scars on his forehead have healed, but they’re still visible. “I’m afraid to cut my hair,” he jokes.

Despite all that’s happened, Johnson says he has no regrets that he chose the University of Virginia, which “has helped me grow personally in ways that I would have never foreseen back when I was choosing colleges to attend.”

And, he says, “I have never been in a community so uplifting and supportive.”

One thing that stands out is his experience as a trending hashtag. “The fact that I became a hashtag and still have the opportunity to breathe…” he says. “The prevalence of those is still too many and they keep happening.”

Johnson always has been interested in politics and always has figured one day he’d run for office—like another guy from his hometown, Barack Obama. He doesn’t discount a run for POTUS. “I’m still thinking about it,” he says.

There is one major problem: He’s about 14 years too young. He laughs. “Maybe in my late 30s or early 40s.”

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