Tensions ran high in UVA’s Newcomb Hall Theater Friday afternoon as students confronted police and other public officials at a forum organized by the University’s Student Council in response to the arrest of Martese Johnson, the African-American third-year student involved in a bloody confrontation with Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) officers on the Corner early Wednesday morning.
Virginia Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran, who oversees the ABC’s enforcement arm, was joined on the dais at the forum by Chief Timothy Longo and Sergeant Gloria Hubert of the Charlottesville Police Department, Chief Steve Sellers of the Albemarle County Police Department, Captain Mike Coleman of the University Police, Shawn Harrison of the Piedmont Virginia Community College Police and Charles Phillips, a mediator with the U.S. Department of Justice Community Relations Service, a “peacemaking” arm of the DOJ that works with communities on race, gender and other issues.
The 381-seat theater buzzed with students, faculty, staff and others ahead of the forum, which was closed to the national TV crews who have descended on Charlottesville to cover the controversy that exploded after photos of Johnson’s arrest went viral. Well before the event began around 1:30pm, more than 100 students—most of them African-American and nearly all of them dressed in black—packed the aisles, where people had been promised a chance to line up to pose questions to officials. After opening remarks by student council leaders and law enforcement, four of them took the stage to voice their concerns over how the forum was organized and blast the governing body for failing to address the concerns of black students.
“We were not notified or involved in the planning of today’s event until it was publicized,” said one woman, who did not identify herself. “This event was not planned with black people in mind, therefore we should question who this event is for.” She accused student leaders of being “co-opted” by an administration that aims to protect the institution of UVA at the expense of its students, but she insisted that she and others were there to facilitate a conversation, not criticize.
“We do not hate our student council or our administration or our law enforcement,” she said. “We are here because we love ourselves. We love our family and we love our friends, and we want to build a better University and a better Charlottesville community, so that when we give these places our love, they will not reflect upon us hate or fear or disgust.”
Two students, Elshi Zenaye and Vendarryl Jenkins, then alternated asking prepared questions of the officials on the dais: Why haven’t city police been properly trained to de-escalate during confrontations? What will those in charge of the ABC do to make sure this never happens again?
When the crowd in the aisles deemed answers insufficient, they raised their fists and shouted in unison, “Answer the question we asked.” The phrase was repeated again and again in response to statements made by Longo, Moran, Coleman and ABC policy advisor and former Fluvanna County Sheriff Ryant Washington, who stood up from the crowd to address a question from Jenkins: Did Washington think ABC officers were adequately trained?
“In fairness,” Washington said, “that question is not a yes or no question.”
Ultimately, he declined to answer.
Moran said Governor Terry McAuliffe was “very concerned” about the reports of Johnson’s arrest, which Johnson’s attorney has said took place after a the 20-year-old was asked for his license by a bouncer and then gave an address that didn’t match his valid Chicago ID. But the secretary urged patience.
“Governor McAuliffe, upon learning of the incident, immediately asked me to direct Virginia State Police to conduct a thorough and independent investigation of the circumstances of this case,” Moran said, a process he said could take weeks. “Let me assure you…if the findings indicate corrective actions are indeed needed, we will not hesitate to take those actions.”
Also under review, according to Coleman, is the use of force by members of the UVA Police Department on a demonstrator at a Wednesday night protest that blocked traffic on several Charlottesville streets. In a video of the protest, an officer is seen putting his arms around a woman’s body and neck and physically removing her from a city street.
Coleman confirmed the officer was a member of the University police force.
“We are currently looking into the situation,” he said, adding later that while the use of a chokehold on a peaceful protester would not be in line with department policies, he’s unable to comment now on whether the officer’s actions Wednesday were acceptable or not.
After about an hour, the students in the aisles announced they had no more questions and turned and walked out of the theater and up to the brick plaza outside Newcomb Hall, chanting “Black lives matter” as TV crews scrambled to keep up. Among them was Johnson, who had slipped into the event midway through. He shook strangers hands, but quietly refused to answer questions from reporters.
Back in the theater, the Q-and-A wound down. Student Council Executive Board member Abraham Axler acknowledged that the event and the questions asked might have made people uncomfortable.
“I think that was the most critical thing we could do today,” he said—foster an understanding that “as long as a student’s face could be bloodied by an officer of the law, that we have to feel uncomfortable, we have to be able to resolve that.”