Martese Johnson, a 20 year-old Honor Student at the University of Virginia, wasn’t doing anything out of the ordinary during the early morning hours following the St. Patrick’s Day holiday. Like many of his fellow white students on campus, Martese, who is African American, decided to go out to one of the local night pubs located on campus grounds. When he got to the Trinity Irish pub, he produced his ID card as the Bouncer requested, but was denied entry because he is not yet 21. Both the bouncer and the bar owner later adamantly insisted that Johnson in no way showed any signs of being publicly intoxicated or acting erratically. They insisted he acted cordially and expressed only slight disappointment over the fact that he was not be allowed in. How this could all within a matter of minutes escalate into a situation where Martese would be on the ground with his face soaking in blood was a matter of shock for everyone, not least of all Martese himself.
A close friend of Johnson’s, Kendak Johnson, was shocked when he discovered what had happened. Now a student at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Kendak Johnson remembers Martese as a student destined to achieve great things. Both Kendak and Martese Johnson were co-presidents of the Kappa Leadership Institute at Kenwood Academy in Chicago, but they’d since parted ways about three years ago after Martese decided to go to UVA for collage and Kendak to Vanderbilt. As soon as Kendak Johnson saw the photos of a bloodied Martese being brutalized by Alcohol and Beverage Control (ABC) agents, he thought to decided to begin a fundraiser on his friend’s behalf to help cover his legal and medical bills. “One would think,” said Kendak, “we would be safer at school than in Chicago but we are literally unsafe everywhere. It’s just no respect for black males.” The Principal of Kenwood Academy agrees. Reminiscing on Martese’s years as a student there, she called him “the epitome of the kind of student you want to graduate from your school.” When the Principal saw the horrifying images of Martese’s bloody encounter with ABC agents, she shared a very widely-held sentiment that “it doesn’t matter what accolades [the students] have, for this type of violence and brutality to happen. It’s sad.” Though it shouldn’t be relevant to the case, it must be noted how difficult a task it has thus far been for the cops and news media to demonize Martese the way they usually do victims of police brutality. He is an incredibly accomplished young man and holds numerous leadership positions at the University according to ABC News, “including Vice Chair for Community Relations of the Honor Committee, Vice Polemarch of the Eta Sigma Chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi, and Chair of the Leadership Development Committee of the Black Student Alliance. He has no criminal record.“
At about 12:45 a.m. on March 17th, after Martese was turned away from entering the Irish Pub, out of nowhere an agent of the Alcohol and Beverage Control Agency named J. Miller grabbed him from behind by his arm and dragged him over to a group of police officers for questioning. According to students who bore witness to the incident, Martese complied with each and every one of the officers’ requests, beginning with the request that he provide them with some sort of identification. This is already more than what Mr. Johnson should have been required to do. The young man was not disturbing anybody, and the entire needless encounter was initiated by an agent of the ABC, J. Miller. In spite of this, Johnson still acted cordially with the police, complying with this invasive form of interrogation that he should never have been subjected to in the first place. When told to state his zip code, however, Johnson mistakenly gave the agent his previous zip code which differs from the one on his current ID. The officer took this as proof that the identification was inauthentic and that he had been provided a “false ID”.
After about a minute of hostile interrogation Johnson asked agent Miller to stop gripping his arm so tightly, and when he allegedly pulled away agent Miller, along with another brutish ABC agent, responded by violently throwing Martese to the ground and slamming his head into the pavement. Dozens of students, in the words of the Black Student Alliance, “bore witness to the officer’s animalistic, insensitive, and brute handling of Martese.” In a video captured at the scene of the incident, students can be heard yelling to the police, “His head is bleeding!” Several students were allegedly threatened with arrest for voicing their disapproval.
As the agents placed Johnson’s hands in handcuffs, they twisted his arms and dug their knees into his back, all the while Martese could be heard helplessly crying out, “I go to UVA!… You fucking racists!” and asking, “How did did this happen?!” Students were absolutely appalled as well as outraged at what they were witnessing. In the words of eye-witness Bryan Beaubrun, “He didn’t need to be tackled. He wasn’t being aggressive at all.” Adding to this humiliation was a photo that emerged days later showing that the ABC agents not only handcuffed Johnson and took him to jail, but actually bound his feet in chains! His bail was set at $1,500.
Needless to say the corporate news media reported the police version of events, accepting without question the assertion that Johnson had indeed been in possession of a false ID (as if it even really mattered with regards to the way he was treated by law enforcement agents). According to Martese Johnson’s roommate, the Pub’s Bouncer, Martese’s lawyer, and even the Vice President of the University, the ID provided was 100% authentic. In fact, he wasn’t even charged with using false identification. Instead he’s been ridiculously charged with “obstruction of justice without force” (as if law enforcement officers have any moral authority to decide what “justice” is in the first place) and “profane swearing and/or intoxication in public.” The latter is perhaps the most ludicrous of all. Apparently calling out a fucking racist for being a “fucking racist” while he’s bashing your head against the brick pavement is a crime in and of itself. As for being the fucking racist who is bashing the young man’s head into the ground, that’s all just part of the job description. What a fucked up justice system the United States has!
This isn’t the first time agents of the Alcohol Beverage Control agency unleashed such uninhibitable violence on an innocent UVA student before. In 2013 a young student named Elizabeth Daly was exiting a convenient store carrying a bottled water. The plainclothes-wearing ABC agents mistook the bottle for an alcoholic beverage and approached Daly, demanding for her to stop. Daly was incredibly frightened when the men, who did not identify themselves as ABC agents, surrounded her car and ordered her to come out. In a moment of extreme fear Daly began driving off, only to have one of the agents jump on the hood of her car and point a gun to her face. She was subsequently arrested and made to spend a night in jail for “resisting arrest”. Only later would she compensated with a $200,000 settlement after suing the city for essentially traumatizing her for buying a bottle of water. Incidents such as these have caused some lawmakers to question whether the authority for enforcing Alcohol and Beverage laws should be transferred from ABC agents to local and state police departments, though it’s hard to see how this would offer any meaningful solutions to the problems, considering how the state of Virginia’s 130 ABC agents were given the same training as other police departments.
Virginia Governor Terry Mcauliffe has announced there will be a formal investigation by the state police department into the matter of Martese Johnson’s brutal beating, but in reality this “investigation” is likely to be a sham. Asking one corrupt authoritarian agency to investigate another corrupt authoritarian agency is essentially deciding the outcome of the investigation before it’s even begun. No change will come from those currently in power. Change comes when the power is taken from the elites and redistributed to the dispossessed. If the reactions of the students who attend UVA are anything to go by, the students do not plan to let business go on as usual. The night after Martese Johnson’s arrest, a crowd of some 1,000 students showed up to make their voices heard, to let it be known that the attack on Martese by the ABC agent was not done in the name of protecting anyone on campus and was clearly a crime of aggression on the part of J. Miller and his cohorts. What the attack also shows us is the fallacy behind the oft-recited line that if one simply complies with police officers’ demands and plays by society’s rules, no one will get hurt. In Martese Johnson we have someone who “played by the rules”, is highly educated and indeed accomplishing everything America claims is the embodiment of the American Dream. Yet, none of that was enough to protect him from the brutalities of American racism and its inherent violence as manifested by the police.