Martese Johnson himself asked the big question as he was being handcuffed on a sidewalk spattered with his blood.
“How did this happen?”
The official answer was that agents of the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) had seen the 20-year-old University of Virginia student being denied entry to the Trinity Irish Pub in Charlottesville.
But that does not explain why the ABC agents chose Johnson in particular.
He surely was not the only person to be turned away from an Irish bar at the edge of a college campus on St. Patrick’s Day.
Yet, he seems to have been the only one who was arrested.
Johnson had never been in trouble with the law and was understandably surprised to find himself suddenly grabbed by the ABC agents who asked him about a fake ID. He told them he did not have one and reflexively asked them to let go of his arm.
The ABC agents responded by slamming him to the sidewalk like he was a gunman after a shootout, causing a head wound that would require 10 stitches to close.
Johnson repeatedly declared himself to be a legitimate college student.
“I go to UVa! I go to UVa! I go to UVa!” he cried out.
Had circumstances allowed, Johnson also could have truthfully told them that he is an honor student as well as a member of the university’s honor committee. He is widely regarded as one of the top student leaders at UVa, as he had been in his days at Kenwood Academy in his native Chicago six blocks from President Obama’s home.
The ABC agents kept pinning him to the sidewalk. Johnson made clear what he understood to be the actual reason why he had been grabbed and slammed and bloodied and arrested.
“You f*****g racists! What the f**k! How did this happen?”
He is African-American, and if his race was not the reason for his arrest, it almost unquestionably had a lot to do with the way he was treated.
Two years ago, some other UVa students—these female and white—emerged from a grocery store with a case of what undercover ABC officers decided was beer but was in fact sparkling water. ABC had just that month launched what it called “Operation Charlottesville” with the avowed aim of cracking down in the area around the university.
As the students climbed into a car, they were already a little on edge, having just come from a “take back the night” sexual assault awareness event. The car was now suddenly rushed by two agents who began banging on the car’s closed windows, demanding that they open up.
The startled driver, Elizabeth Daly, tried to comply, but the window was electric. She started the car so she could lower it.
Six more ABC agents appeared, frantic, pounding on windows, shouting for her to turn off the ignition. One tried to break the windshield with a flashlight.
Another threw himself over the hood.
Another drew a gun.
The young woman in the passenger seat had been calling 911 on her cellphone for help and was so frightened by the drawn weapon that she dived into the back seat.
Daly was terrified and desperate to escape, but she kept her cool enough to take care not to run any of the agents over.
The car did brush against two of them as she pulled away. You have to think that if the car had been occupied by black males, the ABC agent with the gun might very well have started firing.
Daly drove off. The other young woman kept talking to 911, saying that they were not at all sure the people who had surrounded them were real cops even though some of them seemed to have badges of some kind.
The 911 operator advised them to pull over. Daly did so just as the ABC agents caught up with them.
The other young woman was still on the phone and the recording would no doubt have been filled with shouts and curses and thumping and maybe gunshots had the car’s occupants been of another race.
There was none of that. The young woman with the phone handed it to one of the ABC agents, telling him that the 911 operator wanted to speak to them.
The ABC agent confirmed that he and his comrades were indeed who they said they were. He sounded irritated, but nobody slammed the girls to the ground.
Although the ABC agents belatedly realized that the supposed beer was sparkling water, Daly was charged with three felonies for supposedly attempting to run over the ABC agents.
All the charges were soon dropped and Daly filed a law suit. The State of Virginia reportedly settled for $212,000.
In the aftermath, ABC disciplined two of the agents.
“ABC deeply regrets this terribly unfortunate incident, which we know resulted in anguish and concern not only for those immediately involved, but for the community at large,” the then-head of ABC, J. Neal Insley, said in a statement in November 2013.
He went on, “We cannot undo the circumstances surrounding this incident. We can only do our best to learn the lessons of this experience and modify our police, practice and training to ensure that a similar incident does not occur in the future. ABC Enforcement has learned many valuable lessons from the circumstances surrounding this difficult situation.”
ABC said that “agents have received and will continue to receive training in how to recognize and react to situations that might require de-escalation or disengagement.”
ABC also said, “Through training and other reinforcement, ABC will promote a reasonable common-sense philosophy regarding the correlation between the seriousness for an offense and the agents’ response, ensuring that response is proportional to the suspected offense.”
ABC further pledged that its officers would be equipped with body cameras.
None of the three officers who arrested Johnson seemed to be thus equipped. A civilian managed to take a cellphone video of the immediate aftermath of the takedown.
On Wednesday, Johnson addressed a gathering of outraged students. He proved anew how right people are to hold him in such high regard.
“I beg for you guys, regardless of your personal opinions and the way you feel about subjects, to please respect everyone here,” Johnson said. “We are all part of one community and we deserve to respect each other, especially in times like this. Thank you.”
On Thursday afternoon, Johnson stood with his attorney at a press conference. He had not been charged with possessing a fake ID, which seems to be a confirmation that he had not been carrying one. He had been charged with public intoxication, though he says he was not inebriated and there is nothing to prove otherwise. He had also been charged with non-forceful resisting, which seems to have consisted of saying he had done nothing to justify the way he was treated.
“I was shocked that my face was slammed into the pavement across the road from my school,” Johnson said in the statement.
The cuts on his head were clearly visible, but his eyes showed another, deeper hurt. He seemed to have reached an answer to the big question he had cried out while bleeding on the sidewalk.
Even after the black man who lived down the street from Johnson’s high school was twice elected president, we cannot shake the sickness of racism.
At least we are not back in the terrible time of lynching—or so we all hoped on Thursday, after a black man named Otis Byrd was found hanging in a wooded area a half-mile from his home in Claiborne County, Mississippi.
Immediately, there was speculation that 54-year-old Byrd had not simply killed himself.
The tale took a twist when a records check showed that he had been convicted of murdering a woman named Lucille Trim.
“She had a little country store,” former Claiborne Sheriff Joyce McCay confirmed on Thursday. “He robbed her and he killed her.”
Byrd netted $101 from the robbery. He was convicted at trial and served more than a quarter-century before being paroled in 2006. He went missing on March 2 after going to a casino and being dropped near his home by a friend.
On learning of his death by hanging, the NAACP wrote a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice asking for an investigation. The FBI got on the case, along with the local sheriff and the coroner.
Some people noted that Byrd’s victim was white, but there was no indication that this was in any way a factor. And her family was not a backwoods bunch bent on revenge.
As it happens, the murdered woman’s daughter is Martha Rainville, a former Air Force major general who served as the adjutant general for the Vermont National Guard, the first woman to hold that position in any state.
She is married to Paul McHale, a former congressman from Pennsylvania who also served as assistant secretary of defense. He is furthermore a retired Marine colonel who served multiple combat tours and was awarded a Bronze Star.
On Thursday night, McHale confirmed that Lucille Trim was indeed his wife’s murdered mother. He seemed as decent a soul as someone can be and there is every reason to believe that his wife is the same.
“Obviously, the events of the past days have brought back some painful memories,” he said quietly.
His voice carried not a trace of racism and served as a reminder that while the sickness is still too much out there, most of us are not prey to it.
We can count on an honest investigation into Byrd’s death, and let us all hope that we have not lapsed back into the time of lynching.
We still will be left with the video of a magnificent young man named Martese Johnson, his face covered with blood as he asks, “How did this happen?”