By Joey Matthews
Special to the Trice Edney News Wire from the Richmond Free Press
(TriceEdneyWire.com) — Martese Johnson still has two scars on his forehead and one under his left eye.
The rising fourth-year University of Virginia honors student also bears deep emotional wounds, for which he has undergone counseling.
The scars are reminders to Johnson of what can happen to African-American males when they are confronted by white- law enforcement officers in what would seem to be even the most mundane circumstances.
Three months after he was slammed face first onto the pavement during a questionable arrest by three white Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control officers outside a Charlottesville pub, memories of that night still haunt him.
“I don’t think I’ll ever fully get past it,” Johnson told the Free Press on Tuesday. “I think it will last the rest of my life.
“Regardless of what I do, someone will always know me for this incident, personally or professionally,” he added.
Johnson was charged with public intoxication and obstruction of justice — both misdemeanors — after his violent takedown on March 17. Prosecutors announced on June 12 that they were dropping the charges lodged against him.
Charlottesville Commonwealth’s Attorney Dave Chapman says he dropped the charges after determining Johnson “had done nothing wrong” before ABC agents confronted him to determine if he was using a fake I.D. or was intoxicated.
He said he could have charged Johnson with resisting detention, but decided that trying to slap the young man with a criminal record would “not be right.”
Johnson, who recently turned 21, spoke from Washington, where he is completing an internship this summer with the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank. He said he focuses on issues pertinent to millennials, such as criminal justice reform, climate change and campus sexual assault.
Johnson discussed the night of his very public arrest.
“I was not drunk,” Johnson said.
Images of his bloodied face spread via social media, sparking local and national outrage and demonstrations.
Johnson said that at the time, he was well aware of the highly publicized deaths of black males by law enforcement officers in locales such as Ferguson, Mo., New York City, Cleveland and North Charleston, S.C.
“I look at those situations and feel blessed I’m still alive,” he said in retrospect. “When they took me down, I could have hit the pavement in a different way and things could have turned out much differently.”
Johnson said his attorney, Daniel Watkins of the Richmond-based Williams Mullen law firm, sent him a text message before they were to meet last week to go to the Charlottesville court.
“At first, I thought something had gone wrong,” Johnson said. “When he told me the news, I paused for a second. But because I was really excited, I had to scream.”
Watkins told the Free Press shortly after a press conference outside the courthouse last Friday, “I’m happy with the result. We’re happy that justice was served.”
George Keith Martin, rector of the University of Virginia, concurred.
“Martese is a fine young man with a very bright future. I wish him well in his fourth year at U.Va., and I am pleased that the cloud of the ABC charges has been lifted,” said Mr. Martin, who also is managing partner of McGuire Woods’ Richmond office.
Chapman, the Charlottesville commonwealth’s attorney, also said he would not pursue charges against the ABC agents involved. He said after reviewing an investigation by the Virginia State Police that involved interviews with 52 people, including 15 witnesses to the bloody arrest, he found the ABC agents acted properly. He said the agents had authority to detain Johnson and that he found no indication they acted with “malice or racial animosity” in their handling of the situation.
Chapman also noted that Johnson resisted when they sought to handcuff him.
In response to the incident, Gov. Terry McAuliffe ordered the State Police investigation. He also issued an executive order requiring retraining by Sept. 1 of all ABC agents in “use of force, cultural diversity, effective interaction with youth and young adults and community policing.”
Perry Hicks, a Richmond security officer and former special court appointed conservator of the peace, said he believes Chapman’s office cleared the officers to “establish a positive defense against what will be any possible civil litigation” on Mr. Johnson’s behalf.
“Had not social media video of Martese’s arrest gone viral, still another young black man would have been convicted of crimes based on fallacious law enforcement testimony,” he said.
Watkins would not say if a civil lawsuit on Johnson’s behalf is being considered.
Johnson said he did not necessarily want the officers to be charged criminally, but he believes racism played a large role in the way he was treated.
“I think those officers should endure some form of repercussion,” he said. “It’s not my priority for those officers to be charged because, ultimately, the way those officers treated me is a product of larger societal issues.
“Had they not been taught the way their parents taught them, had they not had the interactions that they did throughout their lives, perhaps they would not have treated me the way they did,” he added.
He said the officers became quiet when they saw how badly he was bleeding. He then was shackled, taken to an ambulance and driven to a nearby hospital, where he received 10 stitches in his face, he said.
He said he remained at the police station until about 6:30 the next morning, then he was released. He said police administered a breathalyzer test, the result of which was undeterminable because of equipment problems.
After a short nap when he arrived home, he awoke to find more than 300 text messages on his cell ‘phone.
Johnson said he received dozens of interview requests, including from national TV and news shows.
“I had always loved attention until this happened,” he said.
Demonstrations, led mostly by African-Americans students, ensued on and around the U.Va. campus, calling for justice for Johnson. They mirrored “Black Lives Matter” demonstrations around the country that call for law enforcement officers to wear body cameras, undergo anti-bias training, institute community policing policies and for an end to racism in the criminal justice system.
Johnson said he wouldn’t wish what happened to him on anyone else, but said he is willing to serve as one of the faces of police brutality if it helps prevent future incidents against African-Americans.
“If there had to be anyone at my university that this happened to, I’m happy that it’s me,” he said. “I fear that there could be a student who is a great person, but might not be as well known as I am, and their story might never have been told or they might not have gotten the support that I did.”
The incident, he said, has further fueled his ambition to help others. He has a double major in Italian and media studies and would like to pursue a career in consulting after he graduates, with a focus on social issues.
He also said he’d like to make enough money “to help others.” The experience with the police has whet his appetite to run for office one day.
He has been a leader on the campus since arriving from his hometown of Chicago.
He has been a member of the U.Va. Honor Committee for the past two years. For the last three, he has served as leadership development chair of the Black Student Alliance and also has been vice polemarch (vice president) of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity.
Most recently, Johnson was chosen to moderate “Sustained Dialogue,” a group of about 20 students who will interact with students around the world to discuss current issues.