After Martese Johnson's bloody arrest, black students at UVA are ready to fight for change

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The blood stains from Martese Johnson's arrest outside Trinity Irish Pub may have faded, but black students at the University of Virginia are gearing up for action.


On Thursday morning, members of the Black Student Alliance (BSA) and UVA Alumni for Change, the graduates behind a crowdfunding campaign that has raised more than $14,000 to assist Johnson with medical and legal bills, will stand in silent solidarity outside the Charlottesville courthouse as Johnson and his lawyer enter a plea of not guilty against charges of obstruction of justice.

"We want to let him know he has a community behind him," Joy Omenyi, president of the BSA and a senior at the university, told Fusion.

Johnson, 20, was left needing nearly a dozen stitches when Virginia Department of Alcohol and Beverage Control (ABC) agents arrested the UVA junior after he tried to enter a local bar in the early hours of March 18.

Tremain Wheatley, a member of the UVA Alumni for Change group who graduated in 2003 and completed the MBA program in 2010, said he "felt shock and outrage that something like this could happen to not just a UVA student but a student with the profile he has at the university… He's a well-known leader."

Wheatley, who was careful to specify that he was not speaking on behalf of the alumni group, said the incident "raises a lot of questions" about the role the ABC should have on or near a college campus.

Omenyi said she was at The Corner, a neighborhood of bars and restaurants, including the pub Johnson was trying to enter, that night and heard about the arrest five or 10 minutes after it occurred.


Her initial reaction was anger, but after speaking to Johnson, whom she considers a friend, the following day, "my secondary reaction was sorrow," she said.

He sounded, she said, "overwhelmed."

While Johnson focuses on his court appearance and recovery, Omenyi and her BSA members are busy drawing up a list of demands they will present to the university in the coming days. They include the daunting task of "establishing a new culture," as well as more tangible items like increasing the number of students and faculty of color. The student group also wants the university to incorporate what they see as a less-than-savory history (the school's founder, Thomas Jefferson, owned slaves) into the curriculum.


"It's very important as we're matriculating more students that we're disclosing the full and true history and how it relates to present times, because when we do that," she said, "the community will have a better appreciation for each other and for diversity."

Omenyi thinks race "was a factor" in Johnson's arrest, but said her main concern is what appears to be a pattern of brutality by ABC agents. Two years ago, ABC agents pulled their guns on a young Caucasian woman they suspected of purchasing beer underage. It turned out she had bought bottled water.


"Why are these liquor cops going around here drawing guns and throwing people to the ground?" Omenyi said.

The 21-year-old, who will graduate in May with a degree in African-American and African studies and a minor in history, said she appreciates the university's "swift" response. She said she recently met with what amounts to a university board of trustees and that they were receptive to her concerns.


The student response, however, has been decidedly more mixed. As hundreds of students banded together in the days following Johnson's arrest to march through campus demanding justice, derogatory comments appeared on the anonymous posting app Yik Yak.

The posts ranged from aggressively apathetic—"I came to college to learn and get a degree not be involved in social activism. Don't try and make me have an opinion."—to downright nasty — "IF YOU DON'T LIKE UVA LEAVE."


"There have been some disgusting comments made about Martese, about the BSA, about black students," she said. "That part has been very disappointing."

After the Thursday court appearance, Johnson and his lawyer, Daniel Watkins, will meet with Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s investigators. The governor has ordered state police to look into the arrest and the ABC agents involved have been placed on administrative duties during the investigation. Johnson's second court appearance is expected to be scheduled for two months from now.


"We want to see a full investigation of the incident," Wheatley said, "and full public disclosure of that investigation."

Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.