Among the speakers for this year’s TEDxCharlottesville – which took place on Friday night – was fourth-year student Martese Johnson, who is studying Italian, with a concentration in Media Studies and is a member of the University’s Honor Committee.
A native of the Southside of Chicago, Illinois, Mr. Johnson was recently involved in a controversial arrest in the midst of St. Patrick’s Day revelries this year. The Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Board had three Agent-officers present on-site at the area known as “The Corner” on University Avenue just across from the City of Charlottesville Police Dept. Sub-Station, which had a camera that recorded the events, that evening.
The arrest was controversial because it evidently resulted in at least one of the Agent-officers’ tripping as Mr. Johnson evaded the detention, and two of the Agent-officers along with Mr. Johnson himself, fell to the ground, as Mr. Johnson attempted to pull away and in the process of the fall, Mr. Johnson sustained an injury to his head which bled profusely for a short time as head injuries tend to do.
It all seemed to be ‘a perfect storm of coincidences,’ which led to a great deal of confusion and misunderstanding of what actually took place that evening.
Very sadly, Mr. Johnson’s life experiences led him, it seems, to believe that it was a sequence of events that began by his being harassed intentionally, based on the color of his skin — based on the history of interactions with police officers involving African-Americans– and in believing this was the case, it seems, he was unwilling or unable to remain calm under the circumstances he believed were in place, long enough for the Agent-officers to explain what had happened (since they, too, had been inadvertently splayed on the sidewalk in the fall, and one of the Agent-Officers himself had a minor injury),
From the police reports that were completed, it was at the outset of the incident that the description included a reference to Mr. Johnson’s having been glassy-eyed, agitated, evasive. and unwilling to engage in conversation with the Agent-officers; and attempting more than once to move away, and the Agent-Officers evidently believed it was likely that he was under the influence of alcohol (or perhaps some other controlled substance). The Officers were there specifically to investigate underage drinking, in order to minimize harm – which the students themselves may or may not even be aware of.
The Charlottesville Commonwealth’s Attorney, Dave Chapman, made the decision to set aside both of the charges Mr. Johnson faced: Public Swearing or Intoxication; and Obstruction of Justice without Force. A separate decision not to charge the Agent-officers with any wrongdoing was based on their clear mission to identify those young adults who were endangering their long-term interests — and in some case, their lives — through underage drinking.
The three Agents had taken steps earlier, to apprise the owners and operators of the venues in the area known as ‘The Corner,’ that they were there on that specific night to accomplish this mission, and their interactions with Mr. Johnson were based solely on his having been turned away from the Pub by the Owner-Operator, Kevin Badke.
Once Mr. Johnson had provided incorrect information relating to this Illinois ID – which, as Mr. Badke carefully explains in his public statement, is usually the sign that such an ID is not valid. The Officers were then fully authorized to question Mr. Johnson, who continued to try to deliberately remove himself from that questioning, even though the Agent-officers were clearly identifiable, in full uniform.
The Commonwealth’s investigation found that Mr. Johnson presented an ID that had been issued to him, but had been unable to properly identify the zip code for the address in Chicago that appears as his, on the ID – which was issued in 2011.
Colleen Quigley, reporting for Charlottesville’s Newsplex writes:
While the statements of the eye witnesses varied in small detail, the common narrative was that Johnson was turned away from Trinity Irish Pub after he incorrectly stated the zip code on his ID. When ABC agents asked to see the ID, Johnson resisted detention several times. …
According to statements from Johnson, witnesses, and ABC agents, the struggle began as agents tried to cuff Johnson, while he kept wrestling away to get his ID. Many witnesses in the crowd told Johnson to “chill out.” Presumably, this may have led to at least one of the Agent-Officers’ description of Mr. Johnson’s having been “belligerent.”
Prosecutor Chapman also described the precedent at law, in the ruling of the Virginia Supreme Court in Commonwealth of Virginia v. John Howard Hill, Jr., in the Virginia Court of Appeals. Justice Barbara Milano Keenan wrote the opinion in this 2002 case, which clarifies further:
“Because a detention is, by its nature, a brief intrusion on an individual’s liberty, the provocation resulting from an illegal detention is far less significant than the provocation that attends an illegal arrest. “
While an individual may have a right to resist an event which they can later prove to have been an illegal arrest, that individual does not have the right to resist a detention.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Chapman noted that he wished that Mr. Johnson had used better judgment, but that he believed it would be unjust to burden him with a criminal record.
In an open dialogue with the community — also made available to the public at-large through live-streaming online — Chapman shared the evidence – which included never-before-seen video footage that had been captured by cameras at the Charlottesville Police Dept. Substation across University Avenue from the Trinity Irish Pub, where the interaction took place.
Prosecutor Chapman explained that a total 52 individuals were interviewed as part of the Commonwealth’s investigations, including at least 15 eyewitnesses – six of whom said that it appeared that both Johnson and the officers tripped and fell during a struggle. One witnesses noted that the fall was accidental, since it was “too sloppy to be on purpose.”
Colleen Quigley writes:
Several other witnesses believed agents “escorted Johnson down,” as they tried to arrest him, but did not intend to hurt Johnson. Only two witnesses said ABC agents “slammed” Johnson to the ground, but prosecutors said one of those witnesses originally stated he couldn’t see the arrest because he was inside the pub.
Chapman says after looking at the facts in the case, there was no evidence the officers committed a crime:
“Had we though for a moment that malice, that racial animosity, or intentional, or reckless disregard of the authority of a sworn law enforcement office existed, we would not have hesitated to prosecute those involved.”
It is this event which Mr. Johnson addressed in his TED talk, since he has been interested for some time in the issues that have resulted from the experience of African-Americans in the U.S., from the days of the slave trade to the present, with a particular interest – especially in light of his recent experience – in the interaction between law-enforcement personnel and the general public, and among African-Americans in particular.
A civil action has now been brought by Mr. Johnson in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia.