On March 18th 2015 Martese Johnson, a third year undergraduate student at the University of Virginia (UVA), was arrested by Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) agents, using what onlookers have described as excessive force (BBC News). This recent incident involving Johnson cannot be understood as an isolated event. Rather, an examination of the language used by reporters, politicians and twitter activists highlights that this instance of brutality is related more broadly to a societal prison industrial complex, a tendency to view racialized bodies through a lens of violence, and twitter-driven anti-racism campaigns.
Martese Johnson’s arrest can be understood as part of a neoliberal shift towards a society governed by a prison industrial complex, in which social safety nets are diminished, responsibility for crime is individualized, and prisons are privatized for the financial benefit of large corporations (Davis). In particular, the Corrections Corporation of America has profited from its role in running prisons, with a revenue of $210 million in 1997 (Davis). For corporations to continue profiting from prisons, states must keep the number of inmates high regardless of any actual increase in crime. Unfortunately, this is often achieved by making racist and unfounded arrests, while using carefully selected words to give the impression that people in prison deserve to be there. For example, calling prisons “correctional” facilities frames incarceration as a solution to individual pathology. The racist and neoliberal nature of Johnson’s arrest is also evident in the language of Governor Terry McAuliffe, who has stated in response to the incident that ABC agents ought to receive training in “cultural diversity” (Vultaggio). Making Martese’s arrest an issue of cultural diversity places blame onto the individual, implying that Johnson’s black culture led him to misunderstand the officers and eventually caused him to have his head bashed into the pavement.
Rather than an issue of cultural diversity, Martese Johnson’s experience of police brutality can be understood as a cause and effect of the systemic tendency to view racialized bodies through a lens of violence. This practice of racism also supports the prison industrial complex, by making certain people vulnerable to arrest. Using violence as a lens means viewing black bodies as deserving of physical abuse, because violence in media is the context in which we have come to ‘know’ black bodies (Haughton). Thus, Martese’s blackness makes him a reasonable target for violence because people are accustomed to seeing black bodies abused in slavery, news stories, like that of Michael Brown, and even in classrooms where black students represent 37 percent of individuals who receive corporal punishment although they compose only 17 percent of public school students in the US (Blow). And yes, in 19 US states teachers can legally hit students as punishment. Intersectional analysis demonstrates that there is also a gendered component to the view of racialized bodies as receptacles of violence. For example, Watson describes eight instances of police brutality against black women occurring over the course of only a few weeks in the US. In Canada, despite glaring evidence, Bradley Barton was recently found not guilty of murdering an Aboriginal Woman and sex worker named Cindy Gladue, highlighting the perceived acceptability of violence against women from racialized groups (Hunt and Sayers).
The language of black respectability politics was present in reporting on Johnson’s trial, not because commenters felt Martese ought to have behaved more “respectably” but because people were upset that Martese’s good behaviour did not protect him from the racism engrained in the police force. For example, headlines from the International Business Times and ABC News highlighted that Johnson was a university attendee as well as an honour roll student (Lynch; ABC News). Similarly, statements provided by Martese’s peers and professors emphasize that Martese is a “sound character”, a hardworking student, and that it would be uncharacteristic of him to behave belligerently (Wilkin and Provenzano). These facts might have helped to garner support for Martese; however, personal characteristics should not be necessary for his defence, given that Johnson’s good character was certainly not taken into account at the time of his violent arrest. Perhaps the most relevant fact, which was not widely reported on, was that the breathalyzer test Johnson took following his arrest did not find that he was intoxicated (Bryan). Nevertheless, commentators cling to the language of respectability politics even as it’s logic fails before their eyes, ultimately allowing embedded racism at the root of the issue to go unnoticed.
Finally, in spite of an unequal power dynamic that disadvantages racialized groups, black twitter, encompassing an online archive of black through and social activism, is a way for voices that have been oppressed to be heard (Haughton). After all, it was through twitter that the images of Johnson’s arrest initially spread (Vultaggio). Additionally, since the initial release of images of the incident, hashtag activism has drawn attention to how Johnson’s arrest fits into a broader picture of associating violence and criminality with black bodies. Khara John, a student at UVA, commented that seeing the hashtag “not just UVA” highlights that struggles faced by black students at predominantly white institutions are not something they must face alone (Wilkin and Provenzano). Furthermore, the Black Students Association at UVA, which Johnson is involved with, has used the hashtag “BlackLivesMatter” in their demands for justice in order to associate Martese’s cause with recent police brutality in Ferguson, and across the U.S. (Ferguson National Response Network). Anti-racist activism on twitter and other social media sites highlights how the over-incarceration of individuals from racialized groups and race-based brutality are structural issues rather than isolated incidents- they ought to be treated as such.
ABC News. “UVA Student Martese Johnson Makes First Court Appearance.” March 26. 2015. Web. April 7. 2015.
BBC News. “Virginia governor calls for inquiry into student arrest.” 19 March. 2015. Web. April 5. 2015.
Blow, Charles M. “The Bias Against Black Bodies.” The New York Times. February 19. 2014. Web. April 5. 2015.
Bryan, Alix. “Martese Johnson ‘was apparently not intoxicated’ says U.V.A. Vice President.” CBS 6. March 21. 2015. Web. April 6. 2015.
Danyel Haughton. “#BlackLivesMatter.” Queen’s University. March 2. 2015. Lecture.
Davis, Angela. “Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex.” History is a Weapon. 1998. Web. April 5. 2015.
Ferguson National Response Network. “Listing of Planned Response Events for #Ferguson and all police brutality & racial injustice nationwide.” Tumblr. March 20. 2015. Web. April 7. 2015
Hunt, Sarah and Naomi Sayers. “Cindy Gladue Case Sends a Chilling Message to Indigenous Women.” The Globe and Mail. March 25. 2015. Web. April 6. 2015.
Lynch, Dennis. “Martese Johnson UVA Arrest: Black Honor Students Bloodied During Arrest For Fake ID.” International Business Times. March 18. 2015. Web. April 5. 2015.
Vultaggio, Maria. “UVA Student Martese Johnson Chained On Night Of Arrest, Twitter Photo Shows.” International Business Times. March 25, 2015. Web. April 7. 2015.
Wilkin, Katherine and Lianne Provenzano. “Martese Johnson Appears for initial court hearing following ABC arrest: Students, faculty community members attend session, support Johnson.” The Cavalier Daily. March 26.2015. Web. April
Watson, Elwood D. “Violence Against Black Woman is Too Often Overlooked.” Huffington Post. July 15. 2014. Web. April 6. 2015.