On Thursday, the 20-year-old University of Virginia student who was injured in a violent arrest at the hands of state Alcoholic Beverage Control officers appeared in court for the first time since the March 18th incident.
Martese Johnson, a third-year Italian and media studies major, appeared alongside his lawyer, Daniel Watkins, and entered no plea to charges stemming from the arrest reportedly sparked by a discrepancy over the zip code on Johnson’s valid identification card. The use of force by ABC officers, seen in a video circulated on the internet the following day, caused a gash on the honor student’s head that required 10 stitches.
Although he was expected to enter a not guilty plea, the prosecution asked for a continuance. Johnson, whose wound was still visible when he appeared for the 90-second court hearing, and Watkins agreed that his next appearance would be May 28 — a date by which attorneys hope the Virginia State Police investigation will conclude.
About one hundred of Johnson’s supporters showed up to the Charlottesville District Court Thursday, many of whom belong to the Black Student Alliance (BSA). Joy Omenyi, president of BSA and a fourth year African-American and African Studies major, told NewsOne that in the wake Johnson’s “traumatic” experience, the students are gearing up to release a list of demands they hope to present to the university to prompt real change.
“We all recognized that we had issues long before Martese was brutalized,” Omenyi said. “That’s something we have to keep in mind as we put together these action items and these recommendations we plan to implement.”
“We want to create a culture of truth at this university and feel that when we begin to move forward in these conversations and these discussions, it only works if all sides are operating from a place of honesty and operating from a place of truth. That includes recognizing the history of our university,” she added.
In recent months, UVA has been the site of a number of scandals and incidents, the irony of which is not lost on Omenyi and her fellow students.
“When you think about what has gone down at the university just this school year, this is third time we’ve reached the national media on not necessarily good things,” she said. “So I think every one of these incidents have caused our university community to evaluate ourselves. When we look at the factors that led up to this, it is now time to figure out what to do so this never happen again.”
The demands are still being drafted, but Omenyi and a team of student supporters are looking to establish a community of trust, eliminate abuses, and increase Black presence at the university for both students and staff, adding that while Black presence is overrepresented in working roles, it’s severely underrepresented in administrative roles.
The students also hope to “conduct an internal and external review of ABC.”
“I think the only way to move forward is to realize these changes need to be implemented through policy,” Omenyi told NewsOne. “We have to take initiatives that eradicate this entire thing. We have to work hand-in-hand with the rest of the university. We have to make it safe for all students of all backgrounds. We have to sit down together with the administration to come up with policies.”
In the meantime, Omenyi, who is also a friend of Johnson’s, says the young man is healing, adding that while he may have become a symbol for this resistance, he’s still a human being.
“He’s doing great and that was the most important thing for us,” she said. “We can worry about change, but we have to remember he is a human being and we have to love and support him before we do anything else. If we were to jump and start making all of these changes, we would be no different from anyone else abusing the situation. Because they treated him like an animal and if we did that, we would also be treating him less of than a human being.”
For more coverage on Martese Johnson’s arrest and the UVA investigation, see links below:
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty | Additional reporting by Tonya Jameson, Online Editor of Radio One Charlotte