CHARLOTTESVILLE — Martese Johnson grew up on Chicago’s South Side, raised by a single mother and attending a school that was 85 percent black and rife with poverty.
Johnson always knew he wanted to chart his own path to something better. He graduated at the top of his high school class and, unlike most of his classmates, enrolled at a prestigious college.
When Johnson arrived at the University of Virginia’s historic campus in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, he felt like a foreigner. A vast majority of the students are white, and just 34 percent receive financial aid.
“I was uncomfortable. It was clearly a university that catered to upper-middle class white culture, where every student I see is wearing khakis, Sperrys and ties to football games,” Johnson, 20, said in an interview Friday. “Freshman year, I was the only black male in my entire dorm building. It was one of the first times I had to endure being in a place where I was the absolute minority.”
Instead of turning inward, he embraced the elite school and its opportunities. By his junior year, he served in student leadership positions and excelled in academics.
But in the early morning hours of March 18, Johnson found himself in a situation all too familiar for black men his age: shoved to the ground, a white police officer on his back, confusion — and blood — on his face.
After attempting to enter an Irish bar near campus for St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, Johnson was confronted by three white police officers, thrown to the ground, handcuffed and shackled. Photographs capturing the incident showed Johnson’s face dripping in blood. He was charged with public intoxication and obstructing justice.
“I think that race was definitely a factor in this situation, but I don’t believe it was the only factor,” Johnson said. “I think that part of what happened with me can’t be blamed on the officers. It has to be blamed on society as a whole.”
For three months, Johnson waited for his day in court, the possibility of a jail sentence looming. As students rallied behind him, demanding racial equality, Johnson’s future prospects appeared to crumble. The day after he was arrested — an event publicized nationwide amid a debate about police treatment of black men — Johnson learned that he was removed from consideration for a selective internship in private wealth management with a large investment banking firm.
On Friday, Johnson’s name was cleared: Charlottesville General District Court Judge Robert H. Downer accepted a motion from Commonwealth’s Attorney Dave Chapman to dismiss all charges against Johnson, citing a lack of evidence.
“In the interest of justice, the community will be better served by taking a different approach,” Chapman said in court Friday.
Finalizing the motion, Downer told Johnson: “You’re free to go, sir,” and a small crowd in the courtroom broke into applause.
“We’re overjoyed today,” said Daniel Watkins, Johnson’s attorney. “Martese has been vindicated of the case against him.”
For Johnson, it was a huge relief.
“It is a tremendous opportunity for me to have a second chance at not having charges and being free,” Johnson said. “But I think that in many instances, minorities are not allowed this privilege. It shouldn’t just be the honors student who goes to the University of Virginia and has some great academic record who has the opportunity to have his charges dropped for something that happened so unjustly. This should be an opportunity for every minority in the country to be able to experience. This should be something that isn’t a privilege to those who have certain accolades, have a certain image, that makes them passable in a way.
“So for the rest of my life, I hope to work to serve the minority community and also society by shedding light on what is injustice and serving those who are overlooked and mistreated throughout our county.”
Since his childhood in Chicago, Johnson has idolized those who lived by their own example. His mother, a mental health advocate, taught her son lessons on becoming a man, such as how to give a strong handshake.
In high school, he chose to play volleyball instead of more popular sports such as basketball and football.
Visiting U-Va. for the first time as an 11th-grader, Johnson left the campus hating the school. But he enrolled anyway after earning a generous financial-aid package.
At U-Va., he decided to major in Italian, because he found the language beautiful, and media studies, because he is fascinated by the intersection of technology and everyday life. He came to admire the school’s “Southern family feel.”
At first, all of his friends were white. He joined them for fraternity parties and tailgates.
“I was always a bit uncomfortable, but they were the only friends I had,” Johnson said. He realized, too, that he was usually their only black friend, and their inexperience communicating with peers from different races became quickly apparent.
“They would come up and say, ‘Oh, what’s up my nigga?’ ” Johnson said, referring to the way some young black men greet each other. “You’re taken aback. I was upset and always expressed that that’s wrong. It goes back to society, and society is only to blame for the racial micro-aggressions that occur throughout minority students’ times at the university.”
At other times, the racial tension was more obvious, Johnson said.
“Sometimes, if I say something in a meeting for an organization that is majority white, it won’t be taken as seriously as when two weeks later a white student says the same thing,” Johnson said.
He began getting more involved in the small black community at U-Va. and joined the Honor Committee to help address the disproportionately high reporting rate of black students and black athletes for cheating allegations.
“After the most terrible year that we possibly could have this past year, it taught us we need to be more transparent and speak up when something is wrong,” Johnson said.
His arrest came amid heightened racial tensions across the United States and in the wake of investigations into the wrongful deaths of young black men at the hands of white police officers. Johnson said he views his positive outcome as a glimmer of hope during an otherwise bleak period for race relations.
“I was excited that we could experience as a country a moment of justice that was rightly served,” Johnson said. “I’m happy that it happened.”
For now, Johnson is considering his legal options for a possible civil case; the officers who arrested him have not been charged in connection with the case.
Smiling for the cameras outside the courtroom Friday, Johnson said he had another reason to celebrate: He turns 21 next week.