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Racial tensions flare at U-Va. after arrest of black student

Twenty-year-old University of Virginia junior Martese Johnson sustained a head wound that required 10 stitches after being arrested. (Video: Bryan Beaubrun/The Cavalier Daily)

Racial tensions flared at the University of Virginia after a black student sustained head injuries while white police officers arrested him outside of a popular Irish pub early Wednesday morning.

The injuries, captured in cellphone videos and photographs from a crowd of students nearby, left the student with bloody streaks down his face, an image that quickly spread on social media. In one of the videos, obtained by The Washington Post, the student calls three officers from the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control “racists” as they try to handcuff his hands behind his back.

The student, junior Martese Johnson, 20, was arrested after he was denied entry to the Trinity Irish Pub at about 12:45 a.m. The incident occurred on the sidewalk near a strip of restaurants and bars adjacent to campus called The Corner. ABC officials said that Johnson was charged with public intoxication and obstruction of justice but declined to detail why he was physically taken to the ground.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s office issued a statement Wednesday afternoon in which he said he was calling for an investigation into the arrest.

It is not clear from the videos what happened in the moments prior to the arrest or how the student received the head wound, though one onlooker repeatedly tells police that Johnson is bleeding as they are trying to subdue him. According to a statement from the university’s Black Student Alliance, Johnson required 10 stitches.

Hundreds of students gathered on campus Wednesday night for a rally and a march to protest the police treatment of Johnson, and many stayed until about 11 p.m. Abraham Axler, a sophomore who is president-elect of the Student Council, said that Johnson spoke briefly at the rally.

“I beg for you guys to please respect everyone here,” the Associated Press reported that Johnson said. “We really are one community.”

Axler said that the sentiment throughout the evening was that “people were really upset. It was a really wonderful moment for people whose voices are not usually heard were heard in a really profound way tonight.”

Axler said that the rally ended with a march from campus down to The Corner, where the incident unfolded the night before. No arrests were made and no property was damaged, Charlottesville police Lt. Thomas McKean said early Thursday.

The ABC released a statement Wednesday afternoon, saying that special agents had been monitoring licensed establishments on University Avenue in the early morning hours Wednesday when they made an arrest of a 20-year-old at 12:45 a.m. The ABC enforces the state’s liquor laws and works to prevent distribution of alcohol to minors.

“The uniformed ABC agents observed and approached the individual after he was refused entry to a licensed establishment,” the statement says. “A determination was made by the agents to further detain the individual based on their observations and further questioning. In the course of an arrest being made, the arrested individual sustained injuries. The individual received treatment for his injuries at a local hospital and was released.”

According to arrest records posted online by the student newspaper, the Cavalier Daily, Johnson was arrested after officers found him “very agitated and belligerent,” but an officer noted that he has “no previous criminal history.”

Johnson is an elected representative to the school’s prestigious Honor Committee, where he serves as vice chair for community relations, according to the U-Va. Web site. The Honor Committee helps uphold the school’s honor code, which is at the heart of the founding principles of integrity and student self-governance. Johnson did not immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday afternoon.

Students responded with horror and outrage. Johnson’s name quickly became a hashtag online, linked to #BlackLivesMatter, Ferguson and the national debate over racism and police.

Johnson’s attorney, Daniel P. Watkins, said in a statement Wednesday evening that Johnson is a third-year student at the university, double majoring in Italian and Media Studies. Watkins added that Johnson is a member of the Eta Sigma Chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi.

“As evidenced by both his academic and extracurricular achievements, Martese is a smart young man with a bright future,” Watkins said. “He is absolutely devastated by yesterday’s events.”

The public flagship has experienced increased racial tensions in recent months, after sophomore Hannah Graham, who is white, went missing and police chased the lead suspect in the crime: Charlottesville resident Jesse L. Matthew Jr., who is black. Matthew faces charges in her abduction and death after her body was discovered on an abandoned property 10 miles from campus.

U-Va. student council president Jalen Ross confirmed that Johnson is the student in videos and pictures being arrested by ABC police officers. Ross said that he was disturbed by the scene.

“Everyone ought to be appalled by this,” said Ross. “There is no reason that any of our students should have ended up bleeding on The Corner last night.”

Ross said he hopes the incident will not divide students, but said it already has sparked debate about race relations.

The Black Student Alliance sought a swift investigation, saying Johnson was “brutalized” by the police officers and “was left with his blood splattered on the pavement.”

“After Martese was denied entry to the bar, he found himself suddenly flung to the ground,” the alliance said. “The brutish force used resulted in his head and bodily injuries. His treatment was unprovoked as he did not resist questioning or arrest. In confusion, with blood painting his face and creating a pool on the bricks of The Corner, he yelled out for mercy. Though he lay bleeding and crying out, officers continued to hold him to the pavement, pinning him down, twisting his arm, with knees to his back until he was handcuffed.”

Students also demanded answers from U-Va. president Teresa Sullivan, who released a statement late Wednesday, expressing her “deep concern” about the incident and saying that aside from a student being injured during an arrest, the university has “not yet clarified all of the details surrounding this event.” She said that she has met with local police and contacted the governor’s office seeking an independent investigation into the matter.

“The safety and security of our students will always be my primary concern, and every member of our community should feel safe from the threat of bodily harm and other forms of violence,” Sullivan wrote. “Today, as U.Va. students, faculty, and staff who share a set of deeply held values, we stand unified in our commitment to seeking the truth about this incident. And we stand united in our belief that equal treatment and equal justice are among our fundamental rights under the law.”

Brian Coy, a spokesman for McAuliffe, said that the governor “is concerned by the reports of this incident and has asked the Secretary of Public Safety to initiate an independent Virginia State Police investigation into the use of force in this matter.

“The Governor’s office has been in contact with University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan and local law enforcement and will continue to monitor this situation closely as the investigation proceeds,” Coy said.

The Virginia ABC said it is cooperating with the investigation and has restricted the special agents involved in the arrest to administrative duties while the investigation is underway.

U-Va.’s Vice President for Diversity and Equity, Marcus L. Martin, and Dean of African-American Affairs Maurice Apprey said in a statement Wednesday that they are “outraged by the brutality against a University of Virginia undergraduate student.”

“His head was slammed into the hard pavement with excessive force,” they wrote. “This was wrong and should not have occurred. In the many years of our medical, professional and leadership roles at the University, we view the nature of this assault as highly unusual and appalling based on the information we have received.”