​Martese Johnson and the Yik Yak effect

Students should be brave enough to engage with their peers constructively

Our school is still reeling from Martese Johnson’s brutal arrest early Wednesday morning. Yesterday, we noted the need to focus on improving the problems facing us from within our community, and student reactions to the arrest and ensuing conversation have revealed the extent of those problems. While groups like Black Dot have initiated events in support of Martese, some students at these events — such as Wednesday night’s rally — spoke over their peers instead of with them. On social media platforms such as Yik Yak — an avenue we wrote earlier this week is often used for racist or offensive comments — students have posted comments blaming Martese for the arrest, saying his wounds were insignificant and even accusing Martese of enjoying a publicity stunt.

These incredibly insensitive responses demonstrate, in part, the Yik Yak effect. As we wrote this week, “Anonymous social media platforms demonstrate an area of student interaction where offensive posts are ubiquitous and users have no accountability.” Such a forum lends itself not to careful, educated exchanges but instead to individuals revealing deep-seated biases without any incentive to better inform themselves before commenting. These and countless other anonymous posts affirm that race is still a serious problem at U.Va.

Ineffective exchanges are not limited to anonymous platforms. As we mentioned above, at Wednesday’s rally different factions of the audience attempted to hijack the conversation, which had been carefully planned by the event’s hosts. When some participants spoke to the crowd, others reacted with jeers. In response, Martese himself came forward, asking everyone to respect one another. We see from these interactions that speaking over one another leaves no voice heard.

Today, Student Council is hosting a dialogue at 1 p.m. in Newcomb Theater with Charlottesville Police Chief Timothy Longo, representatives from the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control, Albemarle County police and University police. This will be an opportunity for students to discuss their concerns in person — and a chance for anonymous or particularly headstrong students to listen to peers whose opinions and feelings may differ. In their invitation to the event, Student Council President Jalen Ross and President-Elect Abraham Axler said that at the rally Wednesday, “We were with you, listening for a way to help.” And then: “And as we listened alongside you, we felt alongside you.” This is a blueprint for how all students should approach understanding the feelings of their peers.

We cannot dictate to others how to feel or think. We have to be patient; we have to listen first, speak in response, and then engage. Ross and Axler captured it well: they listened — and they felt. Martese’s arrest and the feelings of our peers demand empathy. It is cowardly to hide behind anonymity and harmful to ignore the voices of others. At a press conference yesterday, Martese’s lawyer read a statement on his behalf: “I still believe in our community — I know this community will support me during this time.” We have to show him that we can do that.

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