​We’re here for Martese

Once again in the national spotlight, we should put our peers first

“I go to UVA. I go to UVA. I go to UVA. . . I go to UVA.”

These were the words third-year College student Martese Johnson said to Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control officers as he was held to the ground, his face bloodied, and arrested early Wednesday morning. During his arrest, Martese sustained a head injury that required 10 stitches.

As the day started and images of Martese’s injuries surfaced, University students once again found themselves angry, scared, confused and unsure of what to do next — and, even worse, unsure of the safety of a peer. Whatever details may surface, a member of our community was hurt, and we have witnessed his pain in the harrowing images that have emerged from that event. He was hurt in a space where he is supposed to feel safe — a space he is supposed to call home. And that is where we should focus our conversation — right here, at home.

There is ongoing national discussion about the treatment of black Americans. This discussion is vital, and Martese’s arrest, as he is black, is easily placed within that existing narrative. But it would be a mistake here at the University to focus our discussion on this national narrative and not on the event that just happened within the context of our own school. This will be difficult, as national news media and others have already begun dissecting Martese’s arrest in the context of a wider conversation. But we only have the power to shape what happens in the immediate U.Va. community. If we only focus on the national narrative, we risk accepting these incidents as inevitable — but just as they should not be inevitable anywhere, they certainly should not be inevitable in a space we can control.

Wednesday night, the group Black Dot hosted a forum to come together in support of Martese. At this forum, as the crowd momentarily divided over the direction of the conversation, Aryn Frazier, a second-year College student and the political action chair of the Black Student Alliance, said, “Right now, we’re here for Martese.” She was and is right. We are here for black men and women; we are here for black students; but right now, at U.Va., we must be here for Martese most of all.

At the forum, Frazier also noted that this was the largest crowd to engage with black students since they have promoted discussion or events about violence against black men. It shouldn’t take a graphic image or video for students to mobilize over issues affecting their peers. But the student showing Wednesday also demonstrates that when issues become local, students feel empowered to engage — precisely because, though we have less power to address national issues, there is a lot we can and should do about problems in our circle of the world. And, in this case, there is a lot we can and should do to support Martese.

One of the best examples of such support occurred at Wednesday’s forum. While fourth-year College student and BSA President Joy Omenyi introduced the event, a reporter was interviewing University President Teresa Sullivan instead of listening to Omenyi. Students who witnessed this were rightfully outraged at this lack of respect for the event and its hosts, and demanded that both the reporter and Sullivan listen to the students instead — and the interview promptly ended. Students demanded that their president and the media listen to them; they demanded control over the conversation. What these students did demonstrates a mindset we should all emulate. We are the ones who decide how to treat one another and whom to turn to in the wake of tragic events at our school.

We quote James Baldwin in “A Letter to My Nephew,” which was recited Wednesday night: “We with love shall force our brothers. . . to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it, for this is your home, my friend.”

U.Va. belongs to all of us; for the years we study here, it is our home. It is just as much Martese’s home as it is anyone else’s. But we must confront the sad reality that not all those who call this place home are treated as though it is — which is why we need to focus our efforts here, first.



Editor’s note: Managing Editor Chloe Heskett abstained from participating in this editorial due to her coverage of Johnson’s arrest.

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