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Martese Johnson appears for initial court hearing following ABC arrest

Students, faculty community members attend session, support Johnson

<p>Third-year College student Martese Johnson exited the Charlottesville General District Court following the initial hearing regarding his arrest last Wednesday. Courtesy Dan Gettinger.</p>

Third-year College student Martese Johnson exited the Charlottesville General District Court following the initial hearing regarding his arrest last Wednesday. Courtesy Dan Gettinger.

The initial hearing of third-year College student Martese Johnson took place Thursday morning at the Charlottesville General District Court following Johnson’s arrest last Wednesday on charges of obstruction of justice and public intoxication. The prosecution asked for a continuance in the case as the state investigation into the use of force during the arrest continues. The defense agreed to the continuance.

Following brief statements from Johnson’s lawyer, Daniel Watkins, and the presiding judge, Hon. Robert H. Downer Jr., the court set a control date of May 28 to reconvene on the case. The date is subject to change pending the conclusion of an ongoing criminal investigation conducted by the Virginia State Police.

Due to the continuation of the state investigation, Johnson did not enter a formal plea.

Dozens of students attended the hearing in support of Johnson. Black Student Alliance executive board members said the high turnout was expected. DeAnza Cook, second-year College student and Black Oasis for Learning and Development president, said the student support is reassuring.

“I think it definitely is comforting for him to know that he has people who are going to support him throughout this entire endeavor so that he’s not alone,” Cook said. “I think it is definitely a demonstration of our solidarity as a community as black students . . . we are going to be here to support him.”

BSA Political Action Chair Aryn Frazier, a second-year College student, also said the student support was positive

“We saw [that outpour] of support not just that Wednesday or that Friday, but we saw it again today,” she said. “The court was lined with people showing their support for Martese, and plenty more people who are at the University in class right now are also with us in spirit. I think that that outpouring has been very helpful for him, and I think it will continue.”

A message from Black Dot Wednesday morning requested student support at the hearing. BSA President Joy Omenyi, a fourth-year College student, said it was important for the student presence to remain peaceful throughout the hearing.

“We all agreed to wear black, we all agreed to make sure that everything was peaceful . . . everything was silent,” Omenyi said. “First and foremost, we’re here for Martese, and we didn’t want to do anything to compromise that. When he walked in, it wasn’t just strangers, it was the people who were nearest and dearest to him.”

Omenyi said Johnson was not the type to be belligerent, and said recent statements from Trinity owner Kevin Badke, who said Johnson “seemed sober,” further support this.

“I think as Martese has stated previously and as the Trinity owner has come out and said, that he was not acting belligerent at the time,” Omenyi said. “When he got to the police station he blew a 0.02, so he was not intoxicated, and just knowing Martese and the type of person he is, hes not the type of person to just be belligerent [...] so many accounts have come out and said that he was not acting in the way they said he was.”

Omenyi said Johnson has served with her on the BSA Executive Board the past two years, and she said she considers him to be of very high character.

“I can assure you that Martese is one of the most sound characters that I know,” Omenyi said. “He’s very intelligent, he’s very well spoken and he’s very true to his cause and he cares about the people around him.”

Faculty have reacted to Johnson’s arrest as well, and some have reached out to students to facilitate conversation. Curry Associate Prof. Patrice Preston Grimes, associate dean in the Office of African-American Affairs, said she adjusted her syllabus following Johnson’s arrest to allow class time for student discussion pertaining to this event. She noted the importance future educators’ ability to consider their own perspectives and understand how to discuss similar issues in the classroom.

“I think that it’s very important for faculty and staff, as well as students, to address these issues and, given the nature of the many things that have occurred on Grounds this past week as well as this past semester, I felt it important to shift what I talk about this week in class and to address [with] my students the importance of tackling challenging topics,” Grimes said.

Grimes said she received mixed responses from students and faculty, and stressed the importance of not keeping silent about the issue.

“There were people throughout Curry who were very responsive, very supportive — but there were other students who were honest enough to say they didn’t know what to say or how to say it, and therefore were silent,” Grimes said. “What I tried to stress in class is that the silence can be more damaging, and that it’s very important for all of us to be more open to develop the skills that we need to be able to [speak up]. Two students emailed me and said that they appreciated the fact that I created a space in class to do that.”

Johnson’s arrest marks the third national controversy facing the University in the 2014-15 academic year. Fourth-year College student Khara John attended the hearing and discussed the the Charlottesville community’s most recent issue, but also noted the widespread national response to racial issues at large.

“This year, specifically, UVA has been under a microscope for a number of events that have been severely unfortunate to our community, and I think that for a point in time people thought that this was a UVA problem,” John said. “But to see the hashtag ‘Not Just UVA,’ to see that there are other students at predominantly white institutions . . . who are interacting with the communities in which they are going to school and seeing that these are not struggles we are going through alone. This is something that needs to be dealt with on a larger level, and if it has to start here at UVA and build, then I think that’s a great opportunity for our student leaders, for our school and our nation as a whole.”

Frazier spoke positively regarding the potential for University change and said she is hopeful that continued support will facilitate tangible change from the University and Charlottesville city communities.

“My outlook is more positive right now, ironically, in that I think that students at the beginning of the year felt like that was a Ferguson problem or a New York problem — well now it’s here in Charlottesville, and I think that makes it nearly impossible to turn a blind eye to what’s going on.”

Though Johnson’s case has become a source of national debate, Grimes said she feels activism from a small community group can be the best way to enact change.

“I just think its important for everyone to think about how each person can act. I’ve been known to quote Margaret Mead very often where she says ‘never doubt for a moment what a group of small committed citizens can do to change the world, indeed its the only thing that ever has’,” Grimes said. “Change is top-down, but it’s also bottom-up, and so it’s important that many of these activities and initiatives converge so that the end result is that we can all move forward. Together.”


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