Law alumnus speaks about his experience with police racial profiling at U.Va.

Johnathan Perkins said he was pressured by the FBI to recant his claim of racial profiling by UPD in 2011

At the conclusion of the event Thursday, Perkins adorned the formal Law School cap and gown he would have worn at graduation and was presented a diploma by Law Prof. Kim Forde-Mazuri, who supported Perkins after the initial incident with police and throughout his trial. Nik Popli | Cavalier Daily

Over a year after coming forward with claims that he was racially profiled and intimidated by the University Police Department and Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2011, U.Va. Law School alumnus Johnathan Perkins returned to the University last Thursday for an open conversation at an event in Caplin Pavilion. The event was organized by the University’s Black Law Students Association. 

While walking home from the Corner in April 2011, Perkins — who is black and was a third-year Law student at the time — said he was stopped, searched and harassed by two University police officers who stated he “fit the description” of someone they were looking for. Perkins published a letter three weeks later in the Virginia Law Weekly sharing his experience, which prompted the University to open an investigation into the incident. 

A month later, May 6, 2011, the University issued a press release stating Perkins had recanted his claim of police profiling and that the incident had never occurred. Shortly after, the Honor Committee charged Perkins with lying. He was acquitted of the charges after a summer Honor trial and was granted his law degree in September 2011. 

After a five-year statute of limitations for potential federal charges expired, Perkins told The Cavalier Daily in 2017 that he was pressured by an FBI agent to recant his claim of profiling by UPD. He said information regarding the FBI’s involvement was shared during his Honor trial, though it had not been disclosed to the public.

“There were dozens of news outlets — The Atlantic, The Washington Post — these big time news outlets that were ranting about this injustice that a student got to graduate having openly lied,” Perkins said at the event. “I lived with that for a while. That was the very strange reality in the months after I left U.Va. — being afraid that I would be arrested, so I kept quiet about it.”

In response to a student question about police racial profiling, Perkins said his father — who passed away when Perkins was young — never taught him the risks of a speaking to law enforcement as a black person.

“I don’t ever really fear for my life unless I’m around police,” Perkins said. “It’s a very strange feeling — there’s no other way to describe it other than ... this lack of freedom, this void.”

Perkins said he feels his case can be used as an example for the Honor Committee to be aware of the role race and biases can play in trials.

Perkins said he specifically made a motion prior to his Honor trial that the jury have some members who identified as racial minorities. While the request was granted, Perkins said some members of the jury — which primarily consisted of white students — asked him insensitive questions during the trial because they did not fully understand the experiences of a person of color with law enforcement.

“I hoped that one or two members of the jury would be aware of the types of things that people of color, particularly in a town like Charlottesville, have to go through,” Perkins said. “I don’t want to have to … educate you about the way black people have to live, especially in the South.”

In a guest submission to The Cavalier Daily earlier this month, Perkins called for institutions of power like the Honor Committee to address its own racial biases before rushing to judgement.

“White people, particularly those in positions of power, must be willing to do the hard work of educating themselves and each other so that they might identify and address their own racial biases,” Perkins wrote.

Perkins met with the executive board of the Honor Committee last Friday to encourage the group to be aware of potential biases and prejudices that may impact the outcome of a student’s trial. For instance, he called on the Committee to examine possible bias in Honor outcomes.

After the event Thursday, Ory Streeter, a Medical student and Honor Committee chair, said in an interview that he looked forward to hearing more about Perkins’ story.

“The most important gift anyone can give you is their story, and the only way you can try and repay that gift is learn lessons and make some changes from that,” Streeter said. “I think it’s going to be another great opportunity for us to hear his story, hear his thoughts and how we can improve, and hopefully implement some of those things where we can.”

As a result of the Honor charges against him at the time and threats of student protests if he walked the Lawn, Perkins did not participate in the Law School graduation ceremony in 2011. At the conclusion of the event Thursday, Perkins adorned the formal Law School cap and gown he would have worn at graduation and was presented a diploma by Law Prof. Kim Forde-Mazuri, who supported Perkins after the initial incident with police and throughout his trial. 

“It was sort of a surreal moment,” Perkins said. “It hasn’t really hit me yet emotionally.”

Michele St. Julien, a Law student and social action chair of BLSA who planned and moderated the talk, said after the event that Perkins’ story shows why it is important to believe victims of racial profiling.

“I think it just brought up a lot about racial politics and how we have to keep telling the truth and keep spotlighting our stories because they will be erased from us or someone else will tell them if we don’t tell them,” Julien said.

Since the incident, Perkins has passed the Pennsylvania Bar Exam, subsequently worked for two private law firms as a higher education attorney and now serves as the Associate General Counsel at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia. However, he said the psychological effects of the incident have caused him recurring dreams of FBI agents kicking his door for which he visits a therapist.

“Any time someone speaks out about a trauma that they experienced, it’s a risk to them for a number of reasons and you’ve seen that play out very commonly today,” Perkins said. “I am heartened by movements like Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo movement, not because of the horrible things they are bringing to the surface, but the comfort they are creating for people — I felt like I could speak out about this because of Black Lives Matter, because of all of these movements about people speaking truth to power.”

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