Our Short Attention Spans: ABC agents cleared in Martese Johnson arrest

On March 18th, 2015, then 3rd year student and honor committee member Martese Johnson, who is black, was held down and arrested by three Alcoholic Beverage Control officers as he bled profusely from an injury to the head. He was eventually charged with public intoxication and obstruction of justice. The controversial arrest, recorded and uploaded to the web almost as soon as it occurred, took place as the nation was grappling with similarly recorded instances of police brutality against persons of color, most notably Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, and countless others. The story quickly attracted national attention, and the University saw a crowd of over one thousand assemble to protest the arrest. At the behest of University President Teresa Sullivan, on March 19th, Governor Terry McAuliffe ordered an investigation by the Virginia State Police into “the use of force in this matter.”

From there, there were important, if underreported, developments. Four months later, on July 29th, the state police filed its second report and sent it to Brian Moran, the Virginia Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security, and the ABC. However, the report was not released to the general public. On August 10th, after reviewing the report, the ABC cleared the agents involved “of all wrongdoing.” A Cavalier Daily open records request to see the report was denied on the grounds that Virginia State Police are not “required to release the review under state law.”

Johnson’s arrest sparked outrage in a year of tumult and unwanted national media attention for U.Va. It is perhaps in an effort to move past last year’s unusual difficulties that the University of Virginia community seems to have allowed the Johnson arrest to fade into the recesses of recent history. But after the impassioned demands of student leaders, public officials, alumni, and many others for action, accountability, and investigation into the three ABC officers’ conduct that night, it seems that this story has died a premature death, and that it has not received its due.

The ABC has a history of unwarranted aggression. In 2013, Elizabeth Daly, a 20-year-old U.Va student, who is white, had guns drawn on her by plain-clothed ABC officers as she left an ABC store with a bottle of water. The agents thought she was carrying a 12-pack of beer. In response to Johnson’s arrest, Daly released a statement through her lawyer in which she asked Gov. McAuliffe and Attorney General Mark Herring to make the state police investigation report public.

We at the Roosevelt Society agree with Ms. Daly, and we believe that the University of Virginia and wider Virginia public have a right to see the undisclosed report. As members of the University of Virginia community, we feel a need to speak out and do our part in assuring that this story does not go quietly into the oblivion of our short attention spans, especially as it is still under review. Shortly after the arrest, Gov. McAuliffe issued Executive Order 40, requiring “more training for all ABC special agents” in various areas including “use of force.” The executive order also appointed a panel tasked with making a recommendation by November 15th “regarding any identified changes needed,” among other provisions. Some of the goals highlighted by the executive order were “improving cooperation and communication with local communities and Virginia colleges and universities” as well as “improving accountability and oversight.” The state’s failure to release the state police’s report seems an odd way to start that process.

Perhaps the difference between inertia and change lies in just how much the student body shows it cares about this issue beyond its short term, glossy impact. Whether or not the ABC agents involved should be cleared of wrongdoing is not the question at hand. It is rather whether Virginia and the ABC abide by principles of good government: transparency, accountability, and communication, just as the governor’s executive order establishes. Let the facts of the case be judged by the clear light of day and not an obscure internal ABC review process. Let the public see the report and come to its own conclusions. It is simply what we deserve.

Author: Olivier Weiss

From the suburbs of New York, Olivier Weiss is an undergraduate student at the University of Virginia majoring in history and foreign affairs. His focus is on international relations from the perspective of U.S. values and interests, examining how developments affect the broader scheme of international order.

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