Martese Johnson’s Past as a Chicago Leader Delivers a Crucial Blow to Respectability Politics
Whenever a young Black man falls victim to police brutality, it seems like national media alarms are sounded: We must get to work to attack his character, dig up criminal records and prove that the white officer was simply doing what he had to do to deal with a rebellious thug.
It’s a racist strategy too often used to incriminate unarmed Black men, but it has already been rendered useless in the case of Martese Johnson.
Communities all across the nation were shocked to see the bloody images of University of Virginia student Martese Johnson being put in handcuffs by an officer as others watched in horror.
As public outcry condemned the officer for slamming the young honor student’s face into the pavement, one could almost see a stop watch appear in the corner of the screen, counting down the moment that some news organization or law enforcement official would present a tiny blip on Johnson’s criminal record in order to justify the gash across his forehead.
Instead, Johnson’s past was squeaky clean, delivering a critical blow to respectability politics and the idea that if a Black man just “acts right” when dealing with police officers he will be immune to violent racial profiling and excessive use of force.
Johnson, who is from Chicago, not only had a clean record but he was also a local leader in the Windy City, involved in extracurricular activities and a role model to his peers.
The 20-year-old UVA student graduated from Kenwood Academy High School in the South Side’s Hyde Park neighborhood, the Chicago Tribune reported.
While the arresting Alcohol Beverage Control agent claimed Johnson was “agitated and belligerent” during the time of the encounter, students who grew up with Johnson aren’t buying that story and are shocked to see someone like Johnson being targeted by police brutality.
“I myself have been harassed by police on many occasions,” former Kenwood Academy student Stevie Powell told the Chicago Tribune. “I never thought I’d be standing here talking about Martese being a victim of police brutality.”
That’s because Johnson was a “great, wonderful, brilliant leader,” according to former Kenwood Academy Principal Elizabeth Kirby.
She told the Chicago Tribune that he was “the epitome of the kind of student you want to graduate from your school.”
Powell added that some students called Johnson “Pops” because of his natural ability to be a great leader and his tendency to stand out as a major role model for his peers.
In many ways, he was an asset to his community and was already displaying those same leadership skills while attending college in Virginia.
For Black people around the world, it’s a reminder that the concept of doing the right thing to avoid trouble with the police is a myth, especially when it comes to young Black men.
Johnson himself was shocked to be confronting that reality.
“As the officers held me down, one thought raced through my mind: How could this happen,” Johnson said in a public statement read by his attorney on Thursday. “I trust the scars will one day heal, but the trauma of what the officers did will stay with me forever.”
Even in his approach with a massive crowd of infuriated protesters, Johnson was never disrespectful, angry or vengeful.
As his forehead remained scarred and swollen all he asked the crowd of supporters to do was “respect everyone here.”
His traumatic experience started when the young man went out with a group of friends to a popular off-campus bar called the Trinity Irish Pub.
According to witnesses, the officer asked Johnson about his zip code.
Johnson confidently gave the bouncer the zip code for his mother’s current address in Chicago.
The zip code on the 4-year-old driver’s license was from his mother’s previous address.
Allegedly, that mix up was all the ABC officer needed to get aggressive with Johnson.
Other UVA students said the officer used unnecessary force, slamming Johnson to the ground when they say he never became aggressive with authorities.
Johnson’s lawyer, Daniel P. Watkins, assured the public that the matter would be investigated thoroughly.
He is also seeking to get all the charges against Johnson dropped.
After his face was left bloodied and his body bruised, Johnson was slapped with two counts of obstruction of justice without force and public swearing or intoxication.
Supporters from all across the nation are rallying together in support of Johnson by using the hashtag #JusticeForMartese.