Alice Ollstein

At The University Of Virginia, Students Say Martese Johnson’s Beating Was The Tip Of The Iceberg

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VIRGINIA — Students quietly studying in one of the University of Virginia’s ornate libraries were suddenly interrupted Thursday morning when a group of about 50 students burst in with a megaphone, chanting, “Black lives matter” and “No justice, no peace, no racist police!”

Some students barely looked up from their books, while others giggled or snapped photos with their phones. Some were visibly annoyed.

“If we’re in here disturbing you, we aren’t apologizing,” called out one demonstrator. “Business can no longer go on as usual.”

The march then wound through the campus’ cafeterias, classrooms and dormitories, loudly reminding onlookers about the injuries student Martese Johnson sustained early Wednesday morning at the hands of Alcoholic Beverage Control officers. But many demonstrators told ThinkProgress that the violent encounter that left Johnson handcuffed and bloody after trying to enter a local bar with an alleged fake ID was only the tip of the iceberg of racial tension at the historic public university.

At a speak-out at UVA on Thursday, some brought up the lack of diversity on the school’s faculty and the overwhelming number of black and brown people working low-paid service jobs on campus. Multiple students shared stories of being denied entry into bars and house parties because of their race. Others said they feel like the school encouraged students to seek free counseling after past traumatic events, such as the murder of student Hannah Graham last year, but not after recent racially charged incidents.

Another protester, Alesha, noted, “People call you the n-word and say that you don’t belong here. They don’t realize what that does to the psyche. Then you have to go to class.”

Fourth-year Assa Diaw added that she has struggled with depression, and blames the racial climate at UVA. “I’ve never been beaten to a pulp like Martese, but I have felt racism here at UVA in very subtle ways that would make you go crazy,” she said. “It may not be big, it may not be news, but I still feel it every single day.”

Several students of color noted that they are frequently asked for two IDs at the bars near campus where Johnson was arrested, while most white students said this never happens to them.

“Everyone knows it happens, but it’s never talked about,” noted TJ, a fourth-year public policy student. TJ was born in raised in Eastern Virginia, where he encountered confederate flags and racist comments his entire life. But he said he never encountered systemic racism until UVA. In his first year, he was prevented from entering a fraternity on Rugby Road, as his white friends partied inside.

Though they always made up a small minority through the school’s history, black enrollment has dropped from a height of ten percent in 1990 to six percent in 2014.

“100 percent black labor built the university,” one student screamed out at the Thursday’s protest. “Why are we only 6 percent?”

Protesters formed a ring and chanted the famous Assata Shakur quote: "It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains."

Protesters formed a ring and chanted the famous Assata Shakur quote: “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”

CREDIT: Alice Ollstein

Many students said racism comes in the form of microaggression, “wherein everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults…communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages.” For Diaw, that means not being comfortable participating in her classes, because she feels like an outsider. “Most courses are taught by white men, which fosters an environment where other white males feel like they can dominate the space. Females and black students are usually quiet, and I feel like it’s because they don’t feel like it’s their space to speak out in.”

Some have been working to create a space for all voices. Professor Claudrena Harold, who has taught African American history at the university for 11 years, told ThinkProgress that she began a course on race relations at UVA more than a year before protests erupted around Martese Johnson’s arrest. The class, which covers everything from the history of Black Greek life to the lived experiences of students today, gathered in a lecture hall Thursday morning to try to work through the tense emotions of the week.

“I don’t want to sit around a fire and hold hands and sing songs. I want to do something,” one student said.

Some suggested a boycott of local businesses that have discriminatory practices, while some called for more intentional interracial dialogue. Others seemed more resigned.

“The cycle is: police mess up a black student, people march, but what does it really do? What does it change?” asked 4th year LJ Robinson. “It’s going to happen again, we all know it.”


CREDIT: Alice Ollstein

Harold told ThinkProgress that in the weeks ahead, as students transition from street protests to strategies for change, there will be disagreement over how to build an inclusive community. Because there’s no monolithic experience of black students on campus, she expressed concern that those deeply affected by this episode will want to “walk away en masse.”

“There are folks who feel, ‘This is my university and I’m going to fight for it’ and others who feel, ‘This is your university and I’ve had enough.’ “

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