I realized just a few days ago that I am writing this blog, melsmouth.com, not just for me, but for my son Thomas as well. He died June 1 in a skateboarding accident at the age of 29. He was a thinker and a writer who had not yet found a niche and an audience, and who didn’t share much of his writing with his family. He made an exception about two months before his death because he was moved by the bloody arrest of University of Virginia honor student Martese Johnson outside a bar where Thomas worked. That arrest brought the Black Lives Matter movement to Thomas’s beloved Charlottesville, Virginia, and gave him the confidence to write the article that follows, which I now publish for him.
Despite often being fairly animated at the family events where most of y’all see me, my parents would probably say that getting me to share my thoughts and feelings about certain issues can be like pulling teeth. I think this is partly related to how I perceive the world: I often see it as a narrative in which I don’t play a particular part, an external play that rarely intrudes on my day-to-day life.
Aside from a period living with my parents, I’ve been living in Charlottesville since the summer of 2004. It seems like Charlottesville has had several tragedies involving violence against women or people of color in that time. There was the murder of Yeardley Love by her boyfriend George Huguely, the so-called “Lacrosse Murder” as both were members of the varsity lacrosse teams at UVa. Both George and Yeardley were acquaintances that I would see occasionally at bars and parties. There was the disappearance of Morgan Harrington, a Virginia Tech student in town for a Metallica concert who was found murdered four months after her disappearance on a farm in rural Albemarle County. There was a serial rapist who was active for over 10 years before finally being caught in 2007. There has been and still is a stark segregation between the affluent white residents of the city and the working class black residents (many of them employed by the University) who live at or below the poverty line.
I lived in a state of denial as all of this happened. In my mind, I didn’t allow the darkness of these things to darken my palette as I painted this city as an idyllic home. But the events of the past six months, especially the one that I’ll discuss in detail below, have caused me to wake up and stop externalizing the bad that surrounds me.
Charlottesville has made the national news twice recently: the disappearance/murder of Hannah Graham and the gang rape allegations chronicled in Rolling Stone. Hannah Graham’s murder was linked to Morgan Harrington’s and the police now believe that they’ve identified and have captured their murderer. The Rolling Stone allegations have been largely discredited because of significant factual inconsistencies in the accuser’s story (and lazy fact checking by the reporter that borders on criminal negligence) but they are a reflection of the sexual culture that exists at the university. I’ve heard anecdotes of rapes that could not be prosecuted because of the alcohol haze that obscures the truth of the school’s social scene. I’ve known girls that have been victims of domestic violence but have been unable to speak out, often because the perpetrator is a prominent University athlete.
The present situation with Martese Johnson, however, has affected me in a significant way that I have trouble putting into words. Here’s a quick synopsis, filling in some holes that have not been reported by the national media:
In the late evening on St. Patrick’s Day, there was an incident in front of Trinity Irish Pub, the bar where I work. Martese Johnson, a 20-year-old UVa student who is also the only black member of the prestigious UVA honor committee, was turned away from the door by the bouncers because the ID he tried to use didn’t look very much like him. After watching him being turned away, Alcohol Beverage Control agents patrolling the block asked to speak with him. Martese then did something that most people my age do completely unconsciously: he reached into the front pocket of his pants to take out his phone. He was immediately tackled to the ground by the two ABC agents, an action that opened up a large gash on his forehead that later required 10 stitches to close. Martese’s second seemingly normal action also had a bad outcome. He attempted to wobbily return to his feet, something that the ABC agents interpreted as resisting arrest. The two ABC agents placed their knees between his shoulder blades and cuffed him. With a large amount of blood streaming down his face and two grown men sitting on his back, he loudly yelled, “Why is this happening? You’re fucking racists!” The “fucking racists” exclamation earned him a public swearing/intoxication charge.
All the media have reported is that he was involved with an “altercation” with the ABC agents that caused the tackle, primarily because the “altercation” leading up to the assault was not caught on video. I know the sequence of events because I work at the bar and the bouncer who turned him away told us (his fellow employees). The same bouncer, a white kid named Brendan O’Toole, also told the Charlottesville Daily Progress that the ABC agents were the sole instigators of the situation.
Ironically, the same reason that Martese was tackled is also the same reason that this incident of police brutality against a person of color was not ignored and forgotten. Passersby with cell phone cameras documented the scene once Martese was on the ground. Yesterday afternoon, an especially arresting image of him prone on the ground with blood streaming down his face while an ABC agent pins him to the ground went viral on Instagram. Around 4:30PM, a cell phone video of the ABC agents and Charlottesville PD telling him to “stop resisting” when his only physical action was yelling that the cops were racist also surfaced. The image and video quickly spread via Twitter, which caused them to be picked up by non-traditional media outlets like Gawker, which caused them to be picked up the local television news stations and CNN.
Officially, he’s charged with misdemeanor obstruction of justice without force and public swearing/intoxication. I suspect the reason that the former charge notes “without force” is because the Commonwealth Attorney “leniently” decided that Martese didn’t deserve a felony.
Students and community members quickly organized a forum for discussion/protest via Facebook and Twitter that evening (yesterday) in response. Because the photo catalyzed many feelings that I had been bottling since the Mike Brown and Eric Garner incidents, I planned to attend. I borrowed a friends DSLR camera because I’ve found in the past that carrying an expensive looking camera around your neck often allows you to walk places that you’d normally not be allowed to go and talk to people who would otherwise ignore you. I realized later that it also works as partial invisibility cloak as far as police are concerned.
The gathering was originally planned for Clark Hall, the first home of UVA’s law school and now home to the Environmental Studies department and one of the libraries. I think this location was chosen because its central location within grounds and the organizers only expected less than 100 people to attend. Half an hour before the broadcasted start time, there were already too many people for one of Clark’s lecture halls to accommodate. I caught a stream of people who were heading towards the Newcomb Hall ballroom, another large room in central grounds that can hold about 800 people.
I arrived when the room was about a quarter full and was able to position myself about 10 feet from the stage by pretending to be a student newspaper photographer. The room was quickly filling with people and I’d estimate the crowd as about 80% black (n.b. UVa.’s student body is less than 10% black). As I took shots of the crowd, I saw friends hugging and saying hello to each other under a general vibe of sad calm. And Martese walked in and started working around the room.
I think it began as him saying hello to some close friends but then transitioned into a receiving line in reverse as adjacent people tried to say hello and shake his hand. He was very distinct in the crowd with his high flattop and black eye. As he came around to me, I resisted the urge to stick the camera in his face and simply shook his hand. Our eyes met, but they didn’t really. His were recessed into shock as he was starting the grasp what was going on around him.
People were still streaming into the room when Pat Lampkin, the Vice President for Student Affairs, took the stage and started addressing the crowd. I think the administration probably realized that there was no way that they could hold the meeting here safely either and had decided to move the gathering to the Amphitheater. The one moment in the entire night when the entire crowd laughed was when she started saying, “If we could all march in an orderly fashion,…” but stalled on the word “march.”
I was able to slip out a side door and was one of the first people to reach the Amphitheater. While walking there, I was struck by the number of students walking from class or two the library that regarded this majority black group of several hundred people as a curiosity. In my head, I was thinking, “What the fuck are y’all doing? This shit is more important than your homework right now!” We probably picked up a few newcomers along the way but most continued plodding to their destinations. Once the Amphitheater was about 90% full, a group of students from the Black Student Alliance moved to the open space in the center of the Amphitheater and started addressing the crowd with bullhorns.
About 20 feet away from the BSA students, a local news crew was interviewing Teresa Sullivan, the president of UVA. (It was painfully obvious that this interview was taking place because the camera’s light was the brightest thing in the area, effectively washing out the students speaking.) A girl began reading a James Baldwin poem to the crowd when several people started shouting. “Stop the fucking interview! Put your cameras on what we’re here for!” The University PR person standing next to Sullivan had the tact to immediately cut off the interview. Loud applause from the crowd. The university was finally able to get some PA equipment to the Amphitheater at that time, so now we could also hear the speakers well.
The first speakers finished their introduction and then invited anyone who wanted to speak to come up to the stage and address the crowd. What happened next was glaring in its disorganization but also stirring. At least 30 people chose to share over the next 90 minutes. One particularly memorable person was a girl almost blue-black who went 4th or 5th and broke down in tears relating how she’s tired of feeling like a zoo exhibit because white people always comment on how “pretty” her skin was. Another guy brought up an interesting point about the university’s communication with its students. Since the Virginia Tech massacre, most schools are very quick to notify the entire student body by email whenever a “serious” issue occurs–a reported rape, a suicide, etc. The university had not sent out an email about this occurrence. He asked [my paraphrasing], “Why the fuck do we get an email every time a white person stubs their toe but there’s nothing but silence on this?”
Most people touched on two things: police brutality/militarization of police and racial bias. The former is something that been prominent in my mind since watching the images of MRAPs firing teargas into the crowds in Ferguson and the video of Eric Garner getting choked to death. The Vice Magazine episode on HBO last Sunday actually dealt with that very issue. Homeland Security is funneling surplus defense equipment into municipal police departments at an exponential rate since 9/11 and as the cops get military equipment, they start thinking and acting like they’re soldiers.
The latter issue, I can speak to personally. I was arrested when I was 19 for presenting a fake ID at a bar in D.C. The only time that I was touched by the cop was when he put handcuffs on me after very politely asking me to turn around and put my hands behind my back.
Even though there was a wide range of rhetorical ability on display, there was really only one negative moment. A south Asian MBA student began his oration by identifying himself both by full name and his year/Darden affiliation (most didn’t even give their first names but simply started sharing). He then started saying that people should stop using the slogan “Black Lives Matter!” because “all lives matter. Yellow lives! Red lives! White lives!” He was very quickly shouted down. Two speakers later, he grabbed the microphone again to apologize for offending people and once again identified himself by full name and year/school before retiring. What I guess were his political ambitions imploded on the launch pad.
The crowd slowly started drifting away after the first half hour. What was originally between 3,500 and 4,000 people dwindled down to about 75 by the time I left, although there were still a few people in line waiting to share. I started walking towards the Corner (the university’s commercial district where all of the restaurants/bars and shops cater primarily to students and tourists). I was just passing the Rotunda when I started hearing “Hands Up–Don’t Shoot!” and I sprinted the rest of the way.
About 40 or 50 protesters were standing in the middle of University Avenue at the top of the corner right next to the University Baptist Church and Bank of America. Because of the street layout on the northeastern boundary of the university, this is actually a fairly vital choke point for hospital traffic and traffic going between the university and downtown. There were 4 or 5 cops on each side of the crowd, mostly just watching the protesters and waving off any traffic that tried to come through. I joined the crowd and started yelling myself: we mostly alternated between “Hands Up–Don’t Shoot!” and “If we don’t get it–shut it down!” The leaders of the call and response were two black girls with afros, neither of which was taller than 5’4″.
Five minutes after I arrived, a university employee shuttle bus made its way up the street and the cops decided that they should try to part the crowd, even though it didn’t have any passengers. All of the cops started gathering on the bus’s side of the crowd and began asking people to move out of the way. Some of the people listened, but most stayed right where they were. It was interesting watching how the cops were mentally approaching the situation. The one black cop out of the bunch was politely asking people to step to the side without really caring whether they did so, while there was a white cop with a shaved head that scared me. You could almost see the aggression radiating off of him; he seemed to be pleading that someone bump into him so that he could beat the shit out of them
The bus had travelled about five feet into the crowd when the cops saw that it was hopeless; we weren’t budging. That was when Baldy and a very large female cop started pushing people out of the way. Everyone immediately took their cellphones out and started videotaping the shoving. Realizing that he didn’t want to be caught on video pushing 90-pound black girls, he backed off somewhat. Almost simultaneously however, there was a commotion on the other side of the crowd. Some of the cops had slid over to that side after the first pushing had stopped and had thrown a female protester to the ground while a cordon of two or three cops formed a circle around them. The crowd surged at the group with their phones out to record, but luckily no real violence occurred. The cops were very lightly pushing back against the protesters, who were really more interested in documenting the arrest than actually trying to fight. After 15 or 20 seconds, the arresting cop lifted a dirtied white girl off the ground and pulled her down the street. Everyone then backed down to chants of “Let Her Go!”
By this time, the police had created a detour around the protesters by rerouting traffic a block away on either side of us, rendering the human barrier useless (at least as far as disruption was concerned). Several people realized this and the group made a collective decision to start walking down the Corner towards downtown as many of the original tweets about the protest had spoken of marching from the Rotunda to the Charlottesville PD station. I peeled off after a few blocks to join my friends at a bar to talk about everything that happened.
The one common question that we all had: how the fuck could people in this country claim that the “racial issue” had been solved? For example, think about the two of the more recent spree killers in this country, Jared Loughner and James Holmes. Both of those assholes were apprehended uninjured, even though they were both in possession of weapons when they were bought down. We all agreed that had they been black, it would’ve required a coroner to count the number of bullet holes in their corpses.
So where does this bring me? I’m still processing much of what has occurred over the last 36 hours. One thing that I know for sure is that my personal veil shrouding the ugliness in Charlottesville has been pulled away. I still love this town, but I can’t ignore the lesions any more. I hope that this dialogue continues and I hope that I can help realize the change that needs to occur so that our society does not spiral apart. I hope that one day I don’t feel the embarrassment that I feel now for my privilege as a white male.
As for Martese, I don’t think that he ever wanted to be a symbol. This will probably set the course for the rest of his life. He’ll never be able to erase the image that kicked all of this off. And his blood? It was still splashed on the brick in front of my bar when I walked home last night.
Copyright 2015 © the Estate of Thomas Harkrader Pine