CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — University of Virginia students demanded answers about an arrest that left a classmate injured, and some were not satisfied with what they heard Friday during a forum with law enforcement officers.
Representatives of a black student organization repeatedly chanted in unison, “Answer the question we asked,” after officials gave broad answers to questions about Alcoholic Beverage Control officers’ training and tactics. Dozens of black students marched out of a university auditorium in the middle of the forum with fists raised, shouting “black lives matter.” The saying has become widely known following the killings of unarmed black men by police officers in Missouri and New York.
About 500 students and community members attended the forum, arranged by the U.Va. Student Council after 20-year-old Martese Johnson of Chicago was arrested by ABC law enforcement officers outside a Charlottesville bar early Wednesday. Johnson, who is black, needed 10 stiches close a gash on his head after Wednesday’s scuffle with officers. He attended the forum but did not speak.
Photos and video of the arrest have circulated widely on social media, showing Johnson with his face bloody as he’s pinned to the ground by an officer. In the video, Johnson can be heard repeatedly calling the officers “(expletive) racists.” Johnson is charged with obstruction of justice without force and public intoxication or swearing; police said he became “belligerent” when officers confronted him as he tried to enter a bar.
Officials on the panel stressed that they could not answer questions about Johnson’s arrest, citing two Virginia State Police investigations — one administrative, one criminal — ordered by Gov. Terry McAuliffe and the Charlottesville prosecutor.
“They’re definitely being evasive,” said first-year student Taji Harris of Baltimore. “They’re using the investigation as a scapegoat to save their own colleagues, which isn’t the point now.”
Student leaders who organized the forum, however, said it was worthwhile. Student Council President-elect Abraham Axler of New York City called it a “first step” in what he expects to be an ongoing dialogue.
“We don’t think we can solve this in an hour and a half,” Axler said.
Among the questions asked by students during the forum: Why have police, especially those working for the ABC, not been adequately trained to de-escalate interactions with black people? Are the ABC officers who were placed on administrative duty after the arrest “being paid after brutalizing?” How does a regulatory agency justify this excessive use of force?
Ryant Washington, ABC special adviser for enforcement, provided one of the afternoon’s more direct answers when he confirmed that the three agents involved in the arrest are still being paid.
Charlottesville Police Chief Timothy Longo, whose officers arrived at the scene of Johnson’s arrest after ABC agents already had him in custody, said officers are properly trained to de-escalate situations and do the best they can in sometimes “chaotic” situations. “Can we do better? Absolutely,” he said.
Longo and other officials on the panel, including state Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran, said they are taking the matter seriously and will respond appropriately to the investigations’ findings.
A state police investigation of another ABC arrest was never released, although the alcohol agency did produce its own summary of the findings. In that 2013 episode, student Elizabeth Daly’s car was swarmed by plainclothes ABC agents — including one who pulled a gun — as she left a grocery store with a carton of sparkling water the officers mistook for beer. She faced charges for grazing officers with her car as she fled in panic, but the case was dropped after a public outcry. She later settled a lawsuit against the state for $212,500.
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