As Martese Johnson prepares to head back into court this week to face criminal charges of public intoxication and obstruction of justice, a group of Black University of Virginia (UVA) alumni continue to push prosecutors to drop the charges against the 20-year-old student.
The video of a bloodied Johnson being roughed up and handcuffed by Alcohol Beverage Control officers outside of a Charlottesville bar in March angered alums like Pat Collier IV, who is a member of Johnson’s fraternity, Kappa Alpha Psi, and who first met the young man during his sophomore year at UVA.
“I really took a liking to him,” said Collier, who is now the director of government affairs at the Center for American Progress, a progressive public policy research and advocacy organization. “He’s a really nice, sharp young man. So, when I saw the video, I had a visceral reaction. I knew immediately that I had to do something, we had to do something, because what occurred was unacceptable.”
Although university officials later acknowledged that Johnson was not intoxicated and Gov. Terry McAuliffe moved quickly to order an independent investigation into Johnson’s arrest, local prosecutors have, so far, refused to drop the charges.
“My prayer is that the charges will be dismissed,” said Dr. Khalilah L. Brown-Dean, who graduated from UVA with a bachelor’s degree in 1998 and is now an associate professor of political science at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut. “He’s not guilty of anything he’s been accused of and we said that from the beginning.”
Brown-Dean, Collier and Jevona Braxton — who were all undergraduates at UVA in the late 1990s — have been the public face of an ongoing campaign to help spread awareness about Johnson’s arrest. In the process, they have also raised about $16,000 for his medical and legal expenses.
They have used the tragic incident to help train a spotlight on the University of Virginia and the surrounding Charlottesville community.
“When you don’t have a critical mass of diverse students and diverse population, that breeds intolerance,” said Collier, who added that the number of Black undergraduates at UVA is less than when he was a student there 15 years ago. “Out of our concern for Martese, there grew a larger concern about students of color at UVA.”
How these Black alumni have responded to this particular incident could serve as a blueprint for how minority alumni of other colleges and universities might address future racial incidents on a university campus or in the surrounding community.
“It was a very organic process,” said Brown-Dean, who was active with Collier and Braxton in the Black Student Alliance during their time at UVA and have since remained friends. “There was an immediate synergy that we have to do something.”
They used the biannual Black Alumni Weekend — which allows Black alumni the opportunity to mingle with current students — as a forum to address lingering issues of inequity on campus and throughout the local Charlottesville community. Hundreds of members of the newly formed UVA Alumni for Change marched around the campus rotunda to the home of UVA President Teresa Sullivan.
“It was really important to get everyone on the same page in a united front,” said Braxton. “The case of Martese brought up some historic issues around race relations at the university.”
Although Sullivan has expressed concerns over the arrest of Johnson, Black alumni have said that the university still has a long way to go to address climate and inclusion issues on campus, including minority representation in admissions and among the faculty.
“It really makes me feel good to see the level of engagement,” said Collier. “I’m encouraged to see that there has been interest among alumni of color.”
Jamal Eric Watson can be reached at [email protected]. You can follow him on Twitter @jamalericwatson.