Four years ago, University of Michigan Law student Martese Johnson, then a junior at the University of Virginia, made headlines across the nation after police officers pinned him to the ground with brute force during an arrest in Charlottesville. Images and videos of Johnson’s arrest went viral, and students on campus began demanding justice and answers.
Johnson graduated from UVA in 2016, and recently settled with the Virginia Department of Alcohol Beverage Control for $3 million after a long legal battle. He’s now in his first year at the University of Michigan Law School, and sat down with The Daily to talk about his experiences in organizing, with police brutality and plans for this campus.
The Michigan Daily: This experience with police brutality, in many ways in the media, has been made to define you. But obviously, you were an organizer, leader and so much more before that. What are the pros and cons of the platform you have now that came with the incident?
Martese Johnson: I definitely found myself jaded and angry in the last few years of undergrad. Those five minutes came to define my entire persona … but I also knew everything I had done up to that moment prepared me for what I was going through. The more important lesson that I learned …which so many men of color must come to terms with … is that my personal achievements and accolades didn’t stop me from being seen as just another Black man.
TMD: You mentioned in a reflection a few years ago that your name is now mentioned alongside those of Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Alton Sterling and all these Black women and men who have been killed by police brutality. But though you’re a hashtag, you lived. Is that a heavy thing to carry with you?
MJ: I’m a few years out of undergrad at the University of Virginia, and worked in communities in New York and Chicago in the two years in between. I navigated a few different spaces, some more diverse than others, but I learned that I — and Black men at large — will always be seen as other. These experiences are traumatic, yes, but there are also all the social standards that we have to contend with afterwards, too. Every space I navigate is one in which I’m more protective (of myself) … meticulous. I think that as Black men at these elite schools and in these spaces, we also carry this idea at times that because we are the few, we are untouchable. I learned that isn’t true.
TMD: Having been an organizer on campus before and after your case, you have a lot of experience with movement building. Where do you think students of color need to be right now, and what should we be working on?
MJ: I’ve been extremely inspired by Generation Z, and the generation after us that’s organizing against gun violence. They successfully found ways to grow sustainably.
I’m in law school now because of that. I started organizing in protests on the street in Chicago, then with the Black Student Alliance on campus, then made an effort to learn about communities and attend rallies in New York. But in reflecting back on undergrad, I know I may have opened people’s eyes, and started conversations. But what did I do in a sustainable way? Ten years ago, Black students on campuses were organizing for living wages, better living spaces, more Black faculty, for Black student populations — like at the University of Michigan — to accurately reflect state demographics, and on and on. They were organizing for the same things 20, 30 and 40 years ago, too. With this four-year turnover of students, we need to figure out how we can create systems for sustainable change.
TMD: We’ve reported here on disparate policing of Black and brown students: Ann Arbor police have used brutal force on Black students in ways that other communities don’t deal with. Having born the brunt of this violence yourself, what do you think we need to do with campus police? Is it diversity trainings, more inclusive hirings or something beyond that?
MJ: A lot of the answers we’re asking have been written in some manual … whether it’s the 21st-century guide to policing or with different organizations. Whatever ideas you want to bring up, we’re out there already talking about it. The real problem is not with ideas, but with the pacing of demands.
At UVA, there are four different law enforcement agencies: the university police, the Charlottesville police department, state police and campus monitors — all who work to “ensure the safety” of students. The interaction of all these departments and officers is usually poor, and it’s students of color who pay the price.
TMD: After all that you had been through, what was it like watching white supremacist rallies on your campus and in Charlottesville?
MJ: I had graduated the year before, and I remember sitting at dinner when I got a call from DeRay Mckesson who was like, “Are you seeing these people with torches on your campus right now?” Everyone was expecting them Saturday, but not Friday night. I think it showed me that these spaces are still breachable; to be a minority walking in this world is to have that embedded trauma. But it’s also an example of young people coming together to organize.
TMD: What’s next for you at Michigan?
MJ: I want to get connected with the community at large. To bridge the undergrad and graduate divide. The law school can be something of a bubble, and it’s important to me that I own my stake in what happens on campus, and that my peers have the same aspirations. I also want to learn about students of color, what they’re pushing for, and how I can be an ally. I feel like in a lot of ways, Michigan is similar to UVA—it’s a public school with many of the same problems and potential. I think I can bring a lot of what I learned here … I’m passionate about making this place home.