The brick pavement outside of Trinity Irish Pub in Charlottesville, Virginia, lay stained with a sinister crimson fluid in the early hours of March 18. The sickly splatter was to say nothing, however, of the face lying beside it, rendered nearly unrecognizable by a slick coating of blood.
That face belonged to 20-year-old Martese Johnson, a third-year student at the University of Virginia. Johnson had allegedly tried to gain entry to Trinity using a false form of identification. According to a statement issued by the pub on March 21, Johnson provided the wrong zip code listed on his ID when questioned by pub owner Kevin Badke, who subsequently denied him entry to the establishment.
What happened next would result in an arrest, 10 stitches and a media maelstrom.
Video footage shows Johnson — a member of the university’s prestigious Honor Committee and Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity — being slammed to the ground and bloodied during an arrest by alcohol beverage control agents, ABC News reported. He was then charged with resisting arrest, obstructing justice without threats of force and profane swearing or intoxication in public, according to The Cavalier Daily, the University of Virginia’s student newspaper.
The charges paint Johnson as the stereotypical noncompliant criminal. Indeed, there have been many reports that either the management of Trinity was belligerent toward Johnson or vice versa.
“(But) those allegations are patently untrue, as the brief conversation that occurred (between Johnson and Badke) was polite and cordial,” the pub’s statement reads. “Mr. Badke’s observation was that Mr. Johnson was (just) a disappointed patron.”
So why, then, was a student using a fake ID and attempting to drink alcohol as a minor – in short, committing two infractions that are hardly foreign to college students of any demographic, Terrance Ross writes in The Atlantic – slammed by the agents into the pavement and ultimately held on $1,500 bail?
“Like many encounters between young men of color and the police, there is no explicit evidence that this situation was racially motivated,” Ross writes. “But rarely is there explicit evidence. Racism is often subconscious, only emerging when certain triggers are activated.”
Indeed, the altercation was only the latest in a string of reported and widely publicized instances of police brutality against minority individuals. It draws attention to the racial discrimination that still stirs in many aspects of our society, as well as to the corruption that is so commonly linked with authority.
Consider Philip Zimbardo’s famed 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, which aimed to “investigate the impact of situational variables on human behavior,” psychology expert Kendra Cherry writes. Zimbardo and his research team first assembled a mock prison in the psychology building of Stanford University. They then chose 24 undergraduate volunteers with no criminal background, mental health troubles or major medical conditions to act as either guards or prisoners for two weeks, according to Cherry. The experiment was put to rest after a mere six days, however, due to the guards’ increasingly abusive tendencies and the prisoners’ developing “signs of extreme stress and anxiety.” Authoritative tactics employed by the guards included verbal debasement; forcing prisoners to clean out toilet bowls with their bare hands; and making them march with bags over their heads, legs chained together and hands on each other’s shoulders, according to the experiment’s official site.
As Christopher Shea writes in Smithsonian Magazine, power doesn’t fundamentally corrupt; instead, it heightens preexisting ethical tendencies. Leadership often prompts us to assume traits or views that we believe we need to be taken seriously. But the line between firmness and aggression is all too regularly crossed, leading to violence and even death.
This is not to suggest that “J. Miller,” the alcohol beverage control officer who inflicted Johnson’s wounds, is a thoroughly evil individual. But his actions were excessively misguided and likely fueled by a set of preexisting social and ethical standards.
Use of authority as a means of projecting biases, whether subconscious or not, is reprehensible. It is unfortunate, then, that such projections have developed a nationally noted trend, particularly among law enforcement officials. We naturally hold our leaders to high standards, and they must be held accountable for their commanding actions.
Martese Johnson’s case serves, in part, as a call for not just law enforcement officials, but for leaders of all capacities, to be cognizant of the biases and implicit power that may impact their behavior. Ignorance on the matter can barely result in more than blood stains on our sidewalks and on the pages of our history.