Black student's arrest puts focus on Virginia alcohol agency's use of force

Black student's arrest puts focus on Virginia alcohol agency's use of force
In this photo taken by a bystander, University of Virginia student Martese Johnson, 20, is held down during a confrontation with state Alcoholic Beverage Control officers near the campus in Charlottesville on March 18. (Bryan Beaubrun)

Virginia lawmakers are questioning the law enforcement powers of the state's alcohol control agency in the wake of the rough arrest of black student leader Martese Johnson, whose face was bloodied when he was tackled by officers outside a bar near the University of Virginia.

Johnson's arrest was documented in photographs and video and spread on social media, prompting students' protests over what they see as the latest example of excessive police force exerted on an unarmed black man. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, has ordered an investigation, and state police said an "administrative review" was underway along with a criminal investigation requested by the Charlottesville prosecutor.


Democratic state Sen. Creigh Deeds said the situation highlighted the need to bring state Department of Alcohol Beverage Control agents under the control of the State Police. He unsuccessfully pushed such legislation in the past. But after Johnson's arrest, he said he would consider renewing the measure.

In 2013, University of Virginia student Elizabeth Daly was surrounded by ABC officers while carrying a case of water out of a Charlottesville grocery store, Deeds said. Daly panicked and attempted to flee in her vehicle, and was arrested for assault. She successfully sued the state for damages, and the charges were dropped. Deeds said aggressive enforcement from ABC agents has also led to problems at a large Arlington music festival.

"Obviously there is a problem, and it has to be addressed," Deeds said of the ABC officers, who are allowed to carry firearms. He believes their training is inadequate.

The officers involved in the Johnson arrest have been restricted to administrative duties.

Johnson's bloodied face and arrest have become another high-profile chapter in the ongoing national conversation on race and police tactics in America.

Witnesses say Johnson, 20, who graduated from Kenwood Academy High School in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood, was unnecessarily tackled by law enforcement officers early Wednesday. The arresting officer said Johnson "was very agitated and belligerent," according to the arrest report. A uniformed Alcohol Beverage Control agent arrested Johnson after he was refused entry into an establishment, according to a statement by Virginia's alcohol control agency.

In a statement, Johnson said: "As the officers held me down, one thought raced through my mind: How could this happen? I trust the scars will one day heal, but the trauma of what the officers did will stay with me forever."

Johnson's attorney said the third-year student needed 10 stitches. Johnson, who has no previous criminal record, was charged on two counts: obstruction of justice without force, and public swearing or intoxication, court records show.

The arrest has shaken those who know him from his days at Kenwood Academy, where he was a highly regarded student who held several leadership roles. "I never thought I'd be standing here talking about Martese being a victim of police brutality," said former Kenwood Academy student Stevie Powell, 22. A fundraising Web page started by Johnson's Chicago classmates described him as a member of the university's Honor Committee and Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity.

Former Kenwood Academy Principal Elizabeth Kirby said that Johnson is a "great, wonderful, brilliant leader ... the epitome of the kind of student you want to graduate from your school."

University of Virginia student Bryan Beaubrun, who was among those who said he was with Johnson and photographed the arrest, said an ABC officer grabbed Johnson by the arm and pulled him away from the Trinity Irish Pub to speak with a group of police officers. He said Johnson hit his head on the ground when he was tackled.

"He didn't need to be tackled. He wasn't being aggressive at all," Beaubrun said.


Queally reported from Los Angeles, Rodriguez from Chicago. Tony Briscoe, Patrick M. O'Connell and Denise Williams-Harris
of the Chicago Tribune also contributed to this report.

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