Martese Johnson and Institutional Racism in The United States

On Wednesday March 18, 2015, a black University of Virginia (UVA) student, Martese Johnson, was brutally beaten and arrested by state- run Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) agents (Cathcart). The events transpired outside of Trinity Irish Pub, a local bar near UVA campus, after Johnson, 20, was denied entry (Cathcart). The owner of the pub, Kevin Badke noted in a recent press release that he had spoken with Mr. Johnson prior to the incident, stating that the young man “did not appear to be intoxicated in the least”, and was “cordial and respectful” during their conversation (Cathcart). At this time, Martese Johnson has been charged with public intoxication and obstruction of justice without force, but due to wide-scale public outcry, the governor of Virginia has called for an investigation into the actions of the ABC agents (Cathcart). Due to the particulars of this case, the beating of Martese Johnson has become international news, with many maintaining that Mr. Johnson is victim of police brutality. Unfortunately, stories of racialized police abuse against black bodies are nothing new in America, as there have been many highly publicized events of that nature in recent history, and countless others which have received minimal, if any, media attention. Using the highly public case of Rodney King, (which shares similarities to Martese Johnson’s case) as a lens, this blog will argue that black bodies are targets of state violence and neglect in America due to deeply entrenched systems of white supremacy and racism. BlackLivesMatter, a new American black activist movement, may phrase it best, as they include in their mission statement that black lives in America are “systematically and intentionally targeted for demise”, while being “deprived of basic human rights and dignity”(BlackLivesMatter).

Perhaps the most infamous incident of racialized police brutality in America took place on a Los Angeles highway on March 3, 1991, in which several white police officers beat and tased Rodney King, a young black man, nearly to death. King was the driver in a high-speed chase resulting from a police pursuit for an alleged speeding violation (Hate-Motivated Violence: The Rodney King Case). King had not acted violently towards the LAPD officers after he eventually stopped his car, and made no attempts to resist arrest, as is evident in a video shot by bystander George Holiday (Hate-Motivated Violence: The Rodney King Case). King was fiercely struck with a police baton 56 times, while being repeatedly kicked. Though King was clearly unresponsive, unarmed, and posing no threat to the safety of himself or others, twenty-three other officers who were at the site watching the beating made no attempt to end the brutality (Hate-Motivated Violence: The Rodney King Case). The three officers were criminally charged and placed under investigation after the video of King being beaten surfaced, but on April 29, 1992, all three were found not guilty of any offense (Hate-Motivated Violence: The Rodney King Case). The blatant negligence of the jury in this case rightfully incensed many Americans, primarily those in black communities. Shortly after the jury had rendered their decision, riots broke out all over LA, resulting in widespread destruction and death – being responsible for 50 deaths and one billion dollars in damage (Hate-Motivated Violence: The Rodney King Case). The rioters, and countless others disturbed by the jury’s verdict saw that American power structures, such as the justice system, still protected the racist ideals of white domination that had been present in the founding of the United States.

Did the highly public King case, which gripped an entire nation by exposing America’s civil rights shortcomings, improve the way black lives are treated by the state? Did it prove to be the watershed moment for sparking complete equality that it was often hailed to be? The answer, it seems, it a regrettable, but resounding no. In fact, recent numbers surrounding this type of institutional racism are shocking. According to USA Today’s analysis of FBI data collected over the past 7 years, roughly 1 in 4 of citizens killed by the police had resulted from white-on-black shootings (Hannan). The fact that only about 12% of America’s population is black, and America’s police force is not made up entirely by white bodies, makes this statistic even more staggering (United States Demographic Statistics). In fact, a black civilian was killed by a white police officer twice a week over the past seven years, and killed every 28 hours by police or vigilante law enforcement (BlackLivesMatter). Although these FBI statistics, as numbers often do, fail to properly highlight the devastating human tragedy and loss associated with this issue, they shed an intense light on the horrific marginalization and subjugation of black bodies all across America. One only needs to go as far as turning on the news, and to hear the recent stories of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, and Eric Garner, to understand the heart wrenching pain of these situations; a pain intensified by the glaring negligence of the American legal system to pardon all of the killers of these murdered men.

Black communities in America know they are unfairly and disproportionately made victims of the state, and are the least trusting of the police out of any other ethnic group in the country: with only 38 percent of black people expressing any sort of confidence to the police (McKay). The number displays a large disparity when compared to other groups, as 55 percent of Hispanics express a level of confidence in the police, as do 68 percent of whites (Jeffery). This lack of trust for law enforcement and judicial institutions is understandable, since black bodies are disproportionately the victim of police brutality, and lethal force. A second reason why black people posses these high levels of mistrust, is that, according to to recent data, 98.9% of excessive force violations filed against police are ultimately ruled as justified, and dismissed by the courts (McKay).

Although it is impossible to change the course of Martese Johnson‘s horrific night in March, there is something that must be done. Racist ideals stemming from the era of colonialism must be proven to be extinguished. The violent ABC agents must be held fully accountable for their actions, which hopefully would send a worldwide message that black bodies in America are equal to all others, and will no longer be targets of state violence. Because, after all, #Blacklivesmatter.

Works Cited

BlackLivesMatter. “Every 28 hours a black man, woman, or child is murdered by police or vigilante law enforcement.” Black Lives Matter. Web. 26 Mar. 2015.

Cathcart, Corinne. “Bar Co-owner Says Martese Johnson Was ‘Cordial’ the Night of His Arrest.” ABC News. Web. 26 Mar. 2015. <;.

Hannan, Mark. “Police Killings Data.” USA Today. Web. 26 Mar. 2015. <;.

“Hate-Motivated Violence: The Rodney King Case.” Hate-Motivated Violence: The Rodney King Case. Web. 26 Mar. 2015. <;.

Jones, Jeffery. “U.S. Minorities Less Confident in Police.” Web. 26 Mar. 2015. <;.

McKay, Tom. “One Troubling Statistic Shows Just How Racist America’s Police Brutality Problem Is.” Mic. 18 Aug. 2014. Web. 26 Mar. 2015.

“United States Demographic Statistics.” Infoplease. Web. 26 Mar. 2015. <;.


3 thoughts on “Martese Johnson and Institutional Racism in The United States

  1. Excellent blog!
    How do you think stories of racialized police abuse shape the ways that black bodies act in society? We watched an excellent slam poetry youtube video in class by Javon Johnson where he discusses common worries about everyday events that he has to worry about and teach his sons about just because he’s black. I think this plays a big role in what you discuss in your blog! Do you think violence against black bodies also persists beyond policing, like perhaps in different institutions like the prison institution? I’d like to know what you think!
    Good job!


  2. Hi bagler902,

    You did some very interesting research for this post. Although I was aware of institutional racism in America, it was most shocking to hear that a black civilian has been killed by white law enforcement twice a week over the past seven years. Also, that “99.8% of excessive force violations filed against police are ultimately ruled as justified”. I would really like to show these statistics to the people who claim that “racism is over”. Do you think that we could consider white police brutality against black bodies to be a kind of modern-day lynching?

    Although the summaries you provided about Johnson’s and King’s killings were clear, and the statistics eye opening, I would have appreciated a little more analysis from you. Particularly, how the BBC News article handled the topic of police brutality. You efficiently addressed the racism within the legal system, but not within the news. You stated that “one only needs to go as far as turning on the news, and to hear the recent stories of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, and Eric Garner, to understand the heart wrenching pain of these situations” – however, I personally find this to be a bit untrue. It is not uncommon for news outlets to show a fair amount of bias in favour of white supremacy. Do you think that any of the language in the assigned article might subtly take the side of the officers who assaulted Johnson? Moreover, wouldn’t you agree that Mike Brown’s case was extremely absent from the news? (granted, much of that was the fault of the Ferguson police)

    Overall, I really appreciated your post. Good work!


  3. Bagler902,

    I think you did a really great job outlining the problems with institutionalized racism, but I do wish I had a little more analysis from you. What do you think should be done to get rid of institutionalized racism? Should it start at the top, with changes in the law, or at the bottom, with each cop personally learning and moving past the ideals they’ve grown up with?

    Like snowflake123, I also question media involvement in these cases. Part of the controversy around cases like Trayvon Martin’s is that media portrayal of the incident was biased and limited, until it became a viral topic. Do you think that the reason these topics come to light is because of actual news outlets telling us about them, or because people go to social media and cause an uproar, which the news outlets then go off of?

    I also want to compliment your writing style; this blog was a pleasure to read!


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