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.http://blacklivesmatter.com/about/.

Cathcart, Corinne. “Bar Co-owner Says Martese Johnson Was ‘Cordial’ the Night of His Arrest.” ABC News. Web. 26 Mar. 2015. <http://abcnews.go.com/US/bar-owner-martese-johnson-cordial-night-arrest/story?id=29818409&gt;.

Hannan, Mark. “Police Killings Data.” USA Today. Web. 26 Mar. 2015. <http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/08/14/police-killings-data/14060357/&gt;.

“Hate-Motivated Violence: The Rodney King Case.” Hate-Motivated Violence: The Rodney King Case. Web. 26 Mar. 2015. <http://www.nizkor.org/hweb/orgs/canadian/canada/justice/hate-motivated-violence/hmv-006-00.html&gt;.

Jones, Jeffery. “U.S. Minorities Less Confident in Police.” Gallup.com. Web. 26 Mar. 2015. < http://www.gallup.com/poll/163175/minorities-less-confident-police-small-business.aspx&gt;.

McKay, Tom. “One Troubling Statistic Shows Just How Racist America’s Police Brutality Problem Is.” Mic. 18 Aug. 2014. Web. 26 Mar. 2015.
< http://mic.com/articles/96452/one-troubling-statistic-shows-just-how-racist-america-s-police-brutality-problem-is&gt;.

“United States Demographic Statistics.” Infoplease. Web. 26 Mar. 2015. <http://www.infoplease.com/us/census/data/demographic.html&gt;.

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The Contreras Family and the Systematic Discrimination Against Queer America

In October 2014, mothers Krista and Jami Contreras took their six-day-old baby, Bay to an appointment with their Pediatrician Dr. Vesna Roi. The Michigan women stated that upon arrival at the clinic, they were greeted by a different Pediatrician, Dr. Karam, who told the couple that Dr. Roi now felt she was unable to care for Bay. Dr. Roi made it clear that after a long period of reflection, she decided that the because of her discomfort with the sexual orientation of Bay’s mothers, she would not have “been able to develop the personal patient-doctor relationships” that she normally does with her patients (“Doctor refuses treatment of same-sex couple’s baby”). Luckily, the Contreras family was able to find a new pediatric clinic which was both inclusive towards parents within the LGBTQ community, and provided a high level of care to baby Bay. The problem, however, is that Dr. Roi is completely within her rights to deny her services to the new-born child, as certain U.S. legislation protects her discrimination against this couple. This is emblematic of a larger problem within the United States; that government legislation has failed to adequately advocate for the rights of same sex couples to the point where the systematic discrimination and oppression of this minority group is protected by law.

According to the American Medical Association, a doctor cannot refuse care based on the sexual orientation of their patient. They can, however, refuse to treat a person if the Doctor claims that it is incompatible with their personal, religious or moral beliefs (“Doctor refuses treatment of same-sex couple’s baby”). This condition effectively provides a loophole within the Medical Association’s non-discriminatory policy, as homophobic doctors can easily cite religious or moral reasons for not treating a gay person, thus legally denying medical treatment for queer bodies. Thankfully there were other, less exclusionary doctors in the Michigan area to care for Bay, but it raises concerns about care for queer bodies in more remote areas, where an entire community may only have access to a single doctor. In extreme situations this could mean that a queer person, or their child could be in serious danger, risking long-term injury or even death if they are denied access to immediate medical care. At this point, it violates Articles 25 (1) in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which maintains that every person has the right to adequate medical care (“The Universal Declaration of Human Rights”). This blatant discrimination needs to be addressed in legislation, so that Doctors have no way to legally deny queer bodies their basic human rights.

Dana Nessel, an attorney currently working on Michigan’s same sex marriage case, was made aware of the Contreras family’s situation. Nessel explained that the problem of queer discrimination legislation goes much further than the American Medical Association. She noted that there are not currently any laws in place that would protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender families from discrimination in any facets of life (“Doctor refuses treatment of same-sex couple’s baby”). On top of this, she mentioned a piece of legislation currently in the senate called the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act”, which she believes would allow for blatant discrimination of minority groups if a certain religion does not condone the group’s specific way of life. Since many queer lifestyles have been condemned in Holy Texts such as the Bible and Qur’an, Nessel is confident that queer bodies will be subject to further, and completely legal discrimination (“Doctor refuses treatment of same-sex couple’s baby”). NOLO, an online American legal encyclopedia has published an article on Sexual Orientation Discrimination. In the article it states “attempts to pass federal legislation that would outlaw sexual orientation discrimination in private workplaces have been unsuccessful to date” (“Sexual Orientation Discrimination: Your Rights”). Meaning that queer bodies cannot even expect to be free from discrimination in the workplace.

Another blatant example of legislative discrimination against the queer-community in the United States is the ban on same sex marriage. Although many states have repealed this law in recent years, in 13 of the 50 states it is illegal to for same sex couples to wed (“37 States with Legal Gay Marriage and 13 States with Same-Sex Marriage Bans”). Not being able to legally wed deprives same sex couples of the many benefits that result from a marriage. Tax credits, social security, employment, medical, and death benefits are just some of the amenities awarded to legally wed couples in the United States (“Marriage Rights and Benefits”). Not only are same sex couples in 13 states deprived of those benefits, but they are also deprived of a sense of official legitimacy surrounding their union. They are not afforded the same peace of mind and societal acceptance as a straight couple, a group who undoubtedly holds a cultural hegemony when it comes to relationships.

In conclusion, power structures in the United States have categorically failed same sex citizens. Both government legislation and legislation from powerful bodies, such as the American Medical Association, have failed to adequately protect queer bodies from discrimination. It is tough to not feel feelings of compassion for newborn Bay Contreras, who will see her mothers, and other queer Americans, be the target of systemic discrimination due to neglect from legislative powers.

Works Cited

“37 States with Legal Gay Marriage and 13 States with Same-Sex Marriage Bans – Gay Marriage – ProCon.org.” 37 States with Legal Gay Marriage and 13 States with Same-Sex Marriage Bans. Procon.org. Web. 9 Mar. 2015. <http://gaymarriage.procon.org/view.resource.php?resourceID=004857&gt;.

“Doctor Refuses Treatment of Same-sex Couple’s Baby.” Fox 2 News Headlines. 18 Feb. 2015. Web. 9 Mar. 2015. <http://www.myfoxdetroit.com/story/28142401/doctor-refuses-treatment-of-same-sex-couples-baby&gt;.

“Marriage Rights and Benefits | Nolo.com.” Nolo.com. Web. 9 Mar. 2015. <http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/marriage-rights-benefits-30190.html&gt;.

“Sexual Orientation Discrimination: Your Rights | Nolo.com.” Nolo.com. Web. 9 Mar. 2015. <http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/sexual-orientation-discrimination-rights-29541.html&gt;.

“The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, UDHR, Declaration of Human Rights, Human Rights Declaration, Human Rights Charter, The Un and Human Rights.” UN News Center. United Nations. Web. 9 Mar. 2015. <http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/&gt;.

Regarding Susan Sontag and Kingston’s Reelout Festival.

        Regarding Susan Sontag is directed by Nancy Kates and is narrated by Patricia Clarkson. It is a documentary style film which provides details on the life, loves, interests, and eventual death of the infamous intellectual Susan Sontag. Sontag lived from 1933-2004, producing a wide array of literature from 1964 until her death. The film is filled with interview snippets from a large array of people who found themselves to be close with Sontag at various points throughout her life. Sontag’s sister, Judith Sontag Cohen, her son David Rieff, her close friends Noël Burch and Mark Danner, along with a plethora of Susan’s past partners (including Annie Leibovitz, Lucina Childs, Eval Kollisch, and Harriet Sohmers Zwerling) are all featured quite heavily in the film. Each offers insight into her battles with illness, personal troubles, but most of all – her constant love affairs.

The film begins by offering insight into Sontag’s early years. Patricia Clarkson narrates many of her old diary entries, and archived audio recordings of Susan’s musings on her own upbringing are interspersed. The film glosses over her teenage years until she enters the University of Chicago at age 17, where she courts, and quickly marries her sociology lecturer. Although previous to their engagement, at the age of 15, Sontag had noted thoughts concerning her Sexual Orientation in her diary by stating, “I feel I have lesbian tendencies (how reluctantly I write this)”. Further, Sontag had also expressed a desire to “outgrow” these tendencies. Although Sontag was undoubtedly bi-sexual, as she had extremely loving relationships with both men and women, her early marriage and subsequent childbirth at age 19, almost certainly reflect the pressure she felt to meet certain Sexual Scripts. The film places emphasis on the fact that the teenage Sontag wanted nothing more than to “grow up”, citing both her sister, and an archived interview of Ms. Sontag during her adult years. Sontag’s idea of growing up reflected cultural norms and expectations in the time which she lived. In the 1950s, it was viewed as impossible for a woman to “grow up” in any way but by marrying and having children. However, Sontag realized in 1959 (with the divorce of her husband, and “abandonment“ of her child) that fulfilling society’s scripts was not a way to grow up, and instead experienced much more personal growth when she chose to fully explore her sexuality and intellectual appetites.

 

          In 1964, Susan Sontag published her first work, named “Notes on Camp”, which emphasized the key elements of Camp, a “social, cultural, and aesthetic” subculture which is heavily associated with the LGBTQ community, but extends much further. The movement was popularized by figures such as Andy Warhol, and the Kuchar brothers, and heavily permeated popular culture from the 1960s through the 1980s. This piece elevated Sontag’s social standing, and resulted her gaining massive popularity. In both her professional and personal life while in the spotlight, Susan Sontag embodied the Second Wave Feminist Movement. The movement, which found its roots in 1960s America, broadened the debate from a focus on woman’s suffrage and “de jure” inequalities, to a much broader spectrum of issues, including workplace, legal, and “de facto” inequalities. In the film, Sontag’s role as a second wave feminist is cemented, as she vigorously, yet somehow graciously protests being labeled as a “female writer”. Ms. Sontag makes it obvious that gender should be far removed from, and irrelevant in, the professional realm. The audience is exposed to the notion that Sontag was a natural leader, and came to dominate intellectual spheres previously inhabited primarily by men.

Susan was also a keen political philosopher, and perhaps the most striking scene in the film is derived from that aspect of her life. About 60 minutes into the film, narrator Patricia Clarkson reads the following powerful excerpt from one of Sontag’s work, in which she tears apart the perceived good of Colonialism, by writing, “Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, Marx, and Balanchine ballet, don’t redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world”, Sontag continues, “the white race is the cancer of human history”. The scene is framed perfectly through dramatic voice-over and ominous background music to relate not only the gravity and fierce anti-colonial nature of the statement, but also to capture Sontag’s unapologetic and direct style. This quotation from Sontag came at the height of the cold war in the late 1960s, and also frames Ms. Sontag’s passionate approach to her work. As seen in the film Sontag’s passion never faded, even during her third and final battle with cancer. Susan Sontag, as she would undoubtedly want it, was not a remarkable woman, but instead, was a truly remarkable person.

My experience at the screening room was, by all accounts, delightful. I found myself welcomed into the cozy environment of the independent theatre by the warm smiles from their gracious attendants. Having gone there with my friend from class, we noticed some of our other peers in GNDS 125 and sat with them. Not all of the audience were students, it was clear, as many others in the theatre were of a noticeably more advanced age. I think we all enjoyed the film, and I particular felt that I was able to emphasize more with Ms. Sontag’s story after being familiarized with many key terms and concepts in GNDS. I hope the noise from our pens furiously scribbling on pads of paper throughout the movie did not disrupt the other moviegoers, although we did try to be as courteous as possible. All in all, I’m very pleased with my experience at Reelout, and am interested to see if their film lineup in 2016 is as compelling as it was this year.