In the early hours of this morning, University of Virginia junior Martese Johnson was turned away from a college bar due to a suspected fake ID. According to a witness, a police officer grabbed Johnson, a black student, by the arm while he was talking with the bar’s bouncer. “Out of nowhere,” the witness says, the officer and another wrestled Johnson to the ground. By the time he was hauled away, Johnson was clearly injured, his face and the sidewalk spattered with blood.
This afternoon an anonymous letter from “Concerned Black Students” at UVA began to circulate. The letter described the officers’ treatment of Johnson as “animalistic, insensitive, and brute,” saying
His treatment was unprovoked as he did not resist questioning or arrest. In confusion, with blood painting his face and creating a pool on the bricks of the corner, he yelled out for mercy. Though he lay bleeding and crying out, officers continued to hold him to the pavement, pinning him down, twisting his arm, with knees to his back until he was handcuffed.
As word of the incident circulated on campus and the internet, pressure grew for the university to make a statement. Approximately two hours ago, just after six o’clock, UVA made two:
Two statements, two linked tweets. Let’s see what they say.
The first statement, from UVA President Teresa Sullivan, expresses “deep concern about an incident that occurred.” As Sullivan puts it, “one of our students was injured while Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) agents were attempting to take him into custody.” She is, she says, asking for “an independent investigation,” though she cautions that “we have not yet clarified all of the details surrounding this event.” Neither Johnson’s race nor the possibility that he may have been a victim of police brutality are mentioned.
The second statement is signed by two black professor-administrators at UVA — Vice President for Diversity and Equity Marcus Martin and Dean of African-American Affairs Maurice Apprey. Here’s how they begin:
“We are outraged by the brutality against a University of Virginia undergraduate student that occurred in the early hours Wednesday, March 18, 2015. This African American male student was injured on the Corner, after being stopped by Virginia Department of Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) officers. His head was slammed into the hard pavement with excessive force… We view the nature of this assault as highly unusual and appalling based on the information we have received.”
It goes on for another two paragraphs, but you get the gist.
Taken independently, each of these two statements is arguably reasonable. Released in tandem, they are truly bizarre, creating a spectacle in which UVA’s white president, styling herself the voice of moderation, reason, and detachment, outsources the institution’s expression of outrage to two black administrators.
It should not fall to UVA’s Vice President for Diversity and Equity and Dean of African-American Affairs to express anger over the police beating of a black student while their white boss preserves her “objectivity” and hedges her bets. If Sullivan, and UVA, are appalled by the violence done to Martese Johnson, let them say so. If they are not, or if they are unable to declare their views, let them say that. Because as things stand now, it looks very much like President Sullivan wants the credit for institutional bravery that Professors Martin and Apprey have provided her without the risk of attack that they are being forced to carry alone.