Martese Johnson is the only black member of the UVA Honor Committee. What did that do for him as he was being beaten on the corner of Charlottesville’s University Ave. on evening of March 18th?
While out at an Irish pub on St. Patrick’s Day, Johnson was accused of having a fake ID. When Johnson denied that he had a fake, what followed was a violent assault on his person by Virginia’s ABC (Alcohol Beverage Control) agents. In a video circulated on social media, Martese yells out, “I go to UVA, how could this happen?” He keeps on repeating this phrase, as if it will stanch the blood flowing from his head or instantly purge this brutal attack from his memory. But it’s a question he should already know the answer to. Clearly, Martese Johnson forgot that when you’re black you can’t just go out for an evening on the town and expect to end the night safely in your bed. Clearly, he forgot that his efforts at having a good time might make others feel uncomfortable, that his presence—Honor Committee or no—is unwanted, and that, at the end of the night, he is what the police are protecting the good citizens of America from.
When you are black in America, you have no right to dignity. All of your achievements can be taken away from you savagely, and without a moment’s notice. As a black man or woman you are living in a society that is not built for you. Remember that. You must be aware that your black skin marks you as a criminal. You live in a world where more is required of you because you are always assumed guilty until you prove your innocence. And even when you give your everything—even when you prove that you can also be a valuable part of society—it’s still never enough. They want your blood and your body too.
We go out and we protest. We shout, “whose streets, our streets,” and we quote our “#blacklivesmatter” and our “#staywoke,” and I think that secretly, at the core, many of us can’t help but think that it’s all a game. We feel so far removed from what’s happening “down in Ferguson.” We console ourselves quietly by saying that Eric Garner was just a 43 year-old man with no future who didn’t play his cards right, that Aiyana Johnson was just a little girl from another bad Detroit neighborhood. Maybe, deep down, we can’t help thinking that if Michael Brown hadn’t stolen that pack of cigarettes, or if Trayvon had just put his hood down, they would still be alive today. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Maybe. But Martese Johnson was at the edge of his elite university, doing exactly what most University students do at that time of night on St. Patrick’s Day. So was he, too, just another person in the wrong place at the wrong time?
Here’s a revelation: if you’re black, wherever you are is always the wrong place.
In Chile, every time I tell my host family about the U.S., I realize that I am not relaying to them the lush images of a land of opportunity and optimism that I am sure their previous white host daughters have told them about. I feel like a turncoat—like a rogue ambassador for my country. My U.S.A., my stories about North America, are tales of fear. They consist of the lists of rules and warnings that I have accumulated in my fourteen years of living here. Recently my host family asked me if I had ever been to the South. I said, “No, not really” and laughed a little, thinking of a short trip to Jefferson’s plantation in Virginia and various holidays to Disney Land and Universal Studios. I told them that when I was looking at colleges I immediately eliminated everything south of Maryland. As I translated this into Spanish, I was struck by just how limited I am in my adopted nation.
In that moment, I thought about walking in the Millions March in New York in December, and how I yelled “Black lives matter” until I lost my voice. I thought about how long it took me to realize that the majority of Americans didn’t feel the same—how, for them, the color of my skin has always diminished the value of my life. For the first nine years I spent living in New Jersey, I believed that all of the microaggressions I felt—people seeming half-horrified when they realized I wasn’t completely inarticulate or just assuming I worked in the store despite not being at all in uniform—simply came from being an immigrant, because, by law, I wasn’t afforded the same rights. My becoming a citizen miraculously coincided with the election of Barack Obama. I still remember how my little, completely American sister ran around the house yelling that “a Rock Obama” had been elected, and there was hope in her voice. A few years later, I got into Princeton. Obama was still president, and I felt as if I’d achieved the immigrant dream—I had finally earned my individual right to safety in the secure net of the system. I believed that racism would fix itself with time. Almost as soon as I stepped unto campus, however, I realized nothing could be further from the truth. In the orange bubble it seems that the idea that “nothing ever happens at Princeton” has become confused with the belief that we have also overcome racism, if only in our tiny New Jersey enclave.
I recently read the Prince’s article about Adam Basatemur, a police officer who has made over 100 alcohol related arrests in the past two years. Since I’ve lived in the area for the last ten years, I was surprised I hadn’t heard of him. A quick Google search showed me that Basatemur was suspended in 2009 for forcing an area woman into roadside defecation, twice. As punishment, Basatemur was given two months suspension without pay. This same man was named Princeton Officer of the Year in 2005, and continues to patrol Nassau Street. I have no idea what the demographics of his student arrests are. Regardless, Basatemur is a striking example of misplaced power in the police. All it takes is a single undercover supremacist stationed on Nassau, and what happened to Martese could just as easily happen in Princeton, New Jersey. During freshman orientation we are drilled to believe that as long as we comply and don’t resist arrest, everything will be fine. Maybe if you’re dealing with PSAFE, this may be the case, but does this thinking translate to the area’s actual law enforcement? Just how precarious is our peace? All it takes is the wrong cop at the right time, and it could happen at lawnparties or reunions or any raucous night on the street. The truth is that as a black student as soon as you cross Washington Road and arrive on Prospect, you have left the safety and immunity of Princeton’s domain. Once you’re on Prospect, the University is no longer obligated to step in.
We always think that it can’t happen to us—that we’re untouchable because we go to UVA, or Princeton, or [insert prestigious school here], but when you’re black, nothing could be further from the truth. The brutal attack on Martese Johnson on March 18th is a not-so-shocking reminder that when you’re black, your socioeconomic status, your politics, and your university do not matter because, to so many, your life does not matter. All of that social dogma is instantly eclipsed by the blaring black flag of your skin.
It wasn’t until I got to Chile about a month ago that I realized what it felt like to truly be an American: to have American confidence, to feel untouchable and secure in “my country’s name.” I find it ironic that I had to travel all the way to South America to feel this for the first time. And even though it’s what I’ve always wanted, I now feel uncomfortable in this borrowed skin.
How do I explain to my Chilean family that I come from a place where prison statistics, police records, and newspaper headlines all fervently declare that I am not wanted? How do I explain to them what I tell my mother— that I never want to have children, because I know that their skin will be as black as mine? I don’t want to see them grow up more quickly than they should as they, too, learn the rules of the game. In my daydreams, I never left Jamaica and sometimes in Chile I am tempted to let people believe that I never immigrated— that I flew directly from Montego Bay to Santiago, that I didn’t adopt these problems. But the truth is, I don’t speak Jamaican patois anymore. The truth is, to a certain extent, these problems are worldwide. In real life, because I’m black, I don’t really belong anywhere— even if my passport says U.S.A.