University of Virginia students met with representatives from the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control agency, the Virginia Department of Justice and local law enforcement agencies Friday in a public forum to discuss issues raised in the wake of outrage sparked by this week’s disturbing arrest of a student leader.
The forum, sponsored by the U.Va. Student Council, was held in response to the arrest of Martese Johnson, a third-year student injured while Virginia ABC agents were attempting to take him into custody on the Corner early Wednesday morning. Virginia State Police announced later Wednesday that it would conduct an administrative and criminal investigation into the arrest.
Representatives present at the well-attended forum, held in the Newcomb Hall Theater, were Brian Moran, the state’s secretary of public safety and homeland security, who is responsible for the oversight of the law-enforcement arm of the ABC; Piedmont Virginia Community College police chief Shawn Harrison; Albemarle County Police Col. Steve Sellers; U.Va. Police Capt. Mike Coleman; Charlottesville Police Sgt. Gloria Hubert; Department of Justice representative Charles Philips; Charlottesville Police Chief Tim Longo; and Ryan Washington, policy adviser to ABC.
The investigation “will take time, even weeks,” Moran said. “So we ask for your patience, for this community’s patience until that investigation is concluded. And let me assure you that if the findings indicate that corrective actions are indeed needed, we will not hesitate to take those actions.”
The theater’s aisles were lined from front to back with students waiting to express their concerns. Many dressed in black in solidarity, and took turns reading a list of questions.
“We are here because we love ourselves, we love our families and we love our friends, and we want to build a better university, and a better Charlottesville community,” said Aryn Frazier, a second-year Jefferson Scholar and political action chair of the Black Student Alliance.
Attendees questioned the officials about a series of events occurring before the case, including the investigation into the disappearance of Sage Smith, a transgender teen from Charlottesville, and the case of U.Va. student Elizabeth Daly, who was arrested in 2013 after fleeing from armed undercover ABC agents who mistook the water bottles she was carrying for beer. They also asked about the training officers receive, and ABC’s justifications for its continued existence as an agency.
Throughout the dialogue, audience members, frustrated by the officials’ responses, chanted “Answer the question we asked” and raised their fists in the air in protest.
Officials agreed that the Johnson situation was tragic, and said they encouraged training and communication between agencies. “It is my understanding that [day-to-day communication] is what we do, and we should do it in a very collaborative fashion, whether it be with Chief Longo or with the chief of police at U.Va.,” Moran said. They should know what ABC agents are doing at a particular community or campus.”
Moran said he is open to suggestions. “I think we need the investigation to be very independent, but in terms of involvement from the Black Student Association, we welcome the opportunity to dialogue with them further about their concerns. Obviously they feel very passionately that there is excessive force being used on black students, and I welcome the opportunity for them to dialogue about that.”
Student Council President Jalen Ross and president-elect Abraham Axler closed the forum after 90 minutes, when all questions had been taken. A large group of audience members walked out of the meeting together before its conclusion, chanting in unison, “Black lives matter.”
Coleman and Longo invited students to communicate with them and discuss ways to improve law enforcement agencies’ relationship with the community. Longo in particular advocated reviving the police’s partnership with the U.Va. chapter of the NAACP.
In regard to the Johnson case, he said, “I wasn’t there, but as a matter of process, if the case advances there will be a trial, there will be public testimony in due course. … I suspect this case is of such significance that the community deserves the facts and to know what happened. I, like you, want to know these very things.”
U.Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan applauded the students who organized ansd participated in the event.
"Today our student leaders facilitated a dialogue on issues important to our University community and in many other places, too," she said. "We appreciate their leadership, the participation of so many students and others, and of the panel members. Good citizenship involves confronting issues honestly and looking for solutions together."