NBC BLK: Martese Johnson and The Rhetorical Talisman: I Go To UVA

Journalists, pundits and authors love to claim how “hard” it is for them to write certain stories.

Sometimes this is just a cheap emotional trick to draw in the reader, other times it is a sincere way of acknowledging just how hard it is to put pen to paper, fingers to laptop, and express cogent ideas without breaking into a tearful belligerent rage of pent up feelings.

As a black man, a University of Virginia alumni and as someone who has covered discriminatory police violence against black men and women the last two years, my hands were literally shaking over my laptop as I tried to write about the beating of Martese Johnson.

I kept hearing his scream, “I go to UVA You F***s” as cops knee him in the back, face beaten and bloodied in a public street in front of all of his classmates. It is a nauseating reminder that no amount of education, poise or good behavior can protect a black person in America. We are all, one cop, one vigilante one maniac away from being racially victimized regardless of what investigations come afterwards.

I tend to avoid what I call “racial ambulance chasing.” As a political scientist, my focus is usually on policy, government and political campaigns, every racial outrage doesn’t deserve MY rage, scorn or shaming. I didn’t plan on pouring out Gen X racial rage on screen, but 48 hours changed that for me.

On Tuesday I read Jonathan Capehart’s Washington Post column “Hands Up Don’t Shoot Was Built on a Lie.” The article argues that since the DOJ suggests that Mike Brown MIGHT not have had his hands up when Office Darren Wilson shot him, that the entire #HandsUpDontShoot movement and #BlackLivesMatter protests were built on shaky ground. I found the article to be a disingenuous hit piece by a racial scold masquerading as bold “truth telling.”

Nothing new to see here, it’s the same old “Perfect Victim” pablum that is rolled out anytime the status quo is challenged by protest. Yet, less than 24 hours later honor student Martese Johnson was assaulted by ABC cops.

I went to bed with Johnson’s screams of “I go to UVA you F***S” burning my ears, only to wake up the next morning to do a panel on police brutality, sitting two seats from Erica Garner, the daughter of Eric Garner. This is a woman juggling the impossible tasks of mourning her father and learning activism on the fly.

By the time Martese Johnson held a press conference Thursday evening, blowing a million holes in the ABC cop’s story, and demonstrating Gandhi-like restraint, I was already 12 flights down the stairs of the ivory tower screaming in the streets.

I was that kid at UVA. As a black student who actually got into UVA, you’ve already had half a lifetime of training on how to be “good.” Your parents have tried to protect you from the more grotesque forms of racism and your reward (you think) is a few years in the bubble of college.

“I go to UVA” isn’t just a statement of fact, it’s a magical rhetorical talisman, it’s a message to cops, to racist townies, to store owners and even visiting old alumni that you are one of the “good ones.”

It means you’re protected ā€” I could be a star athlete, or have rich parents, or be on student council, you can’t just treat me like any other black person living in Charlottesville. In your gut you know it feels awful to use, playing into this trope, especially surrounded by white kids whose behavior is often worse than yours, who are oblivious to the invisible protection that UVA provides.

“I go to UVA” is a nasty little golden ticket, born of a frothy mix of classism and institutional racism, and it’s doled out to only those certain African Americans that ventured into the hallowed white spaces deemed off limits just a generation before (UVA didn’t integrate until 1972). I used it exactly twice, once while being harassed by a shop owner at a store across the street from where Martese Johnson was beaten, and once more when I was being stared down by a cop that pulled me over.

I was lucky it worked.

“I go to UVA” is used sparingly, as a black person you know that at best it bestows a few minutes of privilege upon you that white kids at UVA take for granted. The image of Martese Johnson beaten and bloodied, screaming “I go to UVA” exposes the greatest, deepest fear that every single one of us had at UVA ā€” that nothing protects us. That no matter how well-spoken you are, what clubs you’re a part of, or who you’re with, you can be infantilized, emasculated, and stripped of all your hard work, and public status in the blink of an eye.

There are no “perfect victims” in a war driven by white supremacist (and possibly misogynist) rage and police power. Even if Martese Johnson WAS using a fake ID (he wasn’t) or was drunk (he wasn’t) that wouldn’t justify the brutality of what he experienced, or call into question the subsequent protests and investigations that have happened since.

If the Department of Health and human services determined that Eric Garner died of a heart attack does that mean Erica Garner is avoiding the truth when she dons a “I Can’t Breathe” T-Shirt? This is the horrifying sobering reality of what happened at UVA. That no amount of “talks” or preparation can keep you safe from racial rage whether it is backed up by a gun and a badge or just a bad attitude.

I went to UVA too.

And I shudder thinking about how foolish I was as an undergrad, thinking that granted me any special protection, that I would be treated as an equal.

The reality is that none of us were, or are safe, in a nation that does not value black lives or black feelings or black reputations and work. No matter how much we scream otherwise.

This article originally appeared online at NBC BLK.

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