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Why Did the Booze Police Beat Up a University of Virginia Honors Student?

UVA students are protesting after a black 20-year-old named Martese Johnson was aggressively arrested by Alcohol Beverage Control agents.

by Allie Conti
19 March 2015, 9:25pm

The University of Virginia campus. Photo via Flickr user Philip Larson

University of Virginia student Martese Johnson was trying to get into an Irish pub when an officer with the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control grabbed him. Witnesses were stunned when, with an assist from another ABC cop, the officer wrestled the popular honors student to the ground and continued to manhandle him as one onlooker yelled, "Yo! His head is bleeding!"

A snapshot of Johnson, bloodied and subdued, has made the social media rounds, sparked a 1,000-person rally on the UVA campus last night and birthed the hashtag #JusticeForMartese. Johnson, who according to his lawyer needed ten stitches in his head, is charged with obstruction of justice without force and public swearing or intoxication. He was released on $1,500 bail Wednesday morning.

The scuffle has led to renewed criticism of Virginia's Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC), who effectively serve as the fun police. As in more than a dozen other states, Virginia's ABC regulates alcohol sales and helps enforce booze-related laws. According to news reports and UVA students, the local ABC has a tense relationship with the hard-partying students it's supposed to protect, and its officers have a history of going over the top in trying to police alcohol use.

In Virginia, residents can only buy liquor from stores run by the ABC, which falls under the auspices of the Secretariat of Public Safety and Homeland Security. They also arrest kids with fakes, and rumors swirl around campus on Friday nights about what bars they'll be monitoring or if they're going to come raid a particular dorm in search of contraband.

Suffice it to say this incident isn't the first time they've looked really, really bad. Last year, a woman named Elizabeth Daly was confronted by seven plainclothes ABC officers after buying cookie dough, ice cream, and a pack of bottled water from a Kroger that's next to the ABC store. The officers, who had mistaken the water for beer, banged on the 20-year-old's car and terrified her. Then they arrested her and made her spend a night in jail. That fuck-up ended up costing the agency $212,500 in settlement money.

False arrests like that one have understandably left a bad taste in students' mouths. One UVA junior, who asked to remain anonymous, told me that she suspected some people were using the latest incident with Johnson as an excuse to shit-talk everybody's least favorite law enforcement apparatus.

"I think in general a lot of people have gotten behind Martese, but personally I haven't really an opinion yet because there doesn't seem to be any hard evidence yet," she told me. "No one really seems to have the exact story."

It seems like local officials are taking the situation extremely seriously. Governor Terry McAuliffe is calling for an investigation by the Virginia State Police, and while the Alcohol Beverage Control did not return requests for comment from either their national or local Virginia offices, the agency did issue a statement saying the officers involved would be restricted to administrative duty until it's finished.

For her part, University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan has issued a very strongly worded letter condemning the attack.

"This was wrong and should not have occurred," she wrote. "In the many years of our medical, professional and leadership roles at the University, we view the nature of this assault as highly unusual and appalling based on the information we have received."

Follow Allie Conti on Twitter.