Brown: Punish first, rationalize later


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There has been an anomaly in the litany of cases in which unarmed African-Americans are brutalized by the police. This anomaly is the case of African-American University of Virginia student Martese Johnson.

Johnson was arrested outside a bar on March 18 and charged with public intoxication and obstruction of justice. During the arrest, Johnson sustained injuries resulting in widely circulated photos of him handcuffed and bleeding profusely from his head and face. Officers from the Virginia Department of Alcohol Bevarage Control made the arrest, not the Virginia State Police. What is unusual about this case is not the circumstances of the encounter but rather the media’s response to it.

The exact details of the interaction are still unknown, and the case has been continued until May 28 in order allow time for a thorough investigation to be completed. Although many key elements in the case are inconclusive, I am relieved that coverage of this ongoing story has not followed the typical format.

The format I am talking about is one in which an African-American is beaten or killed by law enforcement, and the following days become a race to uncover as much incriminating details from the victim’s past as possible. At some point, that is what news reporting has become. The story becomes less about informing the people and more of a retroactive justification for the actions against the victim. The word “victim” being the operative term.

In the case of Johnson, it would be difficult for anyone to try to blame the victim. Johnson is a third-year Honor student at a nationally ranked university with no criminal record. In this case the means to rationalize the behavior of law enforcement are simply not there.

As disappointed as I am that this happened to Johnson, I cannot deny that part of me was overjoyed when more details became public. I was happy when I read that he is a Honor student. I was happy when witnesses stated he was not belligerent before the time of his arrest. I was happy when the potential ammunition I was certain would be used against Johnson was disproven or challenged. I was happy because this is important. It is important for people to remember that blame doesn’t always rest on the head of the face-down black man handcuffed or dead in the street.

The case of Johnson is important because it can help stop the perpetuation of a certain way of thinking. It can help stop the perpetuation of a wrong way of thinking. We publicly sympathize with a wrongful death and tweet #BlackLivesMatter, but in the back of our minds, a seed has been planted. This seed will eventually sprout into the idea that in some way due to actions past, present, or future, the victim was at fault.

The questions inevitably asked are “What did he do wrong?” “Did he have a record?” and “Whose fault was it really?” There will certainly be times in which the accused is truly at fault, but we can’t get used to assuming that. Our initial recourse cannot be punish first and rationalize later.

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