Mixed feelings over U.Va meeting with officials; some students march out

Posted at 11:53 AM, Mar 20, 2015
and last updated 2015-03-20 20:32:10-04

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Virginia (CNN) -- The investigation into what happened to an African-American student who suffered a gash on his forehead while being arrested could take weeks, Virginia's public safety secretary said Friday at a campus forum at the University of Virginia.

It was the first time since third-year UVa. student Martese Johnson was arrested early Wednesday morning -- students at the school sat down with local law-enforcement to talk about the incident -- and race relations in the community.

Many expressed frustration, saying that the police were not answering their questions.

"It's important for you to know that being a thorough investigation, it could take time, even weeks," Secretary Brian Moran told students at UVA. "We ask for your patience."

The incident early Wednesday involved uniformed alcohol control agents and Martese Johnson, an African-American student at UVA. It made headlines around the country and prompted Gov. Terry McAuliffe to order an independent Virginia State Police investigation into what happened.

Video from the incident shows Johnson pinned to the ground, screaming: "I go to UVA! ... You f****** racists! What the f***? How did this happen?" An officer can be heard telling the man to stop fighting.

According to the student's attorney, Daniel Watkins, "just before handcuffing him, police took Martese to the ground, striking his head on the pavement and causing him to bleed profusely from the gash on his head."

He needed 10 stitches to close the gash in his head, Watkins said.

Johnson's arrest prompted protests among students demanding "Justice for Martese" after images circulated showing his bloodied face and clothing.

Friday's forum was held a theater on the UVA campus. Media were not allowed to ask questions or bring cameras into the forum. Student leaders had originally said the event would be live-streamed on the Internet, but it was not.

"This is a student space -- a chance for students to ask the questions they feel are most pressing to Virginia's most senior law enforcement officials," the group said on Facebook.

In a Facebook post, the university's Student Council said representatives from Charlottesville, Virginia, police, Albemarle County police and the state Alcohol Beverage Control were to attend the forum "to engage in a conversation about their relationship with students, or lack thereof, and about the issue of police brutality."

Charlottesville police Chief Timothy Longo said wounds still run deep from a history of racial inequality and division in the United States, but that change must come. He said there's "a long way to go."

"What happened this past week has shaken your trust," he said. "It's my responsibility to regain it."

Separately,  Brian Moran, Secretary of Public Safety called for patience as the state police investigate.

“We want a thorough investigation, there is a lot of information out there that may not be accurate," Moran said. “I don’t want people to jump to conclusions without the facts.”

Students left the meeting chanting “Black Lives Matter” after asking several questions about the arrest that were not answered.

The mood was heated and sometimes tense. Students sometimes pushed back against law enforcement representatives.

“Very much together, kind of hurt right now, we are standing together unified,” said Shontell White.

“It’s insane, I was hoping to know some answers as to why were having these problems, and maybe to gain some information to fix it,” said Taylor Baugh.

Chief Steve Sellers, with the Albemarle Police Department, said he thought the meeting was productive.

“I think this is the first step in many more meetings to come. I think this first meeting today, it was really about expressing our concerns, our observations and our questions,” said Sellers.

Even though many expressed their frustrations, there were also many who thought it was a good first step.

Students leaders asked their contemporaries to tweet questions in advance. By Friday afternoon, only a handful of tweets had crossed using the hashtag "#policedialogue."

"Is the problematic influence of implicit bias discussed at all during police training," Twitter user yaejmeister asked.

Among other questions, one student asked why alcohol control agents have police powers.

A third wondered "is catering to UVa's hypersensitivity preparing our students for the world outside of 'grounds'?"

The incident comes amid a continuing nationwide debate over the use of force by police, particularly involving African-Americans, following the deaths last summer of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York.

Grand juries in both communities declined to indict white police officers in the deaths, leading to angry protests nationwide and calls for renewed attention to claims of police bullying and brutality.