CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Martese Johnson wasn’t caught off-guard by the violence this weekend at a rally held by white supremacist groups, neo-Nazis, and the KKK in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“I expected it to be a large spectacle,” Johnson told CNN, “but to be honest I never really thought that we would lose a life at this event.”
Johnson, who graduated from the University of Virginia in 2016, was thrust into the spotlight after an encounter with officers outside a college bar turned violent. Johnson was arrested after officers from the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control in Charlottesville questioned him about his ID card. Images of Johnson handcuffed, pinned to the ground and covered in blood went viral on social media.
Charges against Johnson have since been dropped by the state, and Johnson filed a suit against the Alcoholic Beverage Control director and the agents involved in his arrest. He declined to comment on the status of his lawsuit, saying the case is “still in legal proceedings.”
Events surrounding a white nationalist protest in Charlottesville left three dead on Saturday: 32-year-old Heather Heyer, who was killed by a car that rammed into a crowd of counterprotesters, and two police officers whose helicopter crashed after providing air support to crowd control efforts.
Johnson, who currently works for the Chicago International Charter Schools Network, is now an activist, educator and writer in his native Chicago, but he said incidents of racism in Charlottesville are never far from his mind.
In an open letter to the incoming UVA freshman class, Johnson expressed frustration at the racial climate the students will be walking into. Johnson told CNN it was “sad for the students who are entering the University of Virginia in less than a week and have to cope with such fear and fear of being victimized on a drastic level.”
“The University of Virginia and the Charlottesville community have gradually seen a transition from covert, implicit racism to this past weekend where we’ve seen the most overt and direct racism,” Johnson said.
He said that while he was prepared to monitor the rally on Saturday, he was alerted to the torch-lit march on UVA’s campus Friday night by a text from activist DeRay McKesson.
“To hear that was heartbreaking and appalling,” Johnson said.
But Johnson said the Saturday rally reached unparalleled levels of racism: “We are in a completely different era and different mode. What we viewed on Saturday was some of the most blatant performances of discrimination against people for their pure difference that we’ve seen in years in America.”
President Donald Trump on Saturday and again on Tuesday blamed “both sides” in the Charlottesville rally. Some Trump critics, including Johnson, argue that type of moral equivocation is responsible for the boldness of these fringe groups. Johnson said that in his mind, the election of Trump is responsible for the show of force from white nationalist groups like the Charlottesville rally.
In their annual census of hate groups, the Southern Poverty Law Center has found that the “radical right” has become more active under the Trump presidency.
Johnson said these groups are made up of white people “who believe that if they don’t fight back now, they’ll never be that superior group they once believed they were.”
After a KKK rally in Charlottesville in July, Johnson wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post with a fellow UVA student leader that implored the media and the nation to cover the activism pushing back against resurgent white nationalists.
His editorial was an attempt to push journalists away from sensationalized stories surrounding hate groups and to focus on the community’s efforts to counteract them, he said.
For the most part, Johnson said, the media’s response to last weekend’s tragic protests has been “impressive.” He said he’s encouraged by the coverage he’s seen from major media outlets that gives voice to grass-roots organizers. Johnson said this should be a model for covering white nationalists in the future. “Journalists have to understand that it is their responsibility to contribute to positive movements in this country,” he said.
Johnson said that for his and others’ advocacy efforts to succeed, the media needs to continue reporting on those fighting against the white nationalist groups beyond the limits of 2017’s ever shrinking news cycle.
“The story goes dry and everybody moves on,” Johnson said. “Next week, the week that follows, next month, this problem is still going to exist. Institutional racism is still going to exist. The spawns of that racism, which are the KKK and the alt-right and the neo-Nazis, are still going to exist.”
Johnson said he hopes change will come from the horrors of last weekend, and said he knows that media coverage can affect positive change. “Without thorough reporting on what happened in Charlottesville, we would be living our lives just as we would have last week.”
Johnson said he hopes the violence highlights the prevalence of these hateful ideas — especially for “people who feel like they aren’t connected” to racist violence — and brings the nation together to confront them.
“They’re not going to go away unless we fight them,” Johnson said. “We need to know they exist.”