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Friends praise Chicago college student whose arrest sparked Virginia protests

Dixon Romeo stopped what he was doing when the photo appeared on his phone.

It was a photo of his friend, Martese Johnson, 20, on the ground and seemingly under arrest. He appeared to be crying out. And blood covered his face.

“I was just horrified,” Romeo said. “And I just wanted to know if he was all right.”

Johnson and Romeo, now college students, go all the way back to the eighth grade at Kenwood Academy on Chicago’s South Side, Romeo said. But Johnson’s arrest this week in Virginia has become the latest national symbol of tensions between police and minorities. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe has called for an investigation into the incident.

Romeo said Johnson is the “calmest, coolest, most respectable person I know.” And though he acknowledged Thursday he doesn’t know what happened — he has managed to speak to Johnson for only about 30 seconds since seeing the photograph — he said the account he has read “just doesn’t make any sense.”

“He’s too nice for anybody to treat him that way,” said Romeo, a 21-year-old student at Grinnell College in Iowa.

Charlottesville Police booking photo of Martese Johnson.

Charlottesville Police booking photo of Martese Johnson.

The incident between Johnson, a student at the University of Virginia, and a Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control officer happened early Wednesday morning, according to Bryan Beaubrun, a student who was with Johnson and photographed the arrest.

Beaubrun said Johnson was trying to get into the Trinity Irish Pub when he was stopped by a bouncer. Then an ABC officer grabbed Johnson by the arm and pulled him away from the bar to speak with a group of police officers, Beaubrun said.

After about a minute, Beaubrun said, Johnson asked the ABC officer to let go of his arm and tried pulling away from the officer. At that point, another ABC officer grabbed Johnson from behind and the two ABC officers wrestled Johnson to the ground, Beaubrun said.

He said Johnson hit his head on the ground when he was tackled, and that police acted with unnecessary force.

“He didn’t need to be tackled. He wasn’t being aggressive at all,” Beaubrun said.

The ABC issued a statement saying that “uniformed ABC Agents observed and approached” an unidentified individual “after he was refused entry to a licensed establishment” about 12:45 a.m. at an area of bars and restaurants near campus known as “the Corner.” The ABC said the unidentified individual received injuries while being arrested and was treated at a local hospital before being released.

The ABC said the agents involved with the arrest are being restricted to administrative duties while a state police investigation is underway.

On Thursday evening, Johnson appeared at a news conference, accompanied by his attorney, Daniel Watkins, who read a statement from his client. Johnson’s mother, Dychea Johnson, flew in from Chicago and attended the news conference with another son, Michael.

“As the officers held me down, one thought raced through my mind: how could this happen?” the statement read. “I trust the scars will one day heal, but the trauma of what the officers did will stay with me forever.”

As police held Johnson, Beaubrun snapped his photo, which showed Johnson with his face bloodied. In a video of the arrest that also surfaced, Johnson appears to be saying, “I go to UVA, I go to UVA, I go to UVA, you f—ing, I go to UVA you f—ing, you f—ing racists!” Meanwhile, an officer can be heard telling him to “stop fighting” and to put his hands behind his back.

Johnson’s lawyer said Johnson needed 10 stitches in his head. Johnson was charged on two counts: obstruction of justice without force, and public swearing or intoxication, Charlottesville General District Court records show.

The Alcoholic Beverage Control agent who made the arrest, listed in court records as J. Miller, said in the arrest report that Johnson “was very agitated and belligerent.”

Johnson’s lawyer described his client as third-year student at UVA who is majoring in Italian and Media Studies, holds “numerous leadership positions” at the school, and has no criminal record.

“We are preparing to investigate and defend this matter vigorously,” the lawyer said.

Johnson’s friend, Romeo, said he’s never known Johnson to be belligerent or have run-ins with the police. Romeo said he served as class president his junior and senior year at Kenwood Academy, and Johnson served as vice president. Together, he said they were co-vice presidents of Men of Distinction, a group at school through which they did community service projects.

Johnson was “definitely a great leader,” Romeo said, and “very serious about school.” Romeo, now vice president-elect of the student body at Grinnell, said he was about to join a conference call about student government business when someone sent him the photograph of his friend through Twitter. He said he managed to speak to Johnson for about 30 seconds by phone.

“He’s good,” Romeo said. “He said everything’s all right.”

Liz Kirby, Johnson’s principal at the time at Kenwood, said she began getting calls and texts Wednesday from some of Johnson’s friends.

“My first reaction was shock and sadness,” said Kirby, who is now a network chief for Chicago Public Schools.

After seeing the photograph of Johnson’s bloody face, she had another reaction. “When you see that image, your mind can go to a worst scenario,” Kirby said.

Johnson was a “charismatic but humble” student, she said.

“Great student, academically strong student, leader, great spirit, really mature, very altruistic,” Kirby said.

Johnson’s cousin and Kenwood classmate, Derric Roberts, said Johnson was an “exceptional student” who was thrilled when he was offered a place at the University of Virginia.

Johnson had a reputation as “a leader and a role model” at Kenwood, where he participated in a mentoring program with younger students, said Roberts, 21, who is now a student at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville.

Johnson excelled in the role because “he was easy to talk to,” said Roberts.

Roberts, who has spoken with Johnson since the incident and has discussed the case with other Kenwood alumni, said that when he heard what had happened to Johnson, “I was devastated in the beginning.”

But he added that the campus protest movement has convinced him that good can now come from the case.

“I know Martese and I know his character — he is strong and he will come through this and be the man that he was always going to be.”

Johnson’s arrest led to a campus protest in Virginia on Wednesday night attended by about 1,000 students. The size of the crowd forced the protest to be moved several times, eventually ending up at an outdoor amphitheater, where students demanded justice.

Johnson was on hand for the event, flanked by fellow students. He spoke briefly and kept touching his face where he received stitches from the early Wednesday morning scuffle with police.

“I beg for you guys to please respect everyone here,” Johnson told the crowd. “We really are one community.”

Another Kenwood classmate of Johnson’s, Daneesha Tillman, 20, said the news of the incident spread among Kenwood alumni on Instagram.
“It hit a lot closer to home that someone we all know has been impacted by my police brutality,” she said, echoing her classmates in describing Johnson as “an ambitious and driven” student.
The injuries to Johnson have left her and her classmates upset, she said.
Tillman, herself a college junior, said that police brutality has become “a sad norm” that the “black lives matter” movement is trying to tackle.
The injuries to Johnson have left her and her classmates upset, she said.
“It’s like, what more can we do?”

Contributing: Associated Press