On March 18th 2015, 20 year old University of Virginia student Martese Johnson was violently arrested by Virginia police outside of a bar. He was arrested by the states Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) and charged with “obstruction of justice without force, and public swearing or intoxication” (BBC, 2015). On top of this, he was beaten by ABC agents and left on the pavement with a bloody face. Patterns of this kind of violence against black people in America make it pretty clear that this is an issue of race and discrimination. Witnesses agree that the force used upon Johnson was unnecessary. This incident is not singular or random, but part of our society’s systematic violence towards people of colour, specifically perpetuated by white cops. This incident touches on two main issues in the US regarding institutionalized racism. The first issue is violence against people of colour, and the second is the mass incarceration rates of these same people and the governments desire to imprison them unnecessarily, marginalizing them further.
This case relates to so many others in recent times and reveals a much larger issue. Looking back at cases such as the murders of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Eric Gardner, Tamir Rice and so many others, the overarching theme of systemic violence against people of colour is hard to miss, yet it goes unnoticed time and time again by the legal system. Black people are criminalized by the media in a way that puts them in great danger. It is taught within our social construction that black people are dangerous and threatening to white people and therefore have become the police system’s biggest target. Then once a black person is unjustly injured or in many cases killed by a cop, they are relentlessly dehumanized by the media and the legal system in order to protect white lives and allow them to keep killing and oppressing people of colour. There is an anti-blackness that is woven deeply into the fabric of our society that most refuse to acknowledge. Because of this black people have their basic human rights stripped from them on a near-constant basis. Regarding the Mike Brown case, the fact that his murderer was not even indicted for his crime is just a testament to how unsafe innocent black people are in the US and how the criminal justice system will bend over backwards to protect white criminals. This being said, black criminals are not protected in this way.
According to statistics, more than 70% of prisoners in the US are people of colour which just proves how eminently black bodies are regulated by the government (Davis, 2015). Black people are not more likely to commit crime because of their skin colour, they are just more likely than white people to be penalized for whatever crime they commit because the government works to protect white people and punish everyone else. The rate of incarceration in America is growing at an outrageous speed and this is not just coincidental. Also, because of the privatization of prisons, corporations, as well as the government, are profiting off of mass imprisonment which just encourages a system of discrimination against already marginalized groups. Because of this, so much of America’s economy rests on prisons which in turn creates a huge need for incarceration whether it be necessary or not. This results in racialization of people of colour as well as the legal system searching for reasons to imprison people the government already wants off the street, mainly black, lower-class folk. As said in an article about the prison industrial complex by Angela Davis (2015), “the political economy of prisons relies on racialized assumptions of criminality.” People of colour are being targeted by the government and are penalized more harshly than white people when the same crimes are committed. This is a way to keep black people off the streets and feed into the white supremacy that is so prevalent in American society today. The US literally profits off of racism, which is only one of the reasons that it is an issue in need of so much attention. We are tricked into believing that this kind of incarceration system is effective and helps take crime off the street, but it does not. All it does is take black bodies off the streets and really does nothing affective to stop crime (Davis, 2015).
Both of these aspects of oppression—the systematic violence against black people and the government’s need to incarcerate people of colour to make a profit and regulate black bodies—work together to benefit a white society. Although Martese Johnson’s arrest is heinous, it is merely only a small part of a much bigger issue at hand. This one incident reflects the institutionalized and systemic racism within America, and proves that there is an issue of injustice that needs to be solved.
Davis, Angela. “Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex.” Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Apr. 2015.
“Virginia Governor Calls for Inquiry into Student Arrest.” BBC News. N.p., 19 Mar. 2015. Web. 07 Apr. 2015.