I want to express my support for President Sullivan’s response to the Martese Johnson arrest in its immediate aftermath and also my profound dismay over the tone-deaf comments of some of my fellow alumni.
Facts are important, and as I write this, they are still emerging in this case. President Sullivan acknowledged as much in her letter to the community. In light of the (well-documented) fact that Virginia ABC abused its authority in the treatment of a UVa student in the very recent past (the Daly case of 2013), it is entirely appropriate for President Sullivan to call for an independent investigation.
It was also important to quickly publish a statement of concern for Johnson and to acknowledge the concerns of others in the community in the wake of alarming images that quickly emerged from the scene. To ignore the violent and disturbing imagery of an African American man, face bloodied, lying in distress on the concrete as a white police officer hovered over him would have been unthinkable. Any public official who is paying any attention at all to the racial tenor in this country in light of Ferguson and other recent events, who understands the deep wounds and explosive divides these incidents provoke, and who holds in her hands the solemn responsibilty to protect the well-being of thousands of students could not possibly have stood by in silence and waited until all the facts were pristinely assembled before venturing a statement. That wouldn’t have been leadership; that would have been a serious and potentially dangerous failure to recognize the historical moment in which we currently find ourselves.
So by all means, let’s compile and consider the facts. But let’s also remember our humanity and our commitments to one another. I commend President Sullivan and others for recogizing the gravity of this incident, sensing the deep impact it will likely have on students and resisting the urge to ‘duck and cover’. In the coming days and weeks as facts emerge – whatever they reveal themselves to be – it will be even more important for University leadership to ensure the safety of our students and set the tone for difficult dialogues that should challenge ALL of us to listen and learn.