An inquiry into the official use of language: Martese Johnson’s Assault

Martese Johnson’s story appears to be the extremely devastating, yet common depiction of the intersection of race and gender in the policing, justice, and prison system in the USA and to many degrees, Canada as well. We have discussed in the course several times how minority populations are overrepresented in statistics of arrest and conviction rates. Martese Johnson’s story highlights this connection between policing behaviours and prison populations. If people from selected racial backgrounds/ethnicities are systematically targeted for detainment and arrest, then resultantly, those same racial/ethnic groups constitute prison populations. It will be those same people(s) who experience the health, economic, and social stressors of imprisonment. This embeds an arguably endless cycle that provides the grounds for further victimization. And considering the increasing numbers of prisoners due to the prison industrial complex, rooted in making profit from incarcerating individuals rather than providing effective rehabilitation and treatment programs to those who actually need them, it does not seem like there any official desire to break this cycle.

A central section in this article that showcases the impacts of language in the dynamics of racial profiling and overrepresentation in the prison system is the governor’s office statement that: “Governor McAuliffe is concerned by the reports”, that he wants to initiate an “independent Virginia State Police investigation into the use of force”. There are several noteworthy points about the construction of this official statement. First, that this is what is said by the official capacities involved that have the recognized power to make such a statement. This is what we as a Western society believe represents the Truth, something that should not be questioned. Second, the message here is that there is some concern for what happened, but because it still needs to be ‘investigated’ there is still some doubt or ambiguity about the event. The statement is not clearly made that the officers were in the wrong, or that they injured a citizen without cause. It is certainly not an apology. Third, throughout the article the event is referred to as “an arrest”. Implying that this act was warranted and necessary to some degree, even though the article is attempting to share the opinions of witnesses that believed the actions of police were unwarranted. The only evidence put forth that Martese Johnson deserved this treatment is a few words by the officers that acted in this way, that he was “very agitated and belligerent”. The connection between being verbally ‘agitated’, even with receiving an official charge of obstruction of justice without force, to being physically attacked and treated in this manner is unclear. Yet the event remains constructed as an arrest, not an assault or attack. Just as many other cases are called “shootings” rather than murders. Continuously constructing violent situations that victimize young black men as unclear, and not placing responsibility in the hands of officials is harmful. It reinforces institutional forms of racism that stereotype individuals from minority groups. It perpetuates hegemonic discourses of ‘them’ being dangerous, violent, and in need of being controlled by those (White men) in power.

Articles like this and protests like the one organized on the UVA campus do give victims and witnesses the platform to express their opinions and experiences of racism and injustice enacted upon them by the very system that is supposed to protect every citizen equally. When you consider the way in which this resistance and protest is presented, it is frequently through mediums that are considered illegitimate by officials. While the validity and ability of protests to promote change should not be discredited in the slightest, it is still seen as a ‘radical’ way to express an opinion and therefore seems to be regularly dismissed by policy makers and those who have the power to make necessary changes. It becomes clear that while there may be multiple interpretations of every event and there are passionate and dedicated groups of people who want to see change, it is just the officially supported and dominant discourse that prevails, and these events continue to occur.

There are numerous systemic issues in the prison and legal system like the treatment of minority women especially Aboriginal, treatment of transgender individuals, sexual abuse and rape, and mental and physical care in prisons. Besides remaining unlabelled and unclear to official reports, these extremely serious issues are frequently incorporated into everyday conversation as the subjects of jokes and are usually claimed just to be a casual comment with no ‘real’ meaning behind it. However, in considering the more recent awareness raised about the harmful consequences of rape culture, I think it should become clear that none of these topics should be mentioned and discarded just jokes or non-issues. When it is claimed that people are just “playing the race card” when they are ‘randomly’ selected or pulled over, it largely erases the legitimacy of the danger that minority populations face on a daily basis due to systemic and institutional racism that is clearly depicted in Martese Johnson’s story. Ultimately, as discussed in lecture and following Stuart Hall’s work, language is central to the construction of meaning and it is a shared practice. If issues like this are constructed and therefore engaged with as insignificant or sites of humour, then it seems issues like this will persist.

– kt22

Works Cited

No Author. “Virginia governor calls for inquiry into student arrest”. BBC News. 19 March. 2015. Web. 3 April. 2015.


3 thoughts on “An inquiry into the official use of language: Martese Johnson’s Assault

  1. I appreciated how you stressed the fact that it turns into a vicious circle when certain racial groups are targeted by the police, and I agree that this cycle will lead to further victimization of this group of people.

    I enjoyed the critical analysis you included regarding the statement that was released about the incident, because it allowed someone who has not read the article to have a more in depth understanding of the way certain things were written.

    I think it was important that you included how ambiguous the statement was in relation to many similar statements in the sense that it is never really put forward that maybe the police officer involved was the one who was in the wrong, and the other individual involved really was a victim of hateful and violent discrimination.

    Good job at including other examples of minority groups who are also mistreated and the types of things they go through when imprisoned.


  2. I think it was really great that you brought up the issue of claims of “playing the race card”. I ended up reading quite a few of the commentators remarks on the incident and there were many people who felt that Martese Johnson was likely intoxicated and resisted arrest and further felt that he was “playing the race card” in a situation that wasn’t about race.

    I agree that this really ignores the issue of systemic racism- occurring when the way society is systematically structured gives rise to advantages to some and disadvantages to others. It’s really important to look at the situation and ask “would this level of force been used had the student been white?” irrespective of whether or not the arrest itself was warranted.

    I’m not sure if I completely agree with the notion of the governor’s office’s statement as perpetuating hegemonic discourse and that calling for an investigation implies that the event was ambiguous and officers were not in the wrong. I think it’s important to incite an investigation before drawing conclusions about an incident (and official statements don’t often condemn an action before all the information is available). I think the bigger issue with the language used in the statement (as you point out) is that they are investigating the “use of force” and very clearly leave out whether or not they are investigating if racial factors played a role in the officers’ behaviour.


  3. You did a fantastic job at pointing out the language use in the announcement of the investigation. I feel as though the investigation being launched in and of its self its definitely a step in the right direction however from reading the article and a few related ones I found that the statement as Tiffany said isn’t really addressing the elephant in the room, the racial aspect of this arrest. Most analysis’ of this arrest often bring into question whether or not the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control agents should have the power to arrest people. However by leaving out the racial aspect, as y0u said, we are only perpetuating the vicious cycle that is currently reoccurring in our society.


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