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.
No Author. “Virginia governor calls for inquiry into student arrest”. BBC News. 19 March. 2015. Web. 3 April. 2015. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-31965856