Black Lives Matter Ithaca, in response to an incident involving the Ithaca Police Department in early April, held a rally on Monday to address the issues they saw and invite the community to become involved. Despite the rain, the rally saw a healthy turnout to the Bernie Milton Pavilion on the evening of Monday, May 13.
On April 6, just after 1 a.m., Ithaca Police Department (IPD) officers responded on foot to an incident on the Commons. Body camera footage of the event showed IPD officers run to the area after being approached by an unidentified female. According to the police report, “Officers witnessed a male subject, later identified as [26 year old] Cadji Furgeson, run across the commons and strike another male subject in the face, knocking him to the ground.” When several officers brought Ferguson to the ground to arrest him, including using a taser, 22-year-old Rose Degroat physically intervened, attempting to get the IPD officers off of Ferguson. Degroat was also arrested, on felony charges of attempted assault that were later reduced to misdemeanor charges.
A statement from Black Lives Matter Ithaca, and the Multicultural Resource Center, refuted the narrative put out by IPD.
“Black Lives Matter Ithaca, the Multicultural Resource Center, and community members strongly condemn the actions of the Ithaca Police Department officers who on April 6, 2019, at 1:20 a.m., tasered and otherwise brutalized, on the Commons, two African American residents who had already been the victims of an unprovoked assault by a white man,” according to the BLM statement shared on Facebook on April 30. “According to witnesses, police behaved recklessly and abusively when they arrived on the scene of a physical altercation between a drunk and belligerent white man and Cadji Ferguson, one of the black people he had assaulted just moments earlier.”
At Monday’s rally, Ferguson’s statement of what happened that night was read, reiterating the claim that he had been acting in defense of his friend Rose Degroat. According to the statement read at the rally, Ferguson confronted the unnamed white male after he sexually assaulted Degroat. From there, the altercation escalated and when IPD arrived they arrested Ferguson but not the unnamed white male.
“There is never going to be a violent encounter that is pretty, but what I can tell you is that everything starts with the suspect’s behavior and willingness to demonstrate compliance,” Ithaca Police Chief said in a Letter to the Editor to the Ithaca Voice on May 6. “Our officers take great pride in being well trained and having the ability to mitigate and de-escalate a dangerous situation before violence occurs. In this case however, the officers had to respond instantly to an act of violence and prevent further violence or injury from occurring at the hands of the suspect who had already demonstrated a clear propensity to cause physical harm to another human being, regardless of the circumstances that led up to what the officers first witnessed.”
Degroat’s intervention, Tyler said, was a poor decision, and used the letter to tell the community that it is “never ok to intervene during an arrest, or obstructing a lawful arrest by striking a uniformed police officer.”
“We should be holding our institutions and organizations accountable, and this cannot be allowed to continue,” said Rafael Aponte at Monday’s rally, describing the footage from the incident as a “looney tunes skit” instead of a highly trained police force. “This is ridiculous. That doesn’t look like expert training. Who trained them? Yosemite Sam? These folks are ridiculous. If that’s the extent of their police training, I can only imagine the extent of their racial bias training.”
Aponte compared the IPD’s public reaction to a vandalization of a local statue to theft at the Calvary Baptist Church. The lack of a release about the thefts indicated a bias, he argued.
“Where is the police bulletin to look for the thieves that are taking things out of our sanctuaries? Out of our spiritual homes? They don’t care. This is how you can tell there is differential treatment. We call that racism,” Aponte said. “Our police do not deserve unconditional support. They are not a sick puppy. They are not a lost child. They are an institution that is armed.”
After the statement from BLM went public on social media, City of Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick released all the body camera footage from the officers involves, on the city website, and announced that he had ordered an internal investigation into the incident. It’s a move that was largely criticized by the Ithaca Police Benevolent Association, in a statement released on May 4.
“Instead of recognizing the good work of our Membership who perform outstanding acts of courage and bravery (sic) everyday in an extremely dangerous and volatile profession, Svante Myrick is intentionally misrepresenting an incident by releasing body camera footage with no supporting facts or narrative,” according to the PBA statement on Facebook. “The only purpose this serves is to incite dissention and hatred towards our Members and to encourage civil unrest in our Community, all which are entirely unacceptable. We are concerned by Svante’s tone and his inclination to immediately assume that Police Officers are wrong for performing their duties before having any facts surrounding the situation.”
The PBA, in its statement, told Myrick to leave the public safety to them, “you wouldn’t make it a day in our shoes.”
At Monday’s rally, Cornell University Associate Professor of History Russell Rickford spoke to the gathered crowd about holding the IPD accountable. “We’ve been building a grassroots support in order to respond to this outrage and we’re delighted that word is spreading and we’re building momentum,” Rickford told Tompkins Weekly. “It’s important for the power structure to see that these young people are not isolated, that cops do not act with impunity. As a matter of fact, this is a powerful, mobilized community, and that we’re determined to resist, we’re determined to push back. At the very least, the power structure has a huge public relations crisis on their hands and that crisis is only going to grow.”
BLM Ithaca, Rickford said, demanded that the charges against Ferguson and Degroat be dropped and that a pattern of abuse toward people of color by the IPD be acknowledged, and the affected families be given reparations for their medical bills, lost wages, and other losses. It’s not up to BLM, Rickford said, to address or fix the public relations problem that IPD is having.
Another rally is scheduled for Friday, May 17, at the City of Ithaca Court, at 8:30 a.m. in support of Ferguson.
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