(Update May 17, 2019) – Ferguson appeared in Ithaca City Court on May 17 and, through his attorney, declined a plea deal offered by the District Attorney’s office. Ferguson is next scheduled to appear in Ithaca City Court at 9 a.m. on Friday, June 7.

ITHACA, N.Y. – About 100 people gathered on the Ithaca Commons Monday to protest police brutality against people of color, with a focus on the Ithaca Police Department’s April 6 arrests of two black young adults.

“Black Lives Matter Ithaca, the Multicultural Resource Center and many partners condemn the racist assault on two of our best and brightest young people that occurred more than a month ago right here on the Commons,” said local activist and Cornell history professor Russell Rickford in his opening remarks, referring to the arrests of Rose de Groat and Cadji Ferguson, 22 and 26 of Ithaca. “The people will defend them, the community will defend them, against these kind of attacks.”

At about 1:20 a.m. on April 6, police officers patrolling the Commons on foot were alerted to an altercation and ran toward it to intervene. Body camera footage released on May 3 by Mayor Svante Myrick shows that within about 30 seconds, police tased Ferguson and tackled de Groat.

“Ithaca cops attacked, tasered and body slammed two African American residents who had already been the victims of an unprovoked assault by a white man,” Rickford said. “Instead of questioning the parties involved or attempting to deescalate the situation, which is what is called for in order to keep our communities safe … instead of doing this IPD rushed in and tasered Cadji, knocking him to the ground.”

About 100 people attended a rally Monday, May 13, against racism and police brutality on the Ithaca Commons. (Kelsey O’Connor/The Ithaca Voice)

In an April 8 news release, police said they observed Ferguson strike a man in the face and were “attacked from behind” by de Groat while attempting to take him into custody. Police did not indicate in the press release that they used a taser, but when asked by The Ithaca Voice, Public Information Officer Jamie Williamson said a taser was “utilized to control Cadji and stop him from resisting officers’ efforts to secure him in handcuffs.”

A statement released by Black Lives Matter Ithaca on social media on April 30 said Ferguson was responding to a sexual assault on his friend when he struck the other man who was involved. “Cadji had witnessed a man approach Cadji’s friend from behind and inappropriately grope her. Cadji attempted to intervene on her behalf and confronted the individual, who became hostile and attacked him,” the statement reads.

Body camera footage does not show the interaction leading up to police intervention, but in the videos released, several bystanders tell police that the man Ferguson struck initiated the altercation. Video footage does not show police questioning the man, who one officer calls Joseph, until after de Groat and Ferguson have already been led to police vehicles in handcuffs.

(Still from one of the police body camera videos released by the city.)

In one video, officers ask the man if he wants to press charges against Ferguson. After he says no, they say they do not need a statement from him. He can then be heard talking on the phone, saying, “These black guys f—– with me, and then I slapped them around a little bit, and they cold c—– me, and so they’re here and the officers are asking me should I press charges, so I said no, I don’t want to do that.” He then tells officers he is staying at the Hilton while his son tries out for the Cornell wrestling team, and they point him toward his hotel and tell him to get some rest.

Rickford and others at the rally said the leniency police showed toward the man was a manifestation of white supremacy.

“As they were brutalizing two African Americans connected to the incident, police never questioned, arrested, or even laid hands on the instigator of the scuffle … this is the guy who started it,” Rickford said. “Meanwhile, Cadji and the other African American involved in the incident are facing serious criminal charges and struggling to cope with physical and psychological trauma.”

A representative from the Multicultural Resource Center read a statement prepared by director Fabina Colon, which accused local media of reinforcing white supremacy. Initial reports relied on information from the police, which did not mention the use of a taser or allegations that the incident was instigated by a sexual assault. Subsequent reporting revealed that a taser was used on Ferguson, that police used force to bring de Groat to the ground and that the District Attorney determined video evidence did not support the two felony charges de Groat initially faced.

“Today, we continue to face tremendous injustice and oppression, because we are still unable to tell our own stories or control the construction and distribution of our narratives. You may connect the dots with the racist and hateful political agenda of Fox News, but Ithaca media is not exempt. The anti-black headlines, the one sided or biased storylines, the mug shots, and the problematic ‘neutral’ stance ethics all contribute to the oppression and criminalization of BIPOC (black, indigenous, people of color) while lifting up white-dominant narratives and supremacy,” the statement, which was also posted on social media earlier this month, read.

(Kelsey O’Connor/The Ithaca Voice)

Activist and farmer Rafael Aponte gave credit to Myrick at the rally for releasing body camera footage to the public, but said implicit bias training and an internal investigation are not sufficient to address “a long pattern of over-policing black bodies and under-policing black communities.”

Julia de Groat, who is the mother of Rose de Groat, spoke briefly and thanked the crowd for their support of her daughter and Ferguson. Rose, she said, “was raised to respect police officers and all public servants” and has oriented her time in school and work around helping others. She said her daughter “reacted with terror” when she saw police pull a weapon on her friend. “Over the past several years, Rose, Cadji and their friends have been raised on media coverage of black men dying in similar interactions with police,” she said.

At the rally speakers reiterated several demands listed in Black Lives Matter’s April 30 statement:

  • Release to the public all footage (security cameras, body cameras, etc.) of the events of the evening of April 6.
  • Drop all charges associated with the incident and issue a public apology.
  • Cover all healthcare expenses and other damages of those arrested.
  • Launch a full investigation of the individual who instigated the altercation by forcibly touching a woman without consent.
  • Discipline the officers who used excessive force during the arrest and mishandled the removal of the taser probes.
  • Acknowledge the larger pattern of discrimination against people of color by the IPD.
  • Equip the Community Police Board with real power to hold officers accountable.

They also called for community members to attend Ferguson’s next court hearing in Ithaca City Court at 9 a.m. Friday, May 17. Ferguson has pleaded not guilty to charges of resisting arrest and disorderly conduct.

De Groat’s next court appearance is scheduled for 9 a.m. Wednesday, June 5 at Ithaca City Court, according to current records in Ithaca City Court. De Groat initially faced two felony counts of second-degree attempted assault and a misdemeanor count of resisting arrest, but the District Attorney’s office reduced the felonies to two misdemeanor counts of obstructing governmental administration. She has pleaded not guilty.

Ithaca Police Chief Pete Tyler offered his perspective on the Commons incident in a letter to the editor May 6 and declined to offer further comment Tuesday.

Featured image: Russell Rickford, a history professor at Cornell and member of Black Lives Matter Ithaca, addresses a crowd gathered Monday, May 13, at the Bernie Milton Pavilion on the Ithaca Commons. (Kelsey O’Connor/The Ithaca Voice)

Managing Editor Kelsey O’Connor contributed to this report. 

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Devon Magliozzi is a reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at dmagliozzi@ithacavoice.com or 607-391-0328.