ITHACA, N.Y. — On what would ordinarily be a quiet holiday week in City Hall, more than 30 members of the public packed Common Council Chambers to demand a response to an April 6 incident, in which two young black people were forcefully arrested by Ithaca police after an altercation on the Ithaca Commons. Coordinated by the local chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice, the crowded public comment session focused on demands released by Black Lives Matter Ithaca, including that charges are dropped, reparations paid and officers investigated.

“We at Tompkins County SURJ are appalled by the lack of an adequate response,” Natalie Hughes said to Mayor Svante Myrick and the members of Common Council on behalf of the group, which she said is organized to resist white supremacy by following the lead of people of color. The group delivered 100 signed postcards to the mayor demanding that the city’s representatives hold the police department accountable to stopping the criminalization of black people.

The public outcry stems from an incident that took place at about 1:20 a.m. April 6 on the Ithaca Commons that was captured, in large part, by police body cameras. On April 6, a group of officers was alerted to an altercation on the Commons while on foot patrol. Body camera footage shows officers running toward a group of people and, less than 30 seconds later, tasing Cadji Ferguson, 26, of Ithaca. While Ferguson is brought to the ground and handcuffed his friend Rose de Groat, 23, of Ithaca, can be heard yelling as she is also brought to the ground and handcuffed by officers. As the two are arrested, several eye witnesses tell police that an older white man instigated the altercation by groping a friend of Ferguson and de Groat’s. Later footage shows police talking to the man, who is never handcuffed or arrested, as he tells someone on the phone that he “slapped around” some black guys.

Ferguson has plead not guilty in Ithaca City Court to misdemeanor charges of resisting arrest and disorderly conduct and de Groat has plead not guilty in Tompkins County Court to second-degree attempted assault, a felony, as well as resisting arrest and obstructing governmental administration.

At Wednesday’s meeting, several speakers characterized police officers’ treatment of Ferguson and de Groat as racially biased, pointing to disparities in how the two were treated compared to the man who allegedly instigated the incident. Referring to the body camera footage, which Myrick made public in May, one speaker said it’s clear “there are different realities for different people in Ithaca,” while another said Ferguson and de Groat “were attacked by police because they are black, and for no other reason.”

A total of 16 people took the podium at Common Council to echo sentiments like these, while over a dozen more held signs with the message, “Drop all charges! Justice for Rose & Cadji.”

Phoebe Brown speaks at a Common Council meeting on July 3. (Devon Magliozzi/Ithaca Voice)

Several commenters said their goal was to amplify demands put forth by Black Lives Matter Ithaca:

  • 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.

By the end of the session, Myrick and multiple council members promised to send a letter to the District Attorney’s Office requesting that charges against Ferguson and de Groat are dropped. Myrick emphasized that he does not have the authority to choose whether to prosecute a case. However, when asked directly by Alderperson Cynthia Brock whether he would draft a letter recommending that District Attorney Matthew Van Houten drop charges, Myrick said, “I’d be happy to.”

“I’m sure members of council would be willing to support that measure,” Brock said, adding, “I had many concerns upon viewing the videotape, as a woman, as a mother of a beautiful young black man who lives in this community, I have concerns both in our community and in other communities as he navigates his way through this world.”

Brock acknowledged that addressing structural racism would take time, but said while watching footage of the April incident she was struck by how officers gave the alleged instigator the benefit of the doubt without granting Ferguson and de Groat the same.

Several Common Council members explicitly stated that they would sign on to a letter to the DA, including Brock, Steven Smith, George McGonigal and Ducson Nguyen. Others did not have a chance to speak directly to the question, as discussion was cut off by an outburst from a frustrated member of the public.

Acting Chief Dennis Nayor spoke at Wednesday’s Common Council meeting. (Devon Magliozzi/Ithaca Voice)
Acting Chief Dennis Nayor spoke at Wednesday’s Common Council meeting. (Devon Magliozzi/Ithaca Voice)

While no concrete promises were made with regard to reparations, representatives acknowledged the costs Ferguson and de Groat have faced as a result of the April 6 incident, including legal and medical expenses, loss of employment and emotional trauma. Myrick said any funds paid by the city would need to be negotiated by attorneys for the involved parties, but did not dismiss the possibility of reparations being made. Alderperson Laura Lewis likewise kept the possibility of some form of reparations on the table, adding, “What’s important for me is to think about the ways moving forward for addressing this incident and really looking at the ways we can make positive change for the future.”

Myrick said state law prevents him from commenting on ongoing investigations, whether of the man accused of groping a young woman or of the officers involved. He announced in May that he had ordered an internal investigation of officers’ conduct and IPD’s handling of the incident.

The mayor said he is “very interested” in equipping the Community Police Board, which acts as a liaison to the police department, with oversight power, but cautioned that such a change would take time.

The question of whether the IPD is implicated in a larger pattern of discrimination against people of color was strung through all of the night’s discussions, with speakers on both sides of the council table addressing structural racism in Ithaca and throughout the country.

Referencing the Civil Rights demonstrations of the 1960s, longtime community activist Phoebe Brown said, “We share bathrooms, we share water fountains, but equality and equity we don’t share … What is so sad for me is to watch those videos, to watch that young man and that young lady experience what we experienced in the ’60s, in the ’50s, in the ’40s, since we arrived on Turtle Island.” Watching the videos, Brown said to Common Council, “should hurt you as much as it hurt me.”

Acting Police Chief Dennis Nayor, who was in the role of deputy chief at the time of the incident and was promoted upon Chief Pete Tyler’s retirement, said he was listening and would work to build legitimacy and trust.

“If people are looking at actions that occur and the first thought is that it’s racist, then there’s something we need to be doing better,” Nayor said.

The rules of a Common Council meeting, which include three-minute time limits for public commenters and no real opportunity for back-and-forth between the public and the city, appeared to frustrate many community members seeking accountability and direct answers to their demands. The mayor and acting chief said they would contact SURJ and BLMI within a day to schedule a community forum that would be open to the public and more conducive to conversation.

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Featured image: A few dozen people spoke or held signs calling for charges against two Ithacans to be dropped (Devon Magliozzi/Ithaca Voice)

Devon Magliozzi

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