This is a letter to the editor from three members of Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ). To submit opinion letters, email Managing Editor Kelsey O’Connor at koconnor@ithacavoice.com.

As members of the local chapter of the national initiative SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice), we have followed very carefully the April 6th incident on the Commons and its aftermath involving local African American citizens-in-good-standing Cadji Ferguson and Rose DeGroat.  We are writing to challenge the validity of D.A. Matt Van Houten’s recent statement to the public, published in the Voice, justifying his willingness to bring Rose DeGroat to trial on felony charges. https://www.scribd.com/document/429679913/Statement-from-District-Attorney-Matthew-Van-Houten.

Van Houten argues that Cadji and Rose never took responsibility for their own actions. On the contrary, their cases dragged on for months and months with their names and their integrity being constantly attacked. They had to attend repeated hearings and hold their heads high. That constitutes taking responsibility. Thankfully, all charges have been dropped. Why can’t they now move on? Instead, they have to withstand this very public criticism from the D.A. that they haven’t taken responsibility, once again besmirching their reputations.

Instead, we should look to the fact that the police have never taken public responsibility for their mishandling of the incident.

Some background information is in order: No parties involved in this case, including the police, have contested Cadji Ferguson’s claim at his trial that on that night on the Commons, Mr. Joseph Ming approached and then loomed an inch or so behind one of Cadji’s female friends. He was a large, intimidating middle-aged, drunken white man visiting from out-of-town. His actions were accurately perceived by the young people as sexually menacing. See also: https://ithacavoice.com/2019/10/letter-to-the-editor-reparations-need-to-be-made-to-cadji-ferguson-and-rose-degroat/

At the public forum promised by Mayor Myrick and welcomed by the D.A. in his statement, we hope to ask Mr. Van Houten how he would feel about a daughter, sister, or partner of his being menaced in this way. Ming’s actions lead to Cadji’s attempt to protect her and Rose’s subsequent effort to protect Cadji after he had been tased and thrown to the ground. Whether or not Ming actually touched – “groped” – the body of Rose and Cadji’s friend is beside the point. He was sexually threatening. The police at the time made no attempt to find out this essential background, treating him in a friendly way and sending him back to his hotel. He was just perceived as a potential parent of a student investigating sending his son to Cornell.

Van Houten is clouding the issue and defusing the attention that needs to be placed on the larger picture of police brutality and a system of disrespecting the community of color and their allies.

For these reasons, we reject Van Houten’s claim that the enraged public response to the behavior of the police on April 6th is based on a “fabrication” that a sexual assault was perpetrated by Mr. Joseph Ming. It is worth noting here that nobody involved in the case has disputed the description of Mr. Ming as very drunk and far bigger than either of the defendants.  And the police, in fact, consistently claim that his state of drunkenness explains their failure to question him at the scene at any time before or after the police assault on Cadji Ferguson and Rose DeGroat.

Further, the D.A. goes to great pains to explain in his statement that the legal process must not be influenced by social media posts, nor by press coverage. In reality, the facts revealed at both Cadji’s trial, when he was acquitted by Judge Miller, and in Rose’s lawyer, Mr. Kopko’s omnibus brief, which led Judge Rowley to free Rose of all charges, confirm that it was the drunken Mr. Ming’s sexually menacing behavior described above that provoked Cadji’s verbal demand that Ming back off.  It was Mr. Ming’s refusal to do so, followed by a pushing and shoving match, and then Ming’s aggressive swinging grasp of Cadji’s jacket, that led to Cadji’s single punch of Mr. Ming. Judge Miller found that to be a reasonable response to Ming’s aggression when he acquitted him.

The D.A., Matt Van Houten, asserts in his statement that Rose DeGroat’s flailing her arms, hitting and scratching the police officers in efforts to then protect her friend Cadji Ferguson from the potentially deadly force he was suffering at the hands of men who had never even announced themselves as policemen, represents behavior for which she and Cadji Ferguson have failed to take responsibility.

Yet Van Houten is clearly another party who has failed to take responsibility for his own behavior in this prolonged case which has caused so much financial and emotional suffering to the defendants. D. A. Van Houten’s assertion of a misguided public falsely charging racist police brutality in this case is typical of the national trend of prosecutors acknowledging acts of racist police violence anywhere but in the very communities they serve.  We refuse to tolerate such blindness to the reality that continuing conscious and unconscious white supremacy has led to our local D.A. being unwilling to challenge the obvious police brutality in this case. Tompkins County SURJ continues to support local Black Lives Matter and Multicultural Resource Center activists in the following demands:

DELIVER: issue monetary reparations to Rose and Cadji for months of pain and suffering, and hold accountable the cops who tasered and/or brutalized them on April 6, 2019.

DESIST: End the pattern of racist targeting of black and brown people by establishing a strong, independent civilian police review board with subpoena powers to conduct investigations.

DIVERT: Divert budgetary funds from over-policing (policies that target the poor and communities of color) to affordable housing.

DEMILITARIZE: Ban police tasers and tactical raids on homes, and transform the Ithaca SWAT truck into a mobile health clinic.

Michael E. Moritz, Kathy Russell, Cheyenne Carter

Ithaca, N.Y.

Featured image: Demonstration in front of Tompkins County Courthouse on Friday, Sept. 20, 2019.