Sarah Skinner / Sun Managing Editor

Over 100 protesters flooded the Tompkins County Courtroom to rally against the arrest of two young black Ithaca residents facing criminal charges for resisting arrest.

August 27, 2019

Ithaca Commons Arrests of Two Young Black Residents Will Continue to Trials, as Protesters Call for Dropped Charges and Reparations

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Protestors and attorneys continued the cases of two young black Ithaca residents facing criminal charges for an April altercation with police on Monday, as a six-minute procedural hearing became a local platform for the nation’s ongoing debate about police brutality.

On April 6, officers on the Ithaca Commons arrested Rose de Groat, 22, and Cadji Ferguson, 26, after an altercation with a middle-aged white man, in which police say Ferguson struck the man. During the Ithaca Police Department intervention, police say that de Groat hit two officers in the head who approached her from behind while they tried to detain Ferguson.

In body camera footage of the incident released by Mayor Svante Myrick ’09, Ferguson, who was tased by the officers, told the police while on the ground that the man had “tried to assault his friend.”

De Groat was initially charged with two counts of assault in the second degree. Her charges were reduced to one count of resisting arrest and two counts of obstructing governmental administration in the second degree, The Sun previously reported.

In his opening statement in court on Monday, District Attorney Matthew Van Houten said that, contrary to the current narrative, “no one was groped, no one was touched in any manner, the entire theory of this case that has been publicized to the public … is false.”

He added that, despite this, there had been written correspondence with de Groat’s counsel with the aim of removing any permanent record, and the court’s proceedings were taking place to ensure the terms for the deal were understood.

The plea deal being offered, highlighted in Van Houten’s opening statement, would drop charges against de Groat leaving “no record, no permanent charges,” if she pled guilty to the non-criminal charges.

The deal was rejected by de Groat and her team, and in court attorney Ed Kopko, who is defending de Groat, called the offering an effort to “squeeze this young lady into pleading guilty for a charge she was not guilty for.”

The judge, John C. Rowley ’82, called the hearing a “waste of everyone’s time” since the date for trial had already been set for Nov. 4 and de Groat was not interested in the deal. Rowley questioned why the matter was being discussed in court that day, and why there were so many members of the Ithaca community present.

“Decision making is not done by grandstanding,” Rowley said, concluding the court’s proceedings in under six minutes.

The approximately 100 attendees at the hearing collected outside the courthouse afterwards to protest for charges to be dropped, and for further reparations to be awarded to de Groat and Ferguson.   

De Groat told The Sun after the hearing that she had not originally expected for her case to go to trial.

Ferguson said the same, and that he was surprised that the older white man accused of groping, who was never charged by police, has not yet been called into the proceedings.

In the body camera footage released after the incident, the officers asked the middle aged white man — who said he was in Ithaca for his son’s Cornell wrestling tryouts — whether he would like to pursue charges. On the phone, he consults someone, saying, “these black guys fucked with me. And then I slapped them around a little bit … they, they cold cocked me.”

“He hasn’t been subpoenaed, nothing. It’s kind of crazy to me,” Ferguson said. “And I feel like that would have made everything go a little bit faster.”

Ferguson said that he had hoped that Monday’s hearing might have changed something more for de Groat. He also didn’t expect Rowley’s judgement to be “that quick, or that rude.”

Ferguson is due back in Ithaca City Court at 9:30 a.m. this Friday.

Prof. Russell Rickford, history, held a sign that said “racist cops – henchmen of the capitalist order,” and gave a speech urging the community to continue to escalate the issue and send a message to the police, members of council and the mayor —“the entire power structure.”

In an interview with The Sun after the crowd had dissipated, Rickford attributed the turnout to the community being able to recognize a clear case of police brutality, “with different treatment for the white guy from out of town on one hand, the instigator of the entire incident, and the two black people … victimized by this militarized police response.”

In an internal investigation conducted by the IPD, interim Chief Dennis Nayor said that the officers had acted in accordance to department policies and they would be facing no punishment.

“That’s a disappointing outcome, because I think we could all see with our own eyes that they overreacted,” Myrick said during this month’s Common Council meeting. “The City of Ithaca holds police officers to high standards, and we feel like the officers in this case didn’t rise to this standard, they didn’t meet the level we would expect.”

Barbara Regenspan, an emeritus professor at Colgate University, told The Sun before the hearing that the incident derived from “the militarization of the police force.” 

“It’s a no-brainer,” Regenspan said. “The sickening thing about it is that everyone knows. It’s following the same patterns all over the country … It’s not that different from the Eric Garner murder.”

Garner died from a police chokehold in Staten Island in 2014, and charges against the responsible NYPD officer were dropped in July 2019, but the officer in question was fired earlier this month.

Rickford also commented on how the city was not removed from national problems.

“Ithaca cultivates this image of a precious little enclave where nothing bad happens and the truth is … you can find all the pathologies that are present in larger society including racism,” he said.