September 22, 2019

GUEST ROOM | The Social Construction of Police Lies

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As a recent retiree from college teaching with some time now to devote to social action in my community of Ithaca, I have closely followed the cases of young African American defendants Cadji Ferguson and Rose DeGroat since the disturbing incident on the Commons on April 6.

The facts of the case were actually undisputed at Mr. Ferguson’s trial on Aug. 30 when he was acquitted of all charges. At trial, Judge Scott Miller found that Cadji Ferguson’s single punch of a drunk white man, Joseph Ming, was a reasonable response to a private conflict, following Ming’s menacing and increasingly escalating, aggressive behavior towards Cadji and his small group of friends on the Commons that evening.

Although the prosecutor worked hard to support the claim backed by the Ithaca Police Department that officer Gregory Herz responded appropriately, with his stated focus on intervening in a dangerous public disturbance, the prosecutor’s case was stymied by the facts. Herz and another policeman body slammed to the ground both Ferguson and DeGroat, and tased Ferguson (further injuring him when incompetently removing the taser), while failing to  question Mr. Ming, whom the officer judged “too drunk to respond,” sending him back to his hotel room to “sleep it off.” Yet the “fact” of the case that was most fascinating to me has gotten no attention.

When questioned at the trial by Ferguson’s lawyer about his estimation of the number of people on the Commons at the time of the incident, Herz responded, “about 75.”  The lawyer then directed the officer to approach the projection of the enhanced video footage on the screen at the front of the courtroom — footage of a scan of the entire Commons’ scene that night, immediately preceding the sudden rush of the officers. The lawyer, Seth Peacock, directed Herz to count the number of people, (the images of their entire bodies readily visible to all in the courtroom). Herz counted 14. I noted that at least three of the 14 were policemen. When Peacock asked the officer to explain the discrepancy between the actual 14 people present, and his testimony that there had been 75, Herz responded that he didn’t think the numbers were important.

Those of us in the broad field of critical educational studies, and our teacher and professor allies who also make the case for genuinely interdisciplinary curriculum at all levels of schooling, understand that the capacity to separate what is real from what is imaginary is equally important and elusive. That’s why we want consciousness of the full range of human reality — from our not always rational mental processing, to the complications of unequal power relations in our social arrangements — reflected in every aspect of the curriculum.

From the standpoint of the law, Herz simply lied in the courtroom that day when he grossly inflated the number of people present, legally “helping” to discredit his case. But from the perspective of a mind infused with the internalized social structures that can actually direct neural pathways, reality gets distorted. White supremacy is an example of one such social structure, and we can surmise how the distortion is likely to play out in the case of this particular officer’s mind.

The image of (in this case) an average or below-average size black man delivering a punch to a towering, over six foot, and heavy-set white man — with these two men, in fact, surrounded by a group of only seven to nine others — can actually “appear” to be a dark monster unleashing his savage energy on a helpless victim in the company of 70 or so equally vulnerable others. Such mistaken appearances are the product of visceral damage to the human spirit and vision, in this case damage inflicted by the literal internalizing of the invisible-because-normalized politics of white supremacy.

None of the above is intended to excuse the brutality of the police in this case, nor the willingness of a reputedly liberal judicial community to allow the lives of two young African American citizens of long-term Ithaca families to be devastated by continued public humiliation and its related material costs. Rather, it’s a plea for the cultivation of a deeper level of awareness than most formal education will provide, and more importantly, a plea that we consistently and vigorously act as citizens on that deeper level of awareness to protect our democracy and our planet.

Fortunately, we experienced the beginnings of action based on such deeper awareness at both Saturday’s climate strike and the “Free Rose” demonstration at the Tompkins County Courthouse that followed. Speakers at both events repeatedly drew connections between the necessary pursuits of environmental justice and social justice. Both events were significantly led by young people — many of them young people of color — students of life and students at local schools, including some from Cornell. And both events repeatedly drew connections between the spiritual and political healing that needs to commence now, locally and globally.

Let’s all of us agree to become students who will educate our lives with deep interdisciplinary curricula, like that available in the neighborhoods and streets of our community on Friday.  And acting on the wisdom of such an interdisciplinary curriculum, let’s demand that the authorities empowered to do so free Rose DeGroat from the devastating effects of mistaken appearances.
Barbara Regenspan is an emeritus professor of educational studies at Colgate University. She is the author of the 2014 book Haunting and the Educational Imagination. Comments may be sent to opinion@cornellsun.com.