Though the fireworks at Stewart Park created a dazzling display of light, the real fireworks were at the July 3 Common Council meeting, most coming during a lengthy public comment session.
Many residents came to speak about an incident on the Ithaca Commons on April 6, with all of them calling on council members to dismiss the charges against Cadji Ferguson and Rose DeGroat. Ferguson and DeGroat were both charged with offenses after an altercation with a third party on the Commons, but video showed that the police reaction to the incident was particularly rough for DeGroat, who was swung to the ground and held down by three officers after reacting to Ferguson's arrest. Ferguson was charged with disorderly conduct and plead not guilty, while DeGroat was charged with two felonies of second degree attempted assault, along with misdemeanors of resisting arrest and obstruction of governmental administration. She, too, plead not guilty.
Residents came holding signs saying, “Justice for Rose and Cadji” and “Power to the Community Peace Board.” Residents filled the room, seeking justice after the incident, which inspired a rally held by the local activism group Stand Up for Racial Justice outside of City Hall prior to the council meeting.
During the public comment portion of the meeting, residents urged the Common Council, Mayor Svante Myrick, Tompkins County District Attorney Matthew Van Houten to meet the demands of #BlackLivesMatter in Ithaca (BLMI). In a Facebook post, BLMI asked Common Council to drop all the charges against those who were involved in the incident, issue a public apology, cover all healthcare expenses of those arrested, investigate the individual who instigated the altercation (allegedly a white male who, according to the Commons videos, may have inappropriately touched a woman, which led to Ferguson confronting him), discipline the officers who used excessive force and, “acknowledge the larger pattern of discrimination against people of color by the IPD and equip the Community Police Board with real power to hold officers accountable.”
As reported in a WSKG article last week, interim IPD chief Dennis Nayor said an internal investigation had concluded and no officers would be additionally disciplined.
One resident spoke in detail about what DeGroat and Ferguson would need in order to recover. She prefaced her statement by saying that the citizens are not responsible to the Common Council, but rather the council members are responsible for the citizens. She demanded $1.5 million in compensation for both DeGroat and Ferguson, with a budget line of $5 million dedicated to retraining police officers to deal with officers in a non-violent manner. Other residents looked to have officers better educated about the safety of tasers.
Mayor Myrick spoke after the bevy of comments from residents about how the perpetuation of structural racism has continued based on a variety of factors. He also said the public’s attendance of these meeting is just as important as protesting, activism, and other efforts to better the community. Following this, he called upon Nayor to speak about some of the plans for the Ithaca Police Department to try to have officers receive better training on conflict resolution and de-escalating conflict.
While Nayor was attempting to speak about new types of training officers are receiving to deal with community members, residents continued to demand answers from city officials about whether DeGroat and Ferguson would be released. Alderperson Seph Murtagh gave his thoughts on the incident, asking Chief Nayor what can be done to keep this from happening again.
Nayor responded to his question by saying officers are being given training and noting his attempts to be progressive in his work, though he has only been in power since the beginning of May after former Police Chief Pete Tyler's retirement. However, a growing feeling of dissatisfaction in responses plagued the room, causing residents to walk out. Alderperson Laura Lewis commented, saying police officers are often put in situations where they have to make split-second decisions, with some of them being poorly made.
Alderperson Cynthia Brock did bring an idea to have a letter written to support dropping the charges against Ferguson and DeGroat. She spoke about how, after seeing the videos of DeGroat and Ferguson, she does have some fears about people being harmed in this fashion. Councilors Stephen Smith and Graham Kerslick said they look forward to having a separate forum to address community concerns. The notion picked up more momentum as Alderpersons George McGonigal and Ducson Nguyen said they would support a resolution to drop the charges against DeGroat and Ferguson.
Following this, the council took a 15-minute recess to address members of the public before proceeding with the rest of the meeting’s agenda.