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A Forum on Ferguson

November 4, 2014

On October 22, two speaker sessions to commemorate National Day Against Police Brutality were presented by Professor Yolanda Martín and co-sponsored by BMCC’s Criminal Justice Program and the BMCC/John Jay College Justice Academy.

Students from BMCC and John Jay College, as well as professors, staff and members of the community filled the steep rows of tiered seats in room N-451 at BMCC’s main campus building.

The impetus for the sessions was the recent events of Ferguson, Missouri, a St. Louis suburb that drew national attention when Michael Brown, an unarmed, 18-year-old African-American teen was fatally shot by police officer Darren Wilson, and the community responded with protests that captured national attention.

Hard questions

“Do we really know what happened [in Ferguson]? Why don’t we know?” asked the evening’s first speaker.

John DeCarlo is an Associate Professor in the Department of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

He is also former Chief of Police of the Branford, Connecticut Police Department, and his talk, First Person: Why Some Police Departments Still Do Bad Things, also examined the recent death in Staten Island of Eric Garner, while under arrest for selling loose cigarettes.

Ramsey Orta, a friend of Eric Garner, made a cell phone video as police put Garner on the ground and subjected him to a chokehold.

DeCarlo discussed the case and asked questions such as, “Can white cops effectively police black communities? Can black cops effectively police white communities?”

In the weeks after Eric Garner’s death, he said, “36,000 cops were retrained and officers will face criminal charges,” and a student in the audience commented, “It was on camera, so they admit it.”

Another student added, “The police stereotype us just like we stereotype them.”

Deadly force

The second speaker, Delores Jones-Brown, directs the John Jay College Center on Race, Crime and Justice.

She is the author of Race, Crime and Punishment, as well as co-editor of The System in Black and White: Exploring the Connections between Race, Crime and Justice, and Policing and Minority Communities: Bridging the Gap.

Her talk, Fatal Profiles: Policing, Fear and the Danger of Racial Stereotypes challenged the legitimacy of “deadly force,” and she reviewed the history of individuals killed while under arrest, including Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell and Eric Garner.

A student in the audience commented, “I find that now, after 9/11, with some of the tactics police are being trained in, they want them to be more like soldiers,” and Professor Jones discussed what she referred to as “war language” in police education and training.

A history of uprising

The second panel session opened with a talk by Robert Garot, Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and author of Who You Claim: Performing Gang Identity in School and on the Streets, published by NYU Press in 2010.

Garot is also a facilitator for the Alternatives to Violence Project and has served as an advisor to the Department of Health and Human Services and the Urban Institute.

To put Michael Brown’s recent death in a historical context, he reviewed uprisings related to police brutality from 1919, in Chicago, to the present protests in Ferguson, and asked, “Are these shootings aberrations or part of a larger pattern?”

He pointed out the disproportionate number of African Americans who are imprisoned—“three to one,” and presented an analysis of the “closed” police culture in which “control of the police is typically carried out by other officers.”

CopWatch in Sunset Park

Latinos Challenge Police Abuses in Sunset Park was the topic of the next speaker, Dennis Flores, organizer of El Grito de Sunset Park.

He is also a photojournalist, community activist and member of CopWatch, a community group that films police officers' alleged misconduct and reports it.

Flores, who was imprisoned at age 16, became an advocate for prisoners’ rights, “making sure inmates weren’t hurting other inmates” and has worked with parents to organize against police brutality.

“In 2002 I was working as a peer counselor in a high school,” says Flores, “and I saw a youth I knew being beaten up by police officers at a subway station, in front of a token booth clerk.”

Flores photographed the incident and to get help, called the police from a phone booth—where he was maced, he says, by the officers he was reporting.

“Fifteen cops surrounded me. They crushed my camera and my head with a walkie-talkie. It took one and a half years for the charges against me to be dropped, and in six years we settled for $270,000.”

That settlement helped create CopWatch, a group that video records public events they identify as police brutality.

“It takes a group of disciplined people to not obstruct, and to form a chain of cameras to watch each others’ back,” Flores says, explaining that if one person is assaulted by police and his camera destroyed, the next person in the chain is recording the incident.

Most recently, CopWatch filmed a pregnant woman being pushed to the ground by police in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, a video that garnered wide media attention, and resulted in an investigation by the Internal Affairs Bureau of the police officers involved.

Know your rights

The evening’s final speaker, Djibril Toure, gave a talk entitled Telling Our Stories: Malcom X Grassroots Movement against NYPD Violence.

Toure is a college student, musician and business owner who has worked to make a change in the New York Police Department’s Stop and Frisk program. He has also advocated for passage of the Community Safety Act.

“I grew up in Bed-Stuy, and never had problems with police growing up,” says Toure. “[David] Dinkins was mayor then, and we had a black police commissioner," Lee P. Brown. 

Toure left his neighborhood to attend Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, “and when I came back, I was working as a musician and coming home late at night,” he says.

“One of these nights, a car rode by, put on its reverse lights, backed up a whole block and they said, ‘If you don’t show us some ID, you’re going to jail’. They searched me, went into my pockets, and I realized in the next few weeks, this was happening to everyone.”

Toure encouraged students to attend “Know Your Rights” workshops offered by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, the NYC Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild and others, so that they are informed and can handle being stopped by the police, in the safest way possible.

He also told the audience, “Find out what organizations you think are doing the right thing, and somehow make your voice heard.”

Know Your Rights workshop and Spoken Word event: December 3

Coming next in the Ferguson series of events is a Know Your Rights workshop led by Judge Sharon Bourne, at 11:00 a.m., and a Spoken Word Student Event at 12:30 p.m..

Both events are in N-451, on Wednesday, December 3. 

For more information, please contact Professor Yolanda C. Martin, 212-220-5274.


EDITOR’S NOTE: The BMCC Criminal Justice Program in the Social Sciences and Human Services Department of BMCC is a transfer-focused partnership between BMCC and John Jay College, CUNY. Students first earn an Associate of Arts in Criminal Justice at BMCC, then a Bachelor of Arts in Criminal Justice at John Jay College. For more information, call 212-220-1210 or click HERE.

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  • Two speaker sessions at BMCC commemorate National Day Against Police Brutality
  • Event organized by Professor Yolanda Martin and co-sponsored by BMCC's Criminal Justice Program and the BMCC/John Jay College Justice Academy
  • Students from both BMCC and John Jay College/CUNY attend

share this story »