Protestors disrupt council to support CharlesBy Yasmine Regester / May 5, 2017
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Demonstrators took over the Greensboro City Council meeting on Tuesday night after council refused to take action on a police brutality case.
Dozens of community activists and supporters of 16 year-old Jose Charles and his mother, Tamara Figueroa, packed council chambers on Tuesday night. Carrying bright pink signs that read ‘Justice For Jose’ and ‘We Believe The PCRB’ the group urged council to take action against the police department and the pending court case against the minor.
“Jose is just a kid,” said Greensboro resident, Kirstin Cassell. “And his mom’s asking for help from her community, from this city council. Direct the police chief to withdraw all the evidence in the case so Jose doesn’t face getting locked up. Figure out a path to protecting this child.”
Charles was 15 years-old when he was arrested in Downtown Greensboro at the Fun Fourth Festival July 2016. According to his mother, Tamara Figueroa, her son was first attacked by a group of teenagers, which prompted police to intervene and arrest her son. Charles was charged with malicious assault on an officer, disorderly conduct, simple affray and resisting arrest. He is also accused of spitting blood on an officer’s face. His mother disputes that claim and asserts that her son was abused by the police officers when they arrested him.
Community members have pleaded with city council for months to make the police worn body camera footage public. Those members also want council to intervene in the complaint process which many believe has taken too long to assess. Supporters of Jose Charles have requested that the council direct Chief of Police, Wayne Scott, to ask the Guilford County District Attorney’s office to drop the charges against Charles’ before his scheduled court date on May 11.Mayor Nancy Vaughan stated that council was prepared to hear multiple speakers on the issue, and restructured the order of the meeting, moving the Speakers From the Floor section to the end of the agenda to allow for more time.
Audience members cheered or directed comments to the council, only four people out of the 23 signed up to speak were able to do so before the meeting was shut down. Mayor Vaughan threatened to clear council chambers a few times, before directing security to remove Black Lives Matter organizer and Greensboro resident, Irving Allen. The crowd erupted. They formed a protective circle around Allen and proceeded to chant before the council called for a recess.
Supporters of Charles stayed behind in the chambers, chanting, singing without the city council. Greensboro police were sent in about 30 minutes later to evacuate the council chambers and shut down the building.
“We tried to give people an opportunity to speak and say what they wanted to say,” said Vaughan after the meeting had been adjourned. She noted that the city attorney had already instructed council on what they legally can and cannot do.
“We are holding up the oath of office. We can’t insert ourselves into the judicial process,” she added.
The Greensboro City Council has publicly released police worn body camera footage in the past, in the Dejuan Yourse case in 2016 and the Scales brothers case in 2014, which Vaughan asserts both differ from the Charles case.
The council previously voted on March 7 in a 5 to 4 vote, to view the video footage in closed session after the completion of the complaint investigation by the City of Greensboro’s Police Community Review Board (PCRB). The lengthy complaint process began months ago when Figueroa filed a complaint with the Greensboro Police Professional Standards Division in August 2016, which found the officer not guilty of any wrongdoing.
Figueroa appealed the decision to the PCRB, a review board comprised of residents who investigate complaints against the police department. The board disagreed with the police department’s decision and recommended that Chief of Police Wayne Scott review the incident.
According to the board, Scott backed the findings of the initial Professional Standards Division review, which sent the matter back to City Manager Jim Westmoreland for the final decision. Westmoreland has filed a report on his final decision. At this time it has not been made public. Figueroa has asserted that the city manager sided with the police department.
The video footage was also troubling for Lindy Garnette, YWCA Greensboro CEO, who said she was forced to resign from the PCRB by the city attorney and chair of the human relations commission on April 28, after she spoke publicly about the PCRB’s disagreement with the police department’s internal affairs decision. Upon appointment to the board, PCRB members are required to sign confidentiality agreements that prohibit them from publicly discussing the cases they review or the personnel actions and decisions taken on the officers. Garnette believes she did not violate policy because she only indicted that the board disagreed with the police department’s investigation findings.
“The PCRB does not have the authority to take action over officers, we only make recommendations. I didn’t say any specifics about the case, about the officers involved or what actions may or may not happen to the officers,” said Garnette, who also called the video “distressing.”
“I understand law and that this is a minor, but the council does not have to divulge any information to take action,” she added. Following Garnette’s departure, two more PCRB members resigned voluntarily.
State law also bars people other than those in the video to view the footage. Exceptions are guardians if the person videoed is a juvenile and the person’s attorneys. Any requests to view the footage would require a court order from a judge.
Permission for council to view the footage was granted by Superior Court Judge David Hall on April 17, under the stipulation that council members did not discuss the footage outside of closed session. The council spent hours in closed session on Monday night and Tuesday, viewing the video.
During Tuesday’s meeting, District 1 Council member Sharon Hightower asked City Attorney Tom Carruthers if she could make a motion that the Chief of Police direct the Guilford County District Attorney’s office to drop the charges against Charles. While Carruthers said it was legal to do so, he warned that it violated the separation of powers between the legislative body and the judicial body.
“I’m just as upset and angry as the next person,” said Hightower who said she understood the community’s frustrations. “I get it. I wish they [community] would understand that some of us up here get it too. But in order to get to a better place, we have to listen to one another.”
Hightower later noted that any action that the council could take would merely be a symbolic gesture of support of Charles. The council body has expressed concerns over what the state legislature could do to the city if they challenged the state’s body worn camera law.
“We’re put into a position where we don’t want to cause more problems or impugn the judicial processes,” said Hightower.
Although no action was taken by council on Tuesday night, community members still deemed the demonstration a victory. Longtime community activist, Rev. Nelson Johnson of Beloved Community Center noted that the protest was necessary in calling attention to the city council’s lack of action to the case.
“When people stand up and show courage, it wakes up the rest of the community. I think this shows that these cases have accumulated,” he said. “The council has the authority as elected officials and they chose not to exercise that authority.”
After the close of the council meeting, demonstrators took to the streets and marched from the Melvin Municipal Office Building to the south side of Center City Park. A group of eight women dressed in pink were subsequently arrested after sitting down in the middle of Friendly Avenue, the area where Charles was arrested by police last summer. The rest of the protestors then marched to the Guilford County Jail where they rallied and waited on the release of those arrested.
“Never give up. Keep fighting for what is right and just,” said Figueroa to a crowd in front of the jail. “We’re going to keep going for accountability and to free my son from juvenile prison.”