Bennett student not guilty, questions remain

by Eric Ginsburg Twitter: @Eric_Ginsburg

Two days before Bennett College graduate Ashley Buchanan would appear in court to defend herself, NC Sen. Gladys Robinson rallied more than 150 students and community members to her cause.

“It could’ve been any of you,” she said from the stage at the campus chapel. “It could’ve been me many years ago. We must be able to feel safe in this community.”

Robinson, who represents Guilford County and is the deputy minority leader in the Senate, called the community meeting to draw attention to Buchanan’s case stemming from a noise complaint about a graduation party at the Sebastian Village apartment complex in April.

The incident, in which some community members say police overreacted and used excessive force, resulted in four arrests, sparked outrage among some community members and prominent Bennett alumni like Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson and Robinson.

Former Bennett President Julianne Malveaux testified at the trial in Buchanan’s defense.

Two days after the state senator’s event last week, on Aug. 29, Buchanan was found not guilty of assaulting or resisting an officer, but questions about disparate police treatment remain. Members of the predominantly college-age, black audience and featured speakers at the Bennett meeting said the forceful police response to the party wouldn’t have been the same if the students had been white.

“This kind of treatment didn’t happen on another side of town,” Robinson said. “This will follow [the arrested students] and it should not be happening. Your rights are being threatened because you’re in this community.”

Robinson, Joyce Johnson from the Beloved Community Center and Southern Coalition for Social Justice lawyer Anita Earls spoke on the panel, providing an account of the incident, outlining what people could do and calling on attendees to support Buchanan in court.

The other three students were pressured into taking plea deals and apologizing for their actions, they said, but Buchanan was standing up for herself and, by extension, her community. Johnson compared Buchanan to Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer and former Bennett President Willa Player for not being intimidated and maintaining her innocence.

“A noise complaint is not criminality… yet our officers turned up in force,” Johnson said. “We need safety but we need accountability. [Buchanan] has an uphill battle; that’s why it’s important for you to be there.”

It appeared as though the entire audience at the meeting stood at their seats when Johnson asked who would be willing to attend court to support Buchanan. About 50 supporters filled the courtroom, including Mayor Pro Tem Johnson.

The event drew representatives of the NC A&T University Student Government Association, dozens of Bennett students, District 2 city council candidate Jamal Fox, NC Rep. Alma Adams and other concerned residents. Robinson raised questions about whether police receive appropriate training, how officers view southeast Greensboro and other questions about how the incident transpired.

Greensboro police Chief Ken Miller and Capt. James Hinson were in attendance, but Robinson said the meeting was not a forum to debate the specifics of the incident.

After the meeting, Miller disputed the speakers’ characterization of the incident. Johnson described that an officer initially gave Buchanan permission to retrieve her purse and phone from the apartment while police were trying to disperse the crowd, but Miller denied that.

“Nobody told her she could go back in,” he said, adding that it seemed injected to create some doubt in people’s minds about what happened.

The department conducted an internal investigation after receiving complaints from Buchanan and other arrestees, ultimately firing Officer JR Payne for dishonesty and disciplining two others. Officer RP Scarborough received a one day suspension without pay for failing to report Buchanan’s injuries from her arrest, which Miller said amounted to rug burn and minor nose scrape.

Miller recommended that the Guilford County District Attorney drop charges against two of the students because their arrests were lawful but unnecessary, but he maintained that Buchanan should have been charged for resisting arrest and slapping an officer multiple times. Last week, he said Buchanan slapped the officer two or three times during her arrest. Officer Clint Franklin testified at the trial that he saw Buchanan slap Scarborough twice.

Six Bennett students and graduates testified in Buchanan’s defense, all providing similar accounts and testifying that they didn’t see Buchanan drinking at the party or slap the officer. Defense witnesses said Buchanan was tackled, described more serious injuries than Miller including bleeding on her face and bruising on her arm.

Buchanan also testified in her own defense, saying several officers “jumped” on her initially. Outside the apartment, the handcuffs came off her wrist, likely because she is small, Buchanan said, and police pushed her face against the brick wall as she was cuffed again. She also denied drinking at the party and said she “absolutely” didn’t slap Scarborough.

After Buchanan was found not guilty, Miller said the department respects the decision of the court.

“From the perspective of our officers’ actions, we have thoroughly investigated the incident and allegations made and have fully addressed any issues over two months ago,” Miller said via e-mail. “We continue to believe that we fully understand what took place, as well as where the students and officers acted inappropriately.”

To Buchanan’s supporters, the incident illustrates the department’s mistreatment of residents, especially people of color, and speaks to the need for greater accountability mechanisms such as a civilian review board.

“I think the wrong people are going to court,” said the Rt. Rev. Chip Marble, assisting bishop for the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina, at Robinson’s meeting. “Couldn’t the charges have been brought against the officers who assaulted the students? If this had happened at a white university, all hell would’ve broken loose.”

In their complaints filed with the city, Buchanan and other students said officers “slammed” and assaulted them, erroneously arrested them and overreacted. Miller said the students exaggerated and lied about the incident, citing a 911 call from an attendee that falsely claimed police drew their guns.

Accounts on both sides confirm some officers held Tasers and used profanity.

Earls told the audience that Buchanan and the other students could have the grounds for a state civil suit for unjustified use of force, wrongful arrest and malicious prosecution and even a federal case if they could show they were treated differently than white college students. The Southern Coalition for Social Justice, where Earls works, represented the other three students who were arrested.

Earls said that while a civil suit could award damages, the hope would be that would lead to institutional reform that would assure police wouldn’t treat students like this in the future. More significant than legal action, she said, was people meaningfully engaging the issue by coming to court, exercising their voting rights and organizing for change.

Wesley Morris, an organizer with the Beloved Community Center, invited attendees to join a youth effort pushing for police accountability in Greensboro and emphasized the center’s Our Democratic Mission document that chronicles numerous cases of local police abuse.

Miller has said the document is riddled with errors, and said after the meeting that a civilian review board — which critics are pushing for — wouldn’t change anything. The department has nothing to hide, he said, and a different review process wouldn’t have released more information than the department did in this case. The processes already in place, through internal affairs and the Greensboro Human Relations Department’s complaint review committee, are adequate and are already being strengthened, he said.

Johnson and others disagree, saying that police abused and falsely charged Buchanan. If police can’t respect these young, black college women, Johnson asked, what does that say about how they treat other residents?

Alex Ashe contributed reporting to this article.