Film ignites outrage, discussion

By Ashley Johnson

Audience members shook their heads during a video screening Saturday as they watched footage of a boy venting his frustrations toward local police.

“‘Cause we’re black, the police always want to do something … they want to arrest us because we are black,” said the youth in the video.

The scene was part of a documentary filmed over the summer by Martell Miller and Patrick Thompson, founding members of Visionaries Educating Youth and Adults (VEYA). CU Citizens for Peace and Justice held a public screening of the video at the Champaign Public Library Saturday afternoon.

Miller said the boy’s sentiment is shared by other youth in the community, including his 13-year-old son. He said their distrust of police prompted him to begin filming traffic stops.

“All we wanted to do is just bring our community together,” he said to an audience of about 70 people after the video screening.

“From what we taped, we know there are a lot of problems in our community, a lot of heavy police harassment and intimidation – and we need to work on our relationship,” Miller said.

Champaign Police Chief R.T. Finney said Miller was charged by the Champaign County State’s Attorney’s Office with three counts of eavesdropping. Two of the charges were brought because of the video’s audio content, which recorded on-duty police officers. The third charge stems from the documentary Miller and Thompson filmed. Police acquired the videotape after it had been submitted to Urbana Public Television (UPTV). Thompson also has been charged with one count of eavesdropping for the tape.

Aaron Ammons, member of CU Citizens for Peace and Justice, said the organization was not trying to antagonize the police.

“The law is the law, but it has to be applied equally in Champaign,” he said. “Where are the campus police when the white students are there with public drunkenness and destruction of property?”

Ammons was referring to a segment of the video that compared police coverage outside Champaign’s Club Extreme, 55 East Main St., with that of the Campustown area at around 2 a.m. on the same night. Numerous police were shown outside Club Extreme; some were carrying canisters of what Ammons said was probably mace or pepper spray. Similar footage showed a group of predominately white students flooding Green Street as the bars closed. One student uprooted a potted plant and others jaywalked. No police were present in the Green Street footage.

Sarah Lazare, junior in LAS, said the footage accurately reflected what she has seen in Champaign.

“It’s pretty clear that there is disparate treatment between locals and University students,” she said. “All you have to do is walk through Campustown when bars close to see that University students are allowed to walk around drunk, and then ride to Club Extreme and see that locals aren’t even allowed to stand around publicly.”

Lazare said she was particularly bothered by a scene showing assistant state’s attorney, Elizabeth Dobson, videotaping Thompson while he was videotaping traffic stops.

“I’m pretty outraged at police behavior,” she said. “It shows that this isn’t just a case of random prosecution, but that he was being watched. That says a lot about our rights to free speech in society – or lack thereof.”

Ammons encouraged people to voice their frustration by voting in local elections and writing to The News-Gazette and political officials.

CU Citizens for Peace and Justice will meet Thursday at 6 p.m. at the Douglass Branch Library, 504 E. Grove, in Champaign to plan further action.

For Champaign resident and Evangelist Valerie Ammons, dissatisfaction with local police is nothing new. Ammons said she has experienced police harassment in the past and the video reinforced her belief that the police are not doing their job for the community.

“I think, more than anything, I’m hurt because the people we think are serving and protecting us are not serving and protecting us,” she said. “We’ve died, we pay our taxes, we do all of these things like everyone else. When does it end?”