by Jay Monaco

As smartphone video and social media make it ever easier to document instances of police misconduct, a dark pattern of behavior across our law enforcement departments has emerged. This is particularly true when it comes to police treatment of African-Americans. We all know the big names – Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, RIP – and these extrajudicial executions serve to underscore the more numerous but easier to overlook cases of police officers’ casual brutality, trumped up charges, robbery, harassment, evidence planted and fabricated against community members, especially those of color.

Would it shock you to think such a thing could happen right in Lowell, Massachusetts? Well, here’s another name for you to remember – Devante Degree. Following a police-instigated altercation in 2013, then 21-year-old Degree, unarmed, was pepper-sprayed and choked by three armed Lowell police officers before being arrested and charged with two counts of assault and battery on a police officer, disorderly conduct, and resisting arrest. This isn’t a slap on the wrist for back-talking a cop – these are charges that could result in Degree’s incarceration for over a decade. But as the Lowell Sun quoted defense attorney Anthony Martinelli at the time, this case, like so many others of its kind, is “not what it appears to be on paper.”

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On Monday June 22, Devante Degree was scheduled to stand trial at Lowell District Court. At 8 AM, as the courthouse opened, attorneys and staffers were confronted with an uncommon sight – a cabal of protesters from CAJE – Community Advocates for Justice and Equality, out in force with signs and chants and information for all who passed by, many of whom were sympathetic to Degree’s plight. As proceedings began for the day, unnamed sources inside the courthouse reported that the surprise presence of concerned community advocates had been causing quite a stir. The Lowell Sun was forced to assign reporter Lisa Redmond to cover the trial. From the Sun report:

“When police use excessive force, they try to cover their tracks with charges that people resisted arrest,” said attorney Peter J. Parlow, who represents Degree. His client is facing charges of assault and battery on a police officer (two counts), resisting arrest and disorderly conduct….

Protester Dan Tuttle, a member of C.A.J.E. (Community Advocates for Justice & Equality), a fledgling group in Lowell, said his organization is “fighting for justice” for Degree. Tuttle claims Degree, who is black, is facing bogus charges, which he claims is “not the exception but the rule.” His group was protesting outside Lowell District Court to “decry the system of racist policing,” Tuttle said.

Lowell Police spokesman Tim Crowley could not be reached for comment.

Following the accusations and legal arguments presented by Degree’s defense team, the trial was subsequently rescheduled for September 22. The cited reason was “a jammed court schedule.”

Now, no one doubts that the docket at Lowell District Court is jammed. But this CAJE support, this community outcry, proved sufficiently loud to attract the attention of courthouse employees and, crucially, the media. For the first time, Devante’s side of the story is being told. What else might have been impacted by the voice and the presence of the people?

Don’t forget about your brother Devante. September 22 is less than three months away. Contact CAJE via their website or Facebook to find out how you can help out and get involved. Let’s keep the pressure up this summer, let our officials know we’re here and won’t go quietly, and let’s get a few hundred of us down to the courthouse in September. Together, we can keep Degree free.

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