By Taraneh Azar for BCN #134
March 27, 2021
Photo Credit: Nate Lamkin
Amid pending charges following an altercation initiated by a Trump supporter on Dec. 12 in Swampscott, attempts by law enforcement and right-wing agitators to silence local activist and Freedom Fighters Coalition co-founder Ernst “Shimmy” Jean-Jacques have been unsuccessful.
Jean-Jacques, 32, was participating in a counter-protest at a pro-Trump MAGA rally late last year when 80-year-old Linda Greenberg doused him with a water bottle in an incident captured on video. Greenberg and other Trump supporters had been dancing to music when Jean-Jacques had gone to join them, dancing along on the other side of a metal barricade.
“I just realized this lady just threw water in my face, in the middle of a pandemic,” explained Jean-Jacques. “I simply swatted the water bottle out of her hand, so she could not follow up again and throw more water in my face. It could have been acid. It could have been anything for all I know.”
In that moment, Greenberg, along with surrounding Trump supporters, began exclaiming that Jean-Jacques punched her. Video evidence indicates otherwise.
Jean-Jacques, the only Black man present at the demonstration, was arrested within minutes based on the words of the white pro-Trump protesters.
Immediately following the incident, Swampscott police captain Joseph Kable was recorded on video by Boston activist Hibah Nour stating to Jean-Jacques: “What I heard was that you hit a woman,” quickly adding that “other officers saw it” when called out for speculation. Someone who was later identified to me as eyewitness Mary Farrell can be heard in the same video urging repeatedly, “[Jean-Jacques] didn’t touch [Greenberg].”
“Shimmy was the victim of a crime, rather than the perpetrator of a crime,” explained Murat Erkan, Jean-Jacques’ lawyer. “It seems that police and the prosecution are still unwilling to abandon the narrative… of the Black man as aggressor and the white woman as the victim. This is a false narrative. We have video evidence which shows that this is a false narrative.”
Systemic racism is intrinsically woven into the fabric of American life and the criminal system is the spearhead. Jean-Jacques was determined guilty until proven innocent from the start.
Jean-Jacques co-founded the Freedom Fighters Coalition (FFC) in June of 2020 in response to the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and countless other Black Americans at the hands of police. In addition to organizing actions and rallies for racial justice and police accountability in Boston since June, FFC has coordinated mutual aid events and community care initiatives for greater-Boston residents. The collective has advocated for victims of police brutality in Boston like Moses Harris and Christopher Divens as well as hosted NARCAN training sessions and distributions, among other actions. “Shimmy” has dedicated his life to advocacy and empowering Black, Indigenous and people of color.
In a police report, Swampscott officer Brendan Reen noted that he made the arrest based on Trump supporter Diana Ploss’ livestream footage that he was watching back at the precinct, citing having seen Jean-Jacques “punching Greenberg with his right fist.” Nowhere does the livestream footage reveal a fist, however, and other footage reveals Jean-Jacques’ open hand at a distance from Greenberg’s person.
This footage, along with the word of other Trump supporters, appears to be Swampscott Police Department’s point of reference for Jean-Jacques’ arrest based on the police report and video footage of the arrest taken by witnesses.
Swampscott Police Department denied our request for comment.
The people of Swampscott have spoken out against the prosecution and called for an internal police investigation, the results of which were released in late March. Swampscott Police Chief Ron Madigan stated in a press release in January when the investigation was announced: "After watching several videos related to the arrest of Mr. Jacques, I am concerned there may have been opportunities to handle this incident more constructively.”
The independent investigation found that involved officers failed to properly carry out the initial and post-arrest investigations, acting in a “disjointed and cursory manner” that was “inconsistent with industry standards and best practices.” The contracted firm reported that no one attempted or was directed to interview Jean-Jacques before or after his arrest, that officers failed to properly gather information from witnesses or pass along select relevant information to supervisors and that an officer told Jean-Jacques to “shut the expletive up” when escorting him to the station for booking, among other things.
Although the report concludes that officers had probable cause to arrest Jean-Jacques on Dec. 12, "Video and testimonial evidence suggests that [redacted] actions were precipitated by [redacted] assault of [redacted] in the first instance." The report continues: "Had [redacted] not sprayed [redacted], it is likely that this confrontation could have been avoided.”
The firm could not conclude whether Jean-Jacques’ civil liberties were violated, writing: “[The firm] defers to Massachusetts Office of the Attorney General, civil rights division for final review.”
Despite this, Jean-Jacques is still facing assault and battery charges as Assistant District Attorney Danielle Doherty-Wirwicz signaled her intent to move forward with the case following a pretrial conference in Lynn District Court on Feb. 24.
At the first hearing on Dec. 14, Doherty-Wirwicz attempted to frame Jean-Jacques as a danger to society and requested that he be held until the next hearing — motions which the judge denied.
“We had all this video evidence, and the prosecutor would not even watch the footage. She insisted that Shimmy be held until the next hearing date as a danger to society,” said Nate Lamkin, fellow FFC activist and Boston-based photographer who was present on Dec. 12 and has been advocating for Jean-Jacques since. Paraphrasing Doherty-Wirwicz’ statements, Lamkin explains “In court [Doherty-Wirwicz] brought up a comparison, saying ‘As we would do with a child molestation case, this man clearly can't control his anger and should not be allowed around people over the age of 70 without supervision.’” She also requested that Jean-Jacques be barred from Swampscott. The judge denied these requests.
Jean-Jacques was working in elder care services at the time.
“It's quite blatant that she was coming after Shimmy's livelihood there,” added Lamkin. “She just saw a Black man accused of a crime that he didn't commit and tried to push for every possible stipulation that would ruin this man's life. If she couldn't get jail time or have him held, she wanted to have his job. If she couldn't get that she wanted to get him out of Swampscott.”
Jean-Jacques has lost his job and health insurance as a result of the charges.
Director of Communications for the Essex District Attorney’s Office Carrie Kimball briefly responded to these points upon our request for comment. In an email, she wrote: “Your sources are wrong. We are prohibited from discussing the evidence in a pending criminal matter outside of court. We will continue to try this case in court, not in the media.”
Later in a phone call she added: “Your sources said that an assistant district attorney assigned to this case didn't properly review the evidence. I'm saying that's wrong. She did. . . I can assure you, the evidence has been reviewed — all of the evidence has been reviewed.”
The evidence in question undermines the accuracy of the police report, however — revealing Jean-Jacques’ open hand when officer Reen reported having personally seen a fist in Ploss’ livestream video, among other things. Despite this video evidence and the fact that Greenberg has filed no suit or pressed charges against the Boston activist, the prosecution is moving forward with the case.
“Ernst is just not standing up for racial justice, he’s standing against hate. The prosecution is currently supporting the criminalization of his efforts. And the support of those who would silence him to me is disheartening to say the least,” said Erkan. “The system remains burdened by racism… this is a racist prosecution. This is the way that I view it. And until we’re able to call it what it is with a loud and strong voice, it’s never going to change.”
The next hearing will be on March 29.
Greenberg remained at the rally that day and in another video taken by fellow counter-protester Hannah Connolly, Greenberg admits to a Swampscott police officer: “He was gyrating in front of me and I was getting mad and I did get water on him, I don’t want to lie.” The officer stops taking Greenberg's statement after she incriminates herself on camera. Greenberg turns to Connolly and says, “Oh, why don’t you fuck off… You’re not America.”
Connolly explained that officers were treating Greenberg as the victim based on her word against that of Jean-Jacques before knowing the full scope of the situation.
“You don’t say that someone’s a victim before you even know the story, A. You’re not even doing your job correctly. B, this woman has admitted that she assaulted someone. Nothing has been done in the situation,” explained Connolly. She had encountered Greenberg a number of times previously while protesting pro-Trump rallies. “She would often come and sit down and pretend like she is an innocent person but then just be throwing insults at people. She is not a nice person unless you’re on her ‘quote unquote’ side.”
Connolly and Nour both captured videos of altercations between Greenberg, the police and Jean-Jacques throughout the day which have been submitted as evidence supporting his innocence.
“I kept saying to the officer, ‘[Greenberg]'s standing just fine. No nothing. No marks, nothing,” explained Nour. “I am a 5’8” tall woman, and if I had hit her the way she claims that Shimmy punched her, she would have also had damage done to her. So please explain how she’s still here. Why is there not an ambulance? There was no explanation.”
“I think it’s a way to scare us. It’s a scare tactic. Attack him, try to silence him to teach the rest a lesson,” explained Nour. “This is an attack on the movement itself, the movement being against police brutality, the BLM movement, being outspoken against immigration laws, against racism in general. Islamophobia, transphobia, homophobia, any sort of xenophobic behavior.’”
Greenberg, reached by phone, denied our request for comment. Her lawyer, Richard Chambers Jr., could not be reached for comment after multiple attempts to contact him by phone.
“I honestly think that they're just trying to drag this out as long as they can, until they mentally and financially break me. But that's not gonna happen. I've got too many people that genuinely support me,” explained Jean-Jacques.
Jean-Jacques has received death threats and been the target of countless racist remarks from neo-Nazis and alt-right Ploss-adjacents. Many social media users have threatened to attack, assault and brutally harm him, harping on details which deserve no further mention. Jean-Jacques described the remarks as being “on some Emmett Till stuff,” a nod to the brutally racist nature of these threats which draw parallels to the horrific lynching of 14-year-old Till in Mississippi in 1955.
Economic hardship, threats to personal safety and repeated attempts to intimidate and silence Jean-Jacques have not stopped him from organizing actions and mutual aid events for his community.
“The government will never, ever, ever, ever help us out with the problems that we need help with. Just seeing how the system is doing me, I'm like, ‘Oh, yeah, this system has their priorities, and we're not at the top of the list.’ So what I can't do is I can't end hunger, I can't end poverty, I can't end homelessness. What I can do is I can use my time and my energy, and resources that I have available to me and I can give back,” explained Jean-Jacques. “We're gonna keep doing this mutual aid thing. We try to give back to all of the community fridges that are in the Boston area and the greater Boston area. We just try to give back. That's it, because we're literally all we got.”
The Freedom Fighters Coalition can be found every Friday at 6 p.m. on Atkinson Street in the South End serving food and distributing supplies to community members.
“Swampscott, Halifax, Arlington, some of these towns are far from Boston. Some of them are right next door, but there's hatred, and bigotry and nastiness in all of these towns. We can no longer sit back,’” explained Jean-Jacques. “If I've got to be the beacon, if I've got to be the martyr,” he added, “I'll take the responsibility because it has to happen.”