[TW: This article contains descriptions of police brutality.]
Approximately 933 students from the City of Poughkeepsie attend Poughkeepsie Middle School. On March 11, 2019, then 15-year-old Jamelia Barnett and 12-year-old Julissa Dawkins, sisters enrolled at the school at the time, were outside when a fight broke out among several students. Dawkins, who has asthma, went to the aid of one girl in need of an inhaler when Poughkeepsie police officers arrived to break up the then-defunct quarrel.
Although neither Barnett nor Dawkins were involved in the fight, as multiple witnesses corroborated, an officer later identified as Kevin VanWagner proceeded to arrest Dawkins without reading aloud her charge or Miranda rights. When Dawkins resisted, VanWagner charged her with resisting arrest and threw her to the ground—a deposition filed by the family described how VanWagner pinned Dawkins with his body. In a 17-second video clip that circulated on social media around the time of the incident, Barnett is shown running to her sister’s aid, only to be slammed to the ground by another officer. Her body flew through the air before she hit the ground and lost consciousness. When Barnett awoke, she and Dawkins were in the back of a police car en route to the Poughkeepsie Police Department.
Barnett and Dawkins, alongside their mother Melissa Johnson, spoke at a panel sponsored by Vassar College’s Black Student Union (BSU) on Nov. 7, 2019, to discuss what ensued after the girls’ arrests. They were accompanied by their attorney William Wagstaff III, who represents them in the juvenile delinquency case from the City of Poughkeepsie and the civil rights case filed by the family against the police officers in the Southern District of New York. Other panelists included Dutchess County legislator Giancarlo Llaverias and NYCLU Lower Hudson Valley Director Shannon Wong, who emphasized the importance of communicating with county executives and engaging with local groups such as the New Jim Crow Action Group (NJAN) and the NYCLU.
According to Barnett, the sisters were separated upon their arrival to the Poughkeepsie Police Department. Though she was menstruating at the time and unable to adjust her sanitary napkin after being slammed to the ground, Barnett waited for hours while handcuffed in a room full of white, male police officers. She recalled, “I was on a white coach, and I slid off the couch onto the floor…they came and started screaming, ‘She’s hiding weapons, she’s hiding drugs, search her.’” As the officers surrounded her, she recalled yelling “I can’t breathe.” Barnett and Dawkins were both questioned by the police about their names and addresses—though Dawkins provided some information, Barnett was denied access to water or information about her sister because of her silence.
Johnson, who was at work at the time, received various social media updates on Facebook from students alerting her to the fact that her daughters had been arrested at the school. She recalled: “The first thing I asked was ‘What did they do?’” Barnett and Dawkins were held at the police station for several hours until their mother could leave work.
Johnson went into the Department to see the sergeant on shift after the girls were released. She questioned the Department’s decision to forcefully arrest two teenage girls, one of whom had not been charged, and the sergeant asked whether Johnson would want him arrested if he held a gun to her head and pulled the trigger at that moment. Johnson reinforced what various witnesses stated—that her daughters did nothing wrong—and then asked what the sergeant would have done if it were his children in their place. “The officer said his kids would never be in that position—that’s because his kids didn’t grow up in our neighborhood,” she said, referring to the fact that most Poughkeepsie police officers live outside the city. The officers involved–VanWagner and John Williams–remain on-duty and active in a policing organization entitled the Poughkeepsie Police Benevolent Association (City of Poughkeepsie PBA, Executive Board). The Poughkeepsie Police Department declined to comment for this article.
The BSU panel occurred several months after Toivo Asheeke, a postdoctoral fellow in Vassar’s Sociology Department, heard of what happened at the family’s first town hall in spring 2019. At the panel, he stated the importance of supporting Black people across the country—not just those educated at elite institutions such as Vassar, but also those who face police brutality like in Jamelia and Julissa’s case. BSU’s Chair of Political Education Chelsea Quayenortey ’22, who worked with the family to organize the event, also learned of what happened around the same time: “[It] was around finals and the family didn’t have a lawyer so it wasn’t really a case. When we came back to campus, they had a lawyer [Wagstaff] and the girls’ mother held a community meeting at a church…to talk about their plans to sue the Poughkeepsie police department.”
In a phone interview, Wagstaff credited Asheeke with serving as the point of contact between the family and organizations at Vassar like BSU and Gradient. He recalled Asheeke’s encouragement of the family’s journey to raise awareness of police brutality in the community at large, including at Vassar and Marist Colleges. Wagstaff, who specializes in civil rights and represents the family pro-bono, learned of Johnson’s case after a call from a former client and current member of Rockland County’s Black Lives Matter chapter.
The story of Jamelia Barnett and Julissa Dawkins is not unique in the City of Poughkeepsie, nor is it an isolated incident of police brutality in the United States. Wagstaff, a native of the Bronx suburb Mount Vernon, described the debilitating impact of police violence on Black and Brown people in Poughkeepsie: “People have given up. This is how things are—the police are crooked…this is probably the most disheartening thing. There is no fight. The few people who are willing to say something are older.”
Barnett now attends Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School, while Dawkins and their younger sister Jizelle Dawkins now attend Haviland Middle School—both schools are located in Hyde Park, outside the City of Poughkeepsie. Johnson made the conscious decision to switch her daughters’ schools after the 2018-19 academic year due to the trauma associated with their old district. However, Jizelle described the environment of her new middle school: “Racist—there are not a lot of Black kids there. People say it’s a good school because there are ‘better people there,’ … But that’s because in Poughkeepsie, there are a lot of Black kids and there aren’t a lot of Black kids in Hyde Park.” A classmate of Barnett at FDR High School assaulted her with a rock to the eye, which resulted in her absence for several days.
The efforts of community organizing between Vassar’s BSU, NJAN and the Johnson family culminated in a rally at the Dutchess Family Courthouse on Nov. 13, 2019. The purpose of this hearing would potentially have dropped the juvenile delinquency case against Barnett and Dawkins. Specifically, Wagstaff asserted that a hearing on June 20 had been adjourned without the consent of the counselor, thus violating Barnett and Dawkins’ right to a fair and speedy trial as stipulated by family court law. The court also recorded a request from the defense for Discovery hearing, in which the two parties would exchange information, on a proposed Oct. 8 hearing that Wagstaff refuted filing.
Wagstaff shared,“Should there be subsequent court appearances, the people’s willingness to pack the courts would be appreciated.” He also reiterated Llaverias’ point, imploring residents to send letters to the county executive asking him to direct the county attorney’s office to dismiss the case.
On Wednesday, there was a small victory when the court lifted required meetings with the girls’ Probation Officer and acknowledged their academic accomplishments after switching schools. However, as transcripts from the aforementioned dates have yet to be reviewed, the judge delayed reviewing the motion to dismiss to Dec. 3.