Editor’s Note: February 2, 2016
After uncovering misattributed quotes in stories written by Juan Thompson, a former staff reporter, The Intercept conducted a review of his work. We were unable to reach Aniah Ferguson’s mother and could not confirm the quote attributed to an unnamed neighbor.

 

The short video is remarkably unsettling and difficult to watch. In the span of three short, wretched minutes, six teenage girls inside a Brooklyn McDonald’s viciously attack a smaller girl in a blue jacket, who gutsily fights back, as onlookers watch and cheer. During the brawl, one of the participants’ shirts is ripped off, exposing her purple bra. Despite this, the attacker, 16-year-old Aniah Ferguson, continues to beat the victim, 15-year-old Ariana Taylor, even after Taylor is apparently knocked unconscious. Ferguson stomps and kicks Taylor’s head multiple times before a merciful spectator carries a motionless Taylor to safety.

The video, posted on World Star Hip Hop, sparked a huge outcry. On March 12, three days after the fight, the New York Police Department arrested Ferguson and charged her with felonious gang assault and robbery. Four of the other assailants who appear in the video have been arrested since.

“I can’t defend what happened there,” Ferguson’s mother told me the weekend after her daughter’s arrest. “I don’t know what happened there, I mean, I don’t know why.” We talked as we noshed over Dunkin’ Donuts at the Prospect-Lefferts Gardens apartment that Ferguson’s mother, grandmother, siblings and one-year-old daughter all share. That’s right: 16-year-old Ferguson has a young daughter who will now be the sole responsibility of Ferguson’s mother, who asked to remain anonymous. “It’s going to be hard. I know she’s going away for a while,” she said with embarrassment and sadness.

“Aniah always had her problems. I can’t lie. And I tried to get help but it didn’t happen,” her mother said. “She was in [anger management] classes though when this happened.” Ferguson’s mother describes her daughter’s life as a continual struggle. She was raised by a single mother (as much as one can use the past tense for a girl only 16 years old) and was lashing out long before the high-profile attack at McDonald’s. In the past eight months alone, Ferguson has been arrested a half dozen times; the charges included stabbing a brother in the arm, punching her grandmother in the face, and attacking a pregnant woman, according to court records. Prosecutors claim she belongs to a street organization known as the Young Savages — an offshoot of the Chicago-born Folk Nation gang.

“I can’t say for sure, but they was fighting over something somebody said on Facebook or something,” a neighbor told me with regard to the incident at McDonald’s. The Flatbush fight was reportedly the culmination of a dispute between Ferguson and Taylor that stretched back to at least January. When a friend of Ferguson’s texted her to say that Taylor was at McDonald’s that day, Ferguson rounded up her crew and, after initially going to the wrong McDonald’s, spotted Taylor at the 943 Flatbush Avenue location.

“The assault and the attack on this 15-year-old girl should be a wake up call internationally on what are we doing with our young people,” Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams said on the day Aniah Ferguson was arrested, after he offered a $1,000 award — from his personal funds — for tips leading to the arrest of other suspects. Adams’s statement was unintentionally ironic. The punishment now faced by Ferguson for this brutal assault highlights our country’s grim and unrivaled record when it comes to locking up its youth, especially black youth, at a rate that further contributes to incidents like those at the Flatbush McDonald’s. 

Take the sentence Ferguson faces for gang assault and robbery: up to 25 years behind bars. She will be charged as an adult even though she isn’t one. And the seeds for treating poor children like Ferguson as adults were planted long ago. Before her arrest, Ferguson attended Erasmus High School, which is part of the New York Public school system — which employs “over 5,000 school safety agents and 191 armed police officers, effectively making the school district the fifth largest police district in the country,” as Mariame Kaba and Erica R. Meiners recently pointed out at Jacobin.

In all the outrage about her case, few are asking the most basic pragmatic questions. Even given Ferguson’s recent history of violence, is long-term imprisonment the correct route to take? Should a troubled and emotionally unstable teen be thrust into a harsh prison environment, when research shows she will likely pick up worse criminal habits there? Will Ferguson’s incarceration solve any of her problems — or society’s — or will it exacerbate them? The United States already imprisons 30 percent of incarcerated women worldwide.

The four others arrested for their actions in the video include a 15-year-old whose name has not been released by police, along with Mercedes Wilkinson, 16, 17-year old Tilani Marshal, and a 15-year-old apprehended by police as she sat on an Atlanta plane destined for Jamaica. At the moment, Ferguson and Marshall will be charged as adults.

Every year nearly 200,000 American youth are tried and or incarcerated as if they are adults, which makes America the world’s leading jailer of youth. The data is irrefutable about the consequences: According to the Campaign for Youth Justice, “youth who are transferred from the juvenile court system to the adult criminal system are approximately 34% more likely than youth retained in the juvenile court system to be re-arrested for violent or other crime.”

Imprisoning youth alongside adults exposes the younger incarcerated persons to physical violence, specifically sexual assault. Importantly, youth convicted as adults face substantial obstacles once released from prison that decrease the chance of rehabilitation, while making recidivism more likely. There is the stigma of felony conviction, of course, but felons are also denied voting rights, and are ineligible for government subsidized education loans. If Aniah Ferguson is convicted and sent to prison for nearly three decades, what life awaits her when she is released? At the moment, Brooklyn does not provide any restorative justice programs to adults or youth charged with violent crimes akin to Ferguson’s.

When Ferguson was first arrested, her mother told me, she begged for assistance for the young girl’s behavioral problems. But nothing came of her requests. The school was no help either. Instead, city officials seem more concerned with transforming communities like Prospect-Lefferts Gardens. “There are about 10 projects in the works to create luxury rentals or condominiums in the neighborhood,” the New York Times reported last year. This community of nearly 40,000 black and Latino residents, which struggled with high crime rates during the violent 1990s drug wars, will look much different in the next five years as longtime, low-income residents are replaced by white co-op shoppers. No matter the demographic transformation, until communities tackle the problems faced by residents like Ferguson, said problems will persist in Brooklyn and beyond.

Broader Brooklyn continues to change as well, but Aniah Ferguson’s Brooklyn goes ignored. It sits in the shadows of the gentrified, prosperous communities gradually spreading throughout the borough’s 97 square miles. Ferguson’s Brooklyn doesn’t have artisanal food joints, it has McDonald’s restaurants. Ferguson’s Brooklyn is one of violence and poverty, but also, I realized after talking to residents on the block, one of hope for a better tomorrow. But tomorrow won’t come for Ferguson’s Brooklyn if we merely lock those like her up. Tomorrow won’t come for Ferguson’s Brooklyn if we call her a brute or a savage — as the New York Daily News did — or label her an animal — as a hypocritical “Sopranos” actor did on Twitter. These malicious anti-black epithets only play in to the stereotypes that many white Americans tend to have of black people, particularly young black girls like Ferguson. This is why #BlackGirlsMatter. They are disproportionately “pushed out, over policed, and under protected,” according to a recent report from the African American Policy Forum.

Of course, Aniah Ferguson is neither a brute nor an animal. She is a troubled teen and mother, with a one-year-old daughter who is now parentless, like the other 1.3 million black children across this country who have parents behind bars. And right now Ferguson sits inside a Rikers jail cell with a $500,000 bond she almost certainly won’t make. Her baby girl is blissfully unaware of the spectacle centered on her mother. Meanwhile, Ferguson goes without the mental and behavioral help she so clearly needs. Ferguson’s mother murmured, “I hope she gets help because this ain’t life. At least it shouldn’t be.”

Photo: Aniah Ferguson’s Facebook