Police, prosecutor retaliate against journalist covering police chase fatality

by Bryan G. Pfeifer

james-willingham-jeffrey-frazier, Police, prosecutor retaliate against journalist covering police chase fatality, World News & Views Detroit – Community outrage and support are building over the arrest of people’s journalist Diane Bukowski. Many view this as a political attack on the entire progressive movement in metro Detroit.

“Everybody’s support raised me. It fired me up,” Bukowski told supporters as she emerged from her arraignment at 36th District Court in Detroit on Nov. 20. A rousing ovation greeted the journalist from dozens of activists who had just packed the courtroom to support her.

Bukowski is a freelance reporter for the progressive weekly newspaper The Michigan Citizen, as well as a long-time anti-racist fighter and community advocate. She has been charged with five felony counts of assaulting, resisting and obstructing a police officer.

Bukowski is well-known and respected for her work exposing police brutality and police murders in Detroit. Her reporting has also examined a wide range of other community concerns, such as the foreclosure epidemic, utility shutoffs and corruption in the public school system.

Teresa Kelly, publisher of The Michigan Citizen, told Workers World after the arraignment that the newspaper is fully backing Bukowski. The publication is one of the most progressive weekly community newspapers in the U.S., with hard-hitting reporting on a range of political, social and economic issues affecting poor and working people, especially people of color. The newspaper also publishes well-respected cultural content that promotes and reports on numerous events and activities happening in the Black community.

Background to Bukowski’s arrest

The following details are from reports by Bukowski and Kelly in the Nov. 16-22 and Nov. 23-29 editions of The Michigan Citizen newspaper:

On Nov. 4, while covering a fatal police chase in which a motorcyclist and a pedestrian died, Bukowski – with her press credentials in full view – was arrested while attempting to take photographs of the grisly scene. The motorcyclist was James Willingham, 42, father of 10 children. Jeffrey Frazier, 32, an autistic man, was the pedestrian victim.

According to Bukowski, who has reported on several police chases, she wasn’t aware she had crossed any yellow police tape. A state trooper yelled at her from across the street, “Who the f – do you think you are?”

Bukowski presented her credentials to the trooper, who then took her camera and deleted the photos, handcuffed Bukowski and had other officers put her in a squad car. She was released that night, but a warrant was issued three days later.

Bukowski was originally charged with a single misdemeanor count of obstructing an investigation. But Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy charged Bukowski with five felony counts that carry in total a possible sentence of 20 years in prison.

Bukowski turned herself in to 36th District Court as ordered on Nov. 18 for a 1 p.m. arraignment, which the court canceled at the last minute. Numerous Bukowski supporters had shown up for that hearing. Detroit police claim the delay was needed to fingerprint her, but her lawyer said the police had her prints and photos. She was released into the custody of her attorney.

At her arraignment two days later, Bukowski was released on a $5,000 personal recognizance bond.

Hands off Bukowski – drop all charges now!

A groundswell of support continues building for Bukowski. Supporters plan to pack the courtroom again on Dec. 16 for a preliminary examination in 36th District Court.

Support notices and email campaigns are being issued from numerous community organizations, including the Moratorium NOW! Coalition, Michigan Welfare Rights, Call ‘Em Out, Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality, Latinos Unidos, Detroit Green Party, MECAWI, the Coalition to Save DPS and others. The ACLU and the National Lawyers Guild are closely monitoring the case.

United Auto Workers Local 2334 President David Sole wrote to Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy on Nov. 18 on his union’s letterhead: “These charges are unbelievable and the accusations incredible. In view of the fact that Diane is well known for her reporting of police brutality and misconduct, one can only conclude that she was targeted by the police in this case for retribution. In addition, the prosecution of Ms. Bukowski is clearly an attack on the freedom of the press.”

Sole is joining with other labor and community activists and organizations to assist with the needs of Bukowski’s legal defense, including raising funds, outreach, media and more. A defense committee is in the process of being formed.

‘The prosecution of Ms. Bukowski is clearly an attack on the freedom of the press.’

Supporters are encouraged to contact Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy and demand all charges against Bukowski be dropped immediately. Write to Worthy at 1200 Frank Murphy Hall of Justice, 1441 St. Antoine, Detroit, MI 48226; call (313) 224-5777 or fax (313) 224-0974.

© 2008 Workers World. This story was originally published Dec 7, 2008, by Workers World, 55 W. 17th St., New York NY 10011, ww@workers.org, www.workers.org, at www.workers.org/2008/us/reporter_1211/.

Reporter’s story

Following is the story Diane Bukowski filed about the fatal police chase, which she emailed with this introduction. – Ed.

I was arrested Nov. 4, Election Day, at the scene where two white state troopers allegedly rammed the bike of a motorcyclist whose bike then ran into a pedestrian, killing both. I took photos of the scene, namely of two yellow tarps which covered the body parts of the motorcyclist and his crushed motorcycle. That scene was also shown from the air by a TV 2 News helicopter. I had earlier identified myself as a reporter, showing my ID to both the arresting officer, Trooper Barber, and her superior. When I got into camera range to take the photos (not stepping through any yellow crime scene tapes), Trooper Barber screamed at me from across East Davison and immediately told me I was under arrest. She then seized my camera and erased the photos. I was handcuffed and hauled into MSP headquarters on West Grand Boulevard. The request for a warrant from the MSP appeared to have been on one count of obstruction, but it came back from Worthy’s office as five felony counts, with Trooper Barber as the complainant in all five.

Motorcyclist, pedestrian die in police chase

by Diane Bukowski

Special to the Michigan Citizen

Detroit – A Detroit motorcyclist returning from the polls Nov. 4 was allegedly hit by two Michigan state troopers during a chase. The impact of the crash pushed him into a pedestrian who was also killed, then into a pole, according to one eyewitness.

The incident happed on the city’s northeast side, at East Davison and Justine. According to the Wayne County Medical Examiner’s office, the cyclist’s right arm and shoulder were severed, his skull and brain shattered, all his ribs were broken, and his liver was damaged, among other injuries. The coroner ruled accidental death.

The motorcyclist was James Willingham, 42, father of 10 children, and the pedestrian was Jeffrey Frazier, 32, an autistic young man. Both men grew up in the neighborhood around East Davison and Justine where they died and were known and loved by hundreds, according to their families and friends.

“I was sitting on my porch and saw the whole incident,” said a grandmother from the neighborhood who did not want to be identified. “The police rear-ended the motorcycle and the man on the motorcycle lost control and hit Jeff, then the driver flew off the motorcycle into a pole.”

This eyewitness said that the troopers’ car had no siren on.

‘Kids were walking home from school’

“It was 3:30 in the afternoon, and kids were just walking home from school,” she said. The intersection was crowded with pedestrians.

Another witness separately confirmed that the state troopers’ car rammed the cyclist. Both witnesses said the troopers’ car had no siren on.

The Michigan State Police Detroit Post 29 issued the following statement:

“On Nov. 4, 2008, at 3:32 p.m., Troopers from the Michigan State Police Detroit Post attempted to conduct a traffic stop of a motorcycle for a moving violation in the area of E/B [eastbound] Davison and Conant. The motorcyclist slowed after emergency lights were activated then accelerated from the Troopers at a high rate of speed before running a red light and striking a pedestrian walking across the intersection. The collision resulted in fatal injuries to the pedestrian and the operator of the motorcycle. It was later reported the motorcycle was stolen out of the City of Detroit. The pursuit lasted approximately three city blocks.”

Debo, a motorcyclist who was riding with Willingham, said Willingham was not speeding. Police also reported that the bike was stolen, but Debo believes Willingham did not steal the bike, because he was present at the purchase. Both men belonged to the Phantoms’ motorcycle club.

“We were just on our way from voting,” said Debo. “I was playing around on the Davison freeway to see what speed my bike would do. James was following behind, because his bike couldn’t go that fast. I noticed the police right behind me and immediately started slowing down to about 45 mph, and James caught up. I thought the troopers would pull me over and ticket me, but instead they shot around me, bumped their horn, turned on their top light, and ran up behind my brother James.”

Debo said he did not witness the actual crash because he had fallen behind and was stopped at a light.

“James worked at Chrysler for over 20 years painting cars,” said Tamika Carter, Willingham’s girl friend and mother of three of his children, ages 15, 7 and 2. He also had three children with his wife Karen Willingham.

“When his brother died in 2003, he got so depressed he went on medical and never went back,” said Carter. “[Instead,] he became a stay at home dad, so that I could go to school and work. He took his skills from the plant and worked on cars for friends.”

Carter said Willingham looked after his children. She said he was extremely proud of two of his older children who are in college.

Paul Broshay of the law firm of Fieger, Fieger, Kenney, Johnson & Giroux said Willingham’s family members have consulted their firm and they have an interest in the case, but that probate issues have to be resolved.

Frazier: ‘He was our angel’

Jeffrey Frazier’s family and friends said the young man, who was autistic, was known as “Tank” and loved throughout the entire neighborhood. He took his neighbor’s trash cans to the curb and made a regular job out of collecting bottles and cans from the streets, all the way from Ryan to Mound. Merchants in the neighborhood knew exactly when he was coming to clear their areas.

“He loved doing that,” said Frazier’s mother, Charlotte Ann Frazier. “He graduated from the Burger Center in Garden City, a school for autistics. All his teachers were so proud of him. He never missed one day of school, and he never missed one Sunday in the Open Doors Baptist Church and Greater Concord church. He was our angel.”

Frazier had three brothers and two sisters.

Attorney Carl Collins III is representing the family of Jeffrey Frazier.