Photo by Nate Lampkin
The prosecution of protester Ernst Jean-Jacques Jr. on the North Shore is a clear example of a Black Lives Matter activist being targeted by local law enforcement. Without national attention on the case, authorities are playing by their own rules.
On any given weekend in the waterfront enclave of Swampscott, you can see the gamut of the American political spectrum on display.
For more than a year, throngs of fringe right-wingers, people for whom Republicanism is a secondary concern to an allegiance to former President Donald Trump, have gathered in the North Shore suburb. The group is consistently white and middle aged, and their appearance in town is the result of the organizing efforts of one Dianna Ploss, an ex-radio host-turned-local conservative figurehead. The crowd gathers on Saturdays—10, 20 of them in some weeks—at the spot where Humphrey Street intersects Monument Ave, perhaps the most visible place in town and a short walk to the home of Gov. Charlie Baker.
On Sundays, the radical end of the left wing rallies just down the road, in front of the Swampscott police station. While the crowd fluctuates in size, there are usually at least 10 protesters—tattooed, pierced, multiracial city kids—often wearing all black and carrying Black Lives Matter signs. This crew began to gather as a direct response to the presence of Ploss and her affiliates, but that was then. In more recent months, a predominantly local faction has splintered off, turning their attention toward the town’s police department ever since a community organizer from Boston, Ernst Jean-Jacques Jr. (known by friends as “Shimmy”), was arrested at a Ploss rally on Dec 12, 2020.
There’s a chasm between the two groups’ ideologies, and denizens of the wealthy surrounding community of Swampscott make up the rest of the political spectrum, the shades of gray. This is a place where town elections are predictable, and there is peace and harmony on the surface, at least; recently, the town held a well-attended, public Juneteenth ceremony with speeches calling for an end to systemic racism.
But since Dec 12, and the fallout around Shimmy’s arrest specifically, it’s been hard to ignore the uglier, deeper truths that have played out publicly, right in the center of a quiet bedroom community.
I became aware of Shimmy’s effect on local leftist politics soon after his arrest. According to his fellow organizers, he has been an electrifying force, and people familiar with the events that unfolded expected his case to be dismissed. They were wrong.
While his arrest is squarely in line with the narrative of Black people being profiled by police, few news outlets have covered Shimmy’s case closely. With his trial set to begin on Aug 18 in Lynn District Court, this deeper look at the situation is an attempt to pay it the attention it deserves. I have learned a lot in researching over the past several months, but the bare facts of the case are the same as when I first heard about it last December: he stands accused of assault, despite video evidence of the incident that appears to exonerate him; he was arrested without statements taken or rights read; and an assistant district attorney’s behavior regarding the case has been questionable.
Over the summer of 2020, as rallies for racial justice proliferated across the country, Ernst Jean-Jacques made appearance after appearance as an organizer for a leftist group called Freedom Fighters Coalition (FFC). His lanky frame and long Senegalese twists, in addition to a propensity to wear all black and carry a megaphone, made him easy to spot in press photos and on social media. As FFC’s unofficial mouthpiece, the duty of addressing large crowds was often left to him. For these reasons, the Penn State graduate has been viewed as something of a poster child for Boston’s young left wing.
At demonstrations, the 32-year-old Shimmy’s rhetoric is unequivocally anti-establishment. Talking about police brutality, one of FFC’s primary issues, he makes no effort to hide his anger and frustration. FFC does not align itself with the Democratic Party, nor do they collaborate with pols at any level. Antifa flags have flown at their events.
Shimmy’s is a radical bunch to be sure, but in practice they are hardly seditious. They run a number of community initiatives ranging from mutual aid drives to counterprotests to citywide marches and bike rides. The ethos of FFC, Jean-Jacques explains, is to “stand against social injustices and all forms of oppression.”
Dianna Ploss made international headlines in July of 2020 when she was fired from talk radio station WSMN in New Hampshire over an incident occurring in Nashua. A livestreamed video—that she herself sent to TMZ—showed the radio host happening upon a crew of landscapers speaking Spanish, whom she immediately demanded speak to each other in English. WSMN and its broadcaster, Bartis-Russell, severed ties the following Sunday, but soon enough their former employee found new ways to broadcast her message.
Since her dismissal, Ploss, a Dedham native, has redoubled her efforts as a right-wing spokeswoman, organizing pro-Trump rallies throughout New England. She streams via her own website and YouTube channel, and casts live from her events, which makes it convenient for allies and detractors alike to track her.
Among the self-proclaimed former Obama Democrat’s views: The COVID-19 virus is a hoax, the Democrats stole the 2020 election, and many state governments—including Massachusetts’—are in league with the Chinese Communist Party.
While the scourge of liberalism at large remains Ploss’ central rallying point, locally Ploss is probably best known for helping organize the protests against Republican Gov. Charlie Baker in Swampscott. She first arrived in town last April, and was immediately fortunate enough to have town leaders reluctantly sanction her right to assembly—in spite of a state-mandated COVID-19 lockdown. In time, it became clear that the aversions of some elected officials did not exactly represent those of their constituents, as many residents have welcomed Ploss and her rallies with open arms and symphonies of supporting honks.
Linda Greenberg is a regular attendee at right-wing Swampscott rallies and has been featured on Ploss’ local live streams on more than one occasion.
One stream, from last November, focuses on Greenberg, who explains to the camera: “I wasn’t here (at the rallies) at the beginning. My mailman told me. He says, ‘How come you’re not at the rallies?’ … I said, ‘I had no idea.’ So I went, and the first thing I said was, ‘Can I join you?’”
“Well, duh,” Ploss responds, with one arm slung around the older lady’s shoulders.
According to Steve Krause, a veteran writer at the Daily Item in Lynn and lifetime North Shore resident, the Greenbergs have resided near Phillips Park in Swampscott for nearly 50 years. [Ed. note: The author of this article is currently employed by the Daily Item as an editor, but she has reported this story for BINJ as an independent journalist.]
The Greenberg family has been known for their traditional conservative views; her relatives are members of the Republican party, and some accompany their mother to Ploss’ events.
Based on Ploss’ live streams, she and Greenberg have an affectionate relationship, with the former calling the latter by the Yiddish endearment bubbe. In one exchange, the Swampscott local calls Ploss the “mayor of MAGA-chusetts.”
The town of Swampscott, with a population of 15,000 and a median household income of over $100,000 per year, is home to a falling crime rate and an appropriately small police department. Swampscott officers typically respond to fewer than 10 violent crimes per year.
Policing is a community affair, with at least two well-known families in town sending their sons to the force: the Cassidys and the Reens.
“Chances are, if there’s any kind of police activity going on [in Swampscott], at least one Reen is going to be involved,” Krause explains.
Up until December, Swampscott natives Brendan and Kevin Reen were best known for their shared affinity for physical fitness. Kevin joined the police department 12 years ago and is a trainer on the side. His brother Brendan preceded him on the force, joining in 2006. This past year he was promoted to field training officer.
It remains unclear why Brendan Reen was watching Dianna Ploss’ live stream in the police station on Dec 12, or what possessed him to leave his post and visit the rally.
The Swampscott Police Department has declined multiple attempts to reach it for comment.
Most FFC organizers were looking away when it happened; none could say for sure who did what. Two videos—one shot from behind the Trump supporters, another facing them—are all that remain of a seconds-long exchange between Greenberg and Shimmy.
The video shot from behind shows Shimmy dancing directly across from Ploss and Greenberg, separated by a waist-high police barricade. Greenberg retreats, then comes back with something in her hand. A splash of water, coming from Greenberg’s direction, hits Shimmy in the chest.
“The optics are really sort of unmistakable in terms of the white individual using water to diminish the dignity of Black people,” explains Jean-Jacques’ lawyer, Murat Erkan. “This is an image that appears time and time again in our nation’s narrative.”
An outsized reaction can then be heard from the Trump supporters; a few gasp and shout, as if a violent incident has just occurred. This video, the one from behind, however, doesn’t clearly show what caused the horrified reaction. The second clip does.
In the latter video, the one facing the horde, Shimmy is in full view as he faces the Trump supporters. Water droplets spray in his direction. He looks at the camera with clenched fists. He moves toward Greenberg, who is shielded from view by another woman.
Shimmy’s fist opens up to a flat palm. He swipes his hand downward, in the direction where the water came from. The top of Greenberg’s curly gray head can be seen as she stumbles back a few paces and is immediately enveloped into a crowd of Trump supporters.
Shimmy, perhaps sensing danger, makes a speedy exit to the right. That’s where the action ends, and the consequences begin.
Officer Brendan Reen had been assigned to desk duty at the Swampscott Police Station, where he says he was watching Ploss’ live stream of the event. According to the police report, Reen saw footage of a young Black man punch Greenberg in the chest with a closed fist at around 11 am. The report alleges he alerted his shift leader that he was leaving his post. Then he exited the station in an unmarked car and headed for King’s Beach.
It didn’t take experts to determine trouble on the horizon; even though Ploss’ crew and Shimmy’s had run-ins in the past, something about that day felt different.
Dec 12, 2020, was a Saturday, and the rally was on a stretch of Route 129 that buffers the town of Swampscott from the Atlantic Ocean. Ploss and her crew stood on the shoulder of Humphrey Street facing King’s Beach, a couple of hundred yards away from the Lynn town line.
Roughly 15 locals, most in Donald Trump campaign apparel, waved DON’T TREAD ON ME flags and signs, including one that read DEMOCRATS ARE TRAITORS. Inside a row of metal police barricades, they passed around cigars and snacks.
At around 10:30 am, FFC organizers Ernst Jean-Jacques, Hibah Nour, and Mia Paré arrived in Swampscott by car. Upon reaching Monument Square, they noticed that the Swampscott Police had set up the scene so that the opposing groups were directly facing each other, like dogs in cages.
According to many who were there on Dec 12, the demonstration was a particularly tense one.
“It was one of the most vile protests I’ve ever been to,” Nour recalled. “None of the [Trump supporters] had masks on, and they were smoking soggy, damp, old, rotten cigars in our faces.”
“This was definitely a more aggressive action than in previous weeks,” Sergeant Jay Locke told the Daily Item. “It felt like it was going to be violent at any moment.”
The summer of 2020 saw a vast divide in how Americans see protest: While many citizens supported the Black Lives Matter movement and its mobilizing efforts throughout the country, huge swaths of the US population were quick to equate protest to violence, uprising to looting. This mentality was demonstrably shared by a number of police departments, as arrest numbers nationwide reached around 10,000 by last June 4—mainly for crimes related to breaking curfew or failure to disperse.
However scandalous at the time, arrests made at demonstrations in the summer of 2020 have followed a pattern experts say has been in place for decades: Namely, police disproportionately arrest Black individuals.
Last June, a Chicago Reader analysis of its city’s police data showed that, of 2,172 arrests made at recent Chicago protests, 71% were of Black people. It also presented separate data proving the majority of arrests over two days were for “peaceful protest actions rather than property damage, ‘looting,’ or assaults on police officers.”
Courthouse News also reported that Black individuals made up 11% of those arrested in Portland on May 29, 2020, “almost double the rate of Portland’s Black population.”
A 2011 study in the American Sociological Review looked at similar data over a long period of time. After examining more than 15,000 protests over 30 years, their findings were definitive: Black people are more likely to “draw police presence” at demonstrations, while “police are more likely to take action” in their presence. The authors coined the phrase about the phenomenon, “Protesting while Black.”
The day after Shimmy’s arrest, Nour and Shimmy joked that the latter “was the only Black man in Swampscott that day.
“And he was the only person arrested.”
According to FFC organizers on scene, Reen arrived at King’s Beach approximately five minutes after the incident with Greenberg. Shimmy was perched on a railing overlooking the shore, surrounded by a clutch of activists and officers. Reen approached the group and, without preamble, informed Jean-Jacques that he was being investigated for assault and battery.
From behind a phone camera, Nour demanded to know Reen’s badge number. When her camera turned back to Shimmy, he was being put into handcuffs. As an officer clicked a metal cuff around his right wrist, he asked, “I’m being arrested?”
Activists shouted in protest, but Reen’s voice cut through the commotion: “What I heard was that you hit a woman.”
“You can’t just hear something. You have to see it,” Nour responded. “How are you going to do your job and say, I didn’t see it?”
Two officers led Shimmy up Monument Avenue toward a squad car, the exchange lasting less than a minute. No rights were read, no statements taken.
Around the same time as Jean-Jacques’ arrest, Detective Rose Cheever arrived at the barricade to take Greenberg’s statement. Another camera-toting FFC activist caught Greenberg admitting to “getting water on” Shimmy.
“He was gyrating in front of me, and I got mad,” she says.
The activist chimes in, saying this meant Greenberg assaulted him first.
“Why don’t you fuck off,” Greenberg replies, swiping at the camera.
Cheever says something about finishing the interview later, and heads toward the street.
“And then he punched me,” Greenberg says.
In the police report, Reen mentions speaking to Greenberg’s daughters over the phone. The women claimed their mother had a condition known as essential tremors disorder, which “causes their mother to have tremors uncontrollably that are exacerbated under stressful conditions.” This, they said, was the real reason Greenberg got water on Shimmy.
The activist follows Cheever to the edge of the sidewalk. The detective spins around to face her.
“You’re videotaping me when a victim is talking to me in private,” Cheever shouts at the activist. “I’ll get her statement when you’re not videotaping me.”
With the detective gone across the street, the activist turns her camera back on Greenberg, who appears to have been watching her.
“You’re not America,” Greenberg calls out to the young woman. “You’re not America!”
Ernst Jean-Jacques was arraigned on Dec 14 in Lynn District Court, with Judge Matthew Nestor presiding. Attorney Murat Erkan later noted that Essex County Assistant District Attorney Danielle Doherty-Wirwicz “assumed the role of advocate (for Greenberg) and rejected the role of truth finder,” by immediately asking the court to determine Jean-Jacques a “danger to society.”
According to Nate Lamkin, an FFC organizer who witnessed the five-hour arraignment, Doherty-Wirwicz was also reluctant to watch video evidence presented by Erkan.
“It took literal hours for Shimmy’s lawyer to successfully convince the prosecution to just watch the videos,” he says. “He thought that if they watched the videos they would realize they don’t have a case and join him in dismissing it.”
A decision came at 1:30 in the afternoon: Shimmy was to pay $550 in bail and have no contact with Greenberg. He was charged with assault and battery of a person over 60—a felony in Massachusetts—and was ordered to return to the courthouse on Feb 24 for his first pretrial hearing. As a result of a local initiative in support of Shimmy, the public was invited to sit in on his Zoom court sessions.
For the first few minutes of the February hearing, the virtual gallery was a chorus of support for the defendant. Many left a hint of their identity in their messages: “Teachers for Shimmy!” “LGBTQ+ for Shimmy.” “Parents AND kids for Shimmy!”
In contrast, Jean-Jacques appeared taciturn throughout the hearing. His webcam showed him with brows knit, his mouth hidden behind his hand.
Dianna Ploss logged on and made a few incendiary remarks about Chinese communism, but was quickly drowned out by Shimmy’s supporters.
The rest of the hearing progressed as if a courtroom drama were broadcast via Twitch stream. In the chat, the gallery reacted in real time to motions from the counselors and their responses from the judge. Eventually, upcoming court dates were scheduled, and Judge Nestor was on to his next hearing of the day.
Perhaps nobody expected it to end so soon. Onlookers lingered in the Zoom chat for many minutes, writing messages of support to Shimmy, lambasting Nestor and Ploss, calling out to each other and no one in particular.
Beyond angered, hopeful, or scared, most were simply incredulous that the case was actually progressing. The most-repeated demand, posted over and over again by the near-hundred people attending the virtual session, was simply “drop the charges.”
Like the residents themselves, Swampscott’s leadership has been divided on the Dec 12 incident. A letter demanding the DA drop its charges was released on Jan 22 on Select Board letterhead, but was signed by only two out of five members.
On March 24, an internal investigative report made by an outside agency was released to the town of Swampscott, which appraised the actions of Jean-Jacques’ arresting officers.
The report pointed to multiple violations of conduct among the officers present on Dec 12—none of whom were named—but ultimately concluded that the arrest was made with probable cause, and the issue now fell within the jurisdiction of the court.
The report’s release marked the end of Swampscott’s influence over Jean-Jacques’ case, and his fate. Since late March, the town has been resigned to biting its nails while a culture war continues its weekly battle on Humphrey Street.
The majority of FFC’s demonstrations around Shimmy’s trial have moved to Mondays in front of the Lynn District Court on Essex Street, while Ploss’ group has moved its activities to Thursdays in Swampscott. Ploss, who in October of 2020 was arrested for punching a woman at one of her own rallies in Plymouth, has public events planned well into August.
As for Jean-Jacques, few of his activities, as an FFC organizer or a criminal defendant, have broken into the larger local mediascape; most outlets have remained mum on the story as of this writing.
“Life has been pretty shitty since the incident,” Jean-Jacques says. “The same media outlets who followed me from protest to protest all summer have basically vanished since my unjust arrest.”
Jean-Jacques was let go from his position at the senior facility and reported that he and his father, who shares his name, have been receiving frequent death threats. In spite of this, Jean-Jacques’ schedule is as full as it ever was. According to various Instagram accounts belonging to him and to FFC, the organization remains busy with drives, marches, and counterprotests—many in support of Palestine—and Jean-Jacques remains at the helm.
“Ernst has shown tremendous courage,” Murat Erkan says. “When the rubber meets the road and it’s your freedom on the line, your own rhetoric might not reflect what you have the courage to do. Ernst is deciding to put his own freedom at risk in order to fight for what’s right.”
On social media, Jean-Jacques is adamant regarding Greenberg and the Swampscott Police Department’s complicity in framing him for violent assault, mentioning in a June 1 Instagram post, “They are gonna drag this case out until I’m either homeless or insane.”
Yet never does he speculate on how his trial will proceed, or what life will be like afterward. It is in these moments that the crusading rebel from the summer of 2020 becomes the stoic, silent young man from the Zoom hearings.
“We’ll see,” he says, when asked about the verdict. “Anything is possible.”
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. To see more reporting like this please contribute at givetobinj.org.