With Childish Gambino’s song “This is America” playing, 300 predominantly white community members gathered at West Park in Ann Arbor Thursday afternoon for a protest against police brutality and racial injustice. The protest was one of many held throughout the week in the city in concert with those held around the country and the world after the killing of George Floyd.
Organized by local activist Ethan Ketner, the event featured speakers and a march through the surrounding neighborhoods, despite the almost 90 degree heat. Ketner and about 50 volunteers, including designated medics, handed out free water and snacks to attendees throughout the event. Protesters stopped traffic at one point at the Maple Road and Jackson Avenue intersection.
Ketner’s co-organizer, Trische’ Duckworth of the non-profit Survivors Speak, was in Detroit on Thursday along with She’Teina Grady El and her family. Grady El is a Black woman from Ypsilanti who was punched repeatedly in the head by a Washtenaw County police officer during an arrest last Tuesday. After days of protest, she was released from jail, but her lawyer Bill Amadeo is calling for protest to continue until the officers involved are prosecuted and all charges against her and her family are dropped.
As protesters walked through the neighborhoods, people came out of their houses to chant, cheer or raise a fist in solidarity with those marching by. After a string of protests throughout the week on the Diag and through downtown Ann Arbor, Ketner said the move to West Park was intentional to bring more people into calling for justice in Grady El’s case.
“We went through the neighborhoods of Ann Arbor to bring more numbers to this,” Ketner said. “We want to spread the voice. We’re going to continue to move locations throughout the city so we can bring more neighborhoods to this and inspire other people to take action. That’s definitely a big part of the goal, to activate all types of people from all races, ages, religions, backgrounds, sexes, all of that.”
Ketner also said the protest was “definitely more of an ally protest” and expressed he was happy to see that white people are coming out.
With the crowd spread out far across the grassy hill surrounding the amphitheater during the first part of the protest, several speakers delivered remarks on police brutality and racial injustice.
The first speaker, Maurice Archer, said he was raised in Ann Arbor. He challenged the crowd to not only protest but also to work on their own internalized racism and fight the oppression of marginalized peoples every day.
“When Black Lives Matter isn’t trendy anymore, I still have to worry about myself and my children and those around me, right?” Archer said. “My advice as a Black man in America to you all is work on yourself. Because this concept of Black Lives Matter, it’s cool, keep chanting it … So let’s protest, but let’s not just let one day be a protest. Let’s let our life be a protest.”
State Rep. Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor, took the microphone with a fiery call-and-response chant and called for an end to qualified immunity for law enforcement.
“We’ve got a problem here in America with law enforcement officers that believe they aren’t subject to the same laws the rest of us are subject to, that believe in brutalizing Black lives without consequences,” Rabhi said. “What I want to say today is, we need consequences in America. Law enforcement is not above the law.”
University of Michigan students have called on University President Mark Schlissel to limit ties with local police after the University of Minnesota did the same last week in response to Floyd’s killing.
Rabhi said he hoped everyone in the audience was registered to vote but also implored them to think about their political participation outside of voting.
“It’s about showing up after the election, before the election,” Rabhi said. “It’s about coming to committee. It’s about calling your representatives. It’s about organizing, protesting, being present, being visible, holding your signs up proud and loud and making sure that the system, that those in power cannot do the convenient thing and look away. Do not allow them to look away. Demand justice.”
Defense attorney Hugo Mack, a candidate running for Washtenaw County prosecutor, spoke to his experience with the criminal justice system. He was convicted and imprisoned for 10 years for a rape offense, though Mack has maintained his innocence. At the protest, he said voters should elect someone who sees the world through the eyes of an oppressed person.
“Elect somebody who sees the world not from privilege, but from proven integrity through hardship,” Mack said. “It’s one thing to talk about, ‘Oh yeah, I’m against racism, I’m against sexism, I’m against classism.’ It’s another thing to have lived it.”
After the speakers, Ketner led the group through the neighborhood towards Maple Road. Chants included, “Whose streets? Our streets,” “Say their name. Which one?”, “No justice, no peace, fuck the racist police” and “Fuck Donald Trump,” among others.
Ann Arbor resident Maddy Greenberg watched the protesters walk by her home from her front porch with her husband and two kids. When asked why they went outside to see the march, Greenberg said she felt it was important for her kids to see this movement.
“I think it just really matters that they understand there’s social injustice in this world, that they should stand up for what they believe in and understand that this is something that’s been going on and is probably going to happen for a long time,” Greenberg said. “And I want our kids to realize that they can make a difference.”
Similarly, Ann Arbor resident Adam Williams said he came to the protest with his young son Malcolm because they were fighting for justice and for Malcolm’s future together. When asked if he believed police brutality was a problem in Washtenaw County, he pointed to Grady El’s case and noted that “it’s here, it’s everywhere.”
“I was a young guy during the Rodney King stuff, that was about thirty years ago now,” Williams said. “My whole life, I’ve witnessed things ratcheting up, things not getting better, people riling up and then it tamps down, but the same problems persist. This time, it feels a little different. It feels like we’ve got some more allies on our side, and this time, maybe change can really come out of it.”
Grand Valley State student Gianna Busch bought a bouquet of yellow daisies to hand out at the protest. Busch said she wanted to instill the belief of a peaceful march in people’s minds and to show children the event shouldn’t scare them.
“I think flowers are beautiful,” Busch said. “You give them to loved ones showing that you support them and care for them, so it's kind of the same premise, to show that we care about each other because we're all human.”
Lakewood Elementary student Jacob Sekuterski attended the protest with his twin brother. They held signs reading “Black lives matter” and “My life matters.” Sekuterski said Floyd’s death wasn’t fair and that he appreciated the large crowd gathered at West Park.
“It’s not fair that white people are getting more things than Black people,” Sekuterski said.
LSA senior Evan Deng said he attended the protest partly because he feels many Asian Americans have stayed silent about anti-Black racism, even those who had been vocal about anti-Asian racism relating to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Deng marched with a sign that read, “AAPD, blood is on your hands.” When asked to talk about his sign, Deng pointed to Aura Rosser, a Black woman fatally shot by Ann Arbor police officer David Ried in 2014. The county prosecutor’s office deemed Reid’s actions self-defense, which sparked protest and the creation of a police oversight commission. Ried is still on the Ann Arbor police force.
When the protesters stopped at the Ann Arbor Skatepark, Eastern Michigan University student Paulina Cardenas led the crowd in chanting Rosser’s name.
Deng called Ann Arbor an “affluent, white power town” where there’s a misconception that racial injustice is not a problem in the city.
“There’s a big misconception that there’s not police brutality in Ann Arbor, but there are names and there are people that have been lost,” Deng said. “It’s a sign that I want any cop in Ann Arbor to see. Even if you’re a cop who hasn’t done something racist or killed anyone, just by standing there, just by being on the force, just by watching as Black lives are lost, blood is still very much so on your hands.”
Ann Arbor resident Alonzo Young also touched on injustice within the Ann Arbor community, specifically in relation to the homelessness. Young said he had been homeless and now serves on a board to combat homelessness. According to Young, City Council has expressed they don’t want homeless people downtown.
“They said they didn’t want homeless people going to the Art Fair because it makes downtown Ann Arbor look bad,” Young said. “So you know what they told homeless people? Get out of Ann Arbor, and go to Ypsilanti.”
According to 2019 census estimates, Ann Arbor, with a median household income of $63,956, is about 71 percent white and 6.5 percent Black, while neighboring Ypsilanti, with a median household income of $36,982, is 64.8 percent white and 27.3 percent Black. The two cities are known for facing disparities in job access, education, health and economic well-being.
Cardenas, also a nurse’s aide at the University Hospital, spoke to how gentrification in Ypsilanti and lack of affordable housing in Ann Arbor have pushed longtime residents out of the community. Cardenas said she feels like there is a tendency for people in the area to view the two cities differently.
“It’s just something that you can see, it’s something you can feel,” Cardenas said. “If you were to drive from U of M hospital to St. Joseph’s Mercy Hospital, if it was a straight shot, it would be five minutes. But with all the turns and all the roads, people think it’s long enough and far enough to think that we are different.”
Young said he hoped to see similar numbers engaged in anti-racism work, not just when an incident of police brutality is publicized but all the time.
“When something happens, we see people out here, but we should stick together before stuff happens,” Young said. “People (are) here today, but you ain’t going to see these people until something else comes up. We all should stick together, all the time and not just have rallies. This rally is good, I’m for this, but we should do something all year-round.”
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