Police officers followed Jermaine Johnston down the Hatcher Graduate Library steps on a finals week night more than 20 years ago for no reason. He said he was used to it — being treated as less intelligent during office hours, asked what sport he played on the first day of classes and met with silence when he walked into an all-white room.
“I had a bookbag on my back, a University of Michigan shirt, University of Michigan hat, proud to be in the place that didn’t always accept me,” Johnston.
Johnston stood on those same steps on the Diag Saturday morning, addressing a crowd of several hundred protesting for racial justice after police officers in Wisconsin shot Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down.
Johnston, now a minister and father to a University student, said he was getting into “good trouble.”
“I refuse for my children to grow up the way I grew up, to continue to have these same arguments, these same discussions, 50 years from now,” Johnston told The Daily. “I want to close my eyes one day and know we really had progress in this country.”
University students, community members and elected officials of all ages and races took part in speeches on racial inequality on the Diag before marching through downtown Ann Arbor in an event organized by the non-profit Survivors Speak.
Trische Duckworth, executive director of Survivors Speak, wore a shirt with seven bullet holes painted on the back to signify the seven times white police officers shot Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
“We never pose a threat,” Duckworth said. “You know what the threat is? It’s the color of our skin.”
Duckworth and Tracy Van den Bergh, a candidate for Washtenaw Circuit Court judge, read aloud a list of dozens of people killed by police in recent years, including Tamir Rice and Eric Gardner.
“Don’t forget their names,” Van den Bergh said.
She implored the mostly white audience to challenge their friends and family who respond “all lives matter” to the Black Lives Matter movement.
“If all lives really matter, there would not be the disproportionate murder of Black brothers and sisters in our streets, and so many people would be alive today,” Van den Bergh said.
U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich, said there is an “uncomfortable” reality in America.
“If you are a Black man, you are treated differently than a white man,” Dingell said.
Eli Savit, Democratic candidate for Washtenaw County prosecutor, held up a pocket knife he found on the floor of his car a few days ago and compared it to the knife police have said they found under the floorboard of Blake’s car at the time of the shooting. Savit said his pocket knife had probably been on the floor for months before he realized it.
“I never once thought that because of the presence of that knife in my car that I would be dehumanized, that I would be presumed to be dangerous,” Savit said. “That is the systemic racism that we’re talking about.”
After remarks from Nick Roumel, candidate for Washtenaw County Circuit Judge, and Krystal Dupree, candidate for Ann Arbor School Board of Education, as well as other local activists, protesters left the Diag to march. They walked down South State Street chanting “Black lives matter.”
As the group stopped at the corner of East Liberty Street and Fourth Street, the call and response shifted from “No more knees on our neck” to “No more bullet holes in our back.”
Rackham student Elisandra Rosario said watching videos of previous instances of police violence against Black people hurt her so deeply that she couldn’t watch the Jacob Blake video.
“Yes, I should watch the videos, but it fucking hurts, like it does,” Rosario said. “It’s terrible.”
Protesters marked the seven times officers shot at Blake’s back with seven minutes of silence. Most kneeled, some laid down, some prayed and others raised fists. Terril Cotton, an Ann Arbor activist who has put together protests of his own, stayed in his wheelchair. He said the seven minutes felt like a long time.
He said he’s happy the support is still strong for the Black Lives Matter movement. On the other hand, he’s saddened that these marches have to keep happening in the first place.
“Hopefully by the time the year’s over we don’t have to keep doing this, man,” Cotton said. “Who knows?”
Protesters marched down many downtown streets already blocked off for summer outdoor dining. They passed diners, who were mostly white, eating Sunday lunches.
Johnston said he saw an “elite class of people” for whom racism had no negative impact and therefore did not matter.
“That is the attitude of many Americans, because if it doesn’t hit my houses and affect me, why should I care?” Johnston said. “But the problem is when you don’t understand that racism impacts us in all ways, and you’re the beneficiary of racism, you have really no impetus to change.”
Daily Staff Reporter Calder Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.