In a testimony before City Council Monday night that silenced the chamber, Khita Whyatt, lecturer of dance in the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance, recounted a recent incident when four men knocked her to the ground while shouting epithets last Thursday morning on Observatory Street.
“I was getting ready to go and lecture … when I felt something coming at me and when I looked up there were four young men running full-tilt at me with a full-arm body block, arms out, and they told me ‘Go home,’ ” Whyatt said. “And they slammed me, lifted me in the air and I fell flat on my ass and saw stars.”
Whyatt said she chose to reveal her identity by speaking out publicly to bring attention to a recent spate of local hate crimes and call for action. Ted Annis, Whyatt’s partner, suggested in an email to a neighborhood watch association that she was targeted because she is of dark complexion due to her Native American descent.
“I’d like to say this was the only time I’ve been assaulted in Ann Arbor and it is not; it is the fourth time I have been assaulted in Ann Arbor, and the second hate crime,” Whyatt said. “People need to understand what’s going on. There’s a lot more hate crimes happening in recent weeks. There needs to be a dialogue … so people can come forward in order to be able to feel safe.”
Whyatt explained in an interview after her testimony that she did not immediately call the police because she was so shocked, but her department chair contacted the Department of Public Safety and Security. Two days after the incident, Whyatt said she was interviewed by two DPSS officers who told her it was “obviously” a hate crime.
While they both described DPSS’s response as “great, initially,” Whyatt and Annis said they were concerned that an alert hadn’t yet been sent to the University community as has been the case following similar incidents. The University has released two crime alerts over the past two weeks of hate crimes on campus. It has not released a crime alert about the event Whyatt referenced as of Tuesday evening.
“I laid (the lack of public alert) off to the (University) bureaucracy and was willing to give them a day or two of grace,” Annis said. “If they are silent 24 hours from now, then I have a big problem.”
DPSS spokeswoman Diane Brown wrote in a text message interview Tuesday evening that she had nothing to add regarding Whyatt’s account. In a follow-up email, Brown wrote that a decision was made not to send out a crime alert because of the amount of time that transpired between the incident and when it was brought to DPSS’s attention.
Following Whyatt’s testimony, Councilmember Sumi Kailasapathy (D–Ward 1), fighting tears, said she has received an unprecedented surge in calls and emails from constituents concerned about the recent incidences of hate crimes. She called for empathy for the victims.
“I myself was a refugee. When I was 15 years old, my house was completely burned down in Sri Lanka during the 1983 riots. I myself was an illegal immigrant in India as a refugee,” Kailasapathy said. “Because of other people’s kindness, it’s how I survived and I will make sure I do the same thing for people in this community.”
Mayor Christopher Taylor echoed Kailasapathy, saying all Ann Arbor residents deserve to feel safe.
“There’s been really shameful acts of intimidation and violence,” Taylor said. “And it’s important that we all stand with the victims of intimidation and aggression, and that people do indeed have an unshakable right to live free from harassment and that right is regrettably under present and increasing threat.”
In an email from University President Mark Schlissel that was shared by Wyatt with The Michigan Daily, Schlissel expressed sympathy for her and promised the University community would remain watchful in the face of such incidents.
“While you were clearly the direct victim of this awful act, I consider this also an attack on our entire community,” Schlissel wrote. “We will continue to increase our vigilance in protecting all members of the Un iversity of Michigan community and denouncing hate, bigotry, and in this case, violence.”