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Marching through the streets of downtown Ann Arbor, dozens of protesters gathered with signs demanding racial justice and equality Saturday afternoon. Chants calling for racial justice, police accountability and governmental transparency were punctuated by drum beats as onlookers watched from sidewalks.

Saturday’s protest, hosted by non-profit advocacy group Survivors Speak, marked exactly a year after the police killing of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year old woman from Louisville, Ky. who was killed in her apartment when officers wrongfully broke into her home and fired 32 rounds after Taylor’s boyfriend fired one. No officers involved in the shooting currently face criminal charges. 

According to the organizers, Survivors Speak is dedicated to amplifying the voices of victims of any form of injustice, and Saturday’s protest was centered around the theme of accountability. On the steps of Hatcher Graduate Library, speakers took to the microphone to emphasize the necessity of fighting for accountability within public institutions and called for transparency on issues unique to Ann Arbor.

Trische’ Duckworth, executive director and founder of Survivors Speak, told The Michigan Daily before the protest that she began the organization in 2018 as a way to support those fighting for widespread transparency and justice.

“Normally survivors are recognized as rape victims, molestation, domestic violence,” Duckworth said. “But we took it a step further in saying, really, all of us are surviving something, right? Like some kind of pain, some kind of trauma. And so we wanted to honor all survivors and to help people free themselves in the midst of what they’re going through.”

Duckworth also said she believes unity is essential when it comes to holding officials accountable. People have a responsibility, Duckworth said, to ensure that local officials follow through on promises they made when they ran for office.

“We have to hold ourselves accountable so that we can continue to stay the course and pay attention to what’s going on around us, pay attention to what’s going on in legislation,” Duckworth said. “But then we have the job to hold our legislators accountable to ensure that they hold true to the agenda items that we have approved for them when we elect them.”

Jazmyn Bradford, School of Social Work student and intern for Survivors Speak, told The Daily that the purpose of Saturday’s protest was to encourage community members to advocate for justice in their local governments. Many speakers emphasized that Ann Arbor is no exception to police violence against Black and Brown people. Many also discussed their experiences with systemic racism within Ann Arbor Public Schools. 

“We want community members to understand that we have the power to put people in the positions that they’re in. … We want social justice,” Bradford said. “We want policies that are actually going to make change happen.”

Law School student Solomon Furious Worlds, who also attended the rally, is representing Makayla Kelsey, Ann Arbor Public School student, and her mother Charmelle Kelsey in a case against instances of racial discrimination in Pioneer High School. The Kelseys originally submitted a complaint with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights in August 2020 alleging that AAPS created a racially hostile environment. 

The Civil Rights Litigation Initiative, a clinic at the University of Michigan Law School, also sent a letter to AAPS administrators on behalf of the Kelseys in August 2020. According to the letter, Kelsey allegedly faced racial discrimination from current Pioneer math teacher Michele Macke.

Worlds said he attended the rally both to show solidarity with the demands — like accountability and transparency by Ann Arbor police and elected officials — mentioned by other speakers and spread awareness about others’ experiences of racism within AAPS. 

Worlds also called for protestors to sign a petition calling for AAPS to publicize the results of the investigation into the alleged discriminatory incidents. According to Worlds, AAPS has not followed through on demands to implement a system where students could report instances of racial bias and civil rights organizations could provide transparent investigations. As of Sunday evening, the petition has garnered more than 1,200 signatures. 

In an October 2020 statement in response to CRLI’s letter, AAPS Superintendent Jeanice Swift emphasized the school district’s commitment to investigating the incidents of racial discrimination.

“In the AAPS, we take this situation and the matters outlined in that letter very seriously,” Swift wrote. “All of us are deeply disturbed by the content of the allegations.  We are committed to a full and thorough investigation of those matters as we understand the important value each child brings and are deeply committed to equity and opportunity for each and every student we serve.”

Saturday’s protest, Worlds said, was meant to call for racial justice both at the community and national levels. 

“Today, there’s mourning and remembrance, with regards to the killing of Breonna Taylor, but not just for Breonna but also for Tony McDade, Michael Brown, Laquan McDonald and for so many people whose names we don’t remember,” Worlds said. “The injustice started in 1619, and it continues today. It didn’t end with slavery, it didn’t end with Jim Crow. It continues today.”

Ezra Peiter, a 14-year-old student from Chelsea, Mich., attended the protest and said he joined the movement to combat racism within Michigan police departments. He spoke to the audience about how the Chelsea Police Department failed to protect 16-year old protester Mya King when she was assaulted by an older woman while peacefully protesting at a Black Lives Matter protest this past summer. The woman was charged with misdemeanor assault. 

Last month, Drop the Charges, a community-led movement to drop charges from peaceful protests, began petitioning to withdraw charges against those who received tickets for impeding traffic during Black Lives Matter protests. King received a citation for attending the July 31 protest and the charges against her were eventually dropped on Feb. 15 after numerous attempts by the CRLI to have them rescinded. 

Peiter, who was also at the protest King attended, said there needs to be greater accountability when it comes to policing. 

“That counter-protester went on to call the police on us and describe the one Black girl at the protest as a hostile African American,” Peiter said. “In the police’s media release, they accused her of assaulting the woman who assaulted Mya.” 

Peiter said it is the responsibility of the police to hold people accountable. But more importantly, he said, it is the community who must hold the police accountable. 

“If the police won’t hold people accountable, because historically they haven’t, we have to be a self-policing community,” Peiter said. “We don’t need them.”

Victoria Burton-Harris, chief assistant prosecutor of Washtenaw County, also attended Saturday’s protest. Burton-Harris emphasized the importance of fighting for equality and freedom.

“We are proclaiming that Black lives matter and we shouldn’t have to,” Burton-Harris said. “We should not have to because there is nothing that separates me and you except for what we have been taught … When you fight for Black liberation, you are fighting for us all to be free. And none of us are free until every last one of us is free.”

Ben Murphy-Smith, an education advocate at the Student Advocacy Center, called on white people to listen to and amplify the voices of the Black community in order to work toward achieving an anti-racist future.

“I think as white people, especially as a white man, we don’t always pick up on discrimination and its more subtle forms,” Smith said. “We don’t always really believe what we haven’t seen, because we haven’t experienced it.” 

Smith said that white supremacy continues in American public schools today, causing “daily trauma” to millions of students. Part of the solution, Smith said, is to encourage white parents to teach their children what racism is and how to call it out. 

Eli Savit, newly-elected Washtenaw County prosecutor, spoke at the protest. As a progressive candidate in the Nov. 2020 election, Savit said he ran on the promise of bringing accountability to the county’s justice system. Since taking office on Jan. 1, Savit has implemented a number of policies aimed at ending cash bail, removing zero-tolerance policies and ending prosecution of natural psychedelics (known as entheogenic plants), among other progressive policies.

“This community demanded that we turn the page on our unjust and inequitable cash bail system, which holds people in jail pending trial simply because of their wealth,” Savit said. “And I’m proud to say that we have not sought cash bail in a single case.” 

Before protesters took to the streets to march, Bradford encouraged all attendees to commit to holding one another accountable. She asked the crowd to follow along with her in reading The Accountability Pledge and vowed to continue to fight for equality in Ann Arbor.

“I will continue to sound the alarm against racial and social injustices and promote the building of equity for all by using the power of my voice,” Bradford read aloud. “Please keep me accountable for this pledge that I take today, as I will do the same for you.”

Daily Staff Reporters Sarah Stolar and Nina Molina can be reached at sstolar@umich.edu and nimolina@umich.edu. 

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