Scattered on the front steps of the federal building in downtown Ann Arbor, approximately 200 Michigan residents of all ages and races gathered on Saturday afternoon to protest against racial injustice and the prospect of federal officers entering Detroit.
Protesters across the country have marched for months hoping to end police brutality and dismantle systemic racism. However, Saturday’s protest in Ann Arbor took on another cause after President Donald Trump ordered federal officers to Portland, Ore., to quell protests, raising questions about whether the U.S. government has exceeded its authority and violated civil rights.
In late June, Trump signed an executive order to justify sending federal officers to Portland in order to protect federal property from destruction. Portland, a city known for its spirited activism, has grown to become an epicenter for protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police brutality.
The tense standoff in the Portland has not just involved protesters and the federal officers, as local officials have also said the situation amounts to federal overreach. Furthermore, federal officers have deployed tear gas into a crowd of Portland protesters, including Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, in late July.
Trump has since doubled down and committed to sending more federal officers to cities like Chicago, New York City, Philadelphia and Detroit, among others.
These recent events were at the forefront of the Ann Arbor protesters’ activism Saturday.
The event, organized by Jeff Gaynor, Ann Arbor School Board member, and local tutor Amy Lesemann began the protest with speeches from local activists and politicians including candidates for Washtenaw County prosecutor Hugo Mack, Arianne Slay, Eli Savit and other Washtenaw County officials.
Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor said the U.S. must undergo a major transformation to create an inclusive community.
“The federal government, state government, local government, every community within the United States of America requires reworking and reimagining to meet our goals and aspirations,” Taylor said. “(Our goal is) a community that embraces everyone, where everyone has a role to play, where everyone can achieve what it is they wish to achieve.”
Taylor criticized the federal response in cities like Portland and said this type of response is unacceptable everywhere and that it will not be tolerated in the city of Ann Arbor.
“Our national government is led by men in whose mind they see opportunity, they see opportunity in fomenting disorder, they see opportunity in fomenting violence, they see opportunity in the instigation of violence,” Taylor said. “The secret police will not stand, will not be the America that we will fight for. Under no circumstances is this acceptable and under no circumstances will we accept secret police in Portland, in Chicago and Detroit, and never, never in Ann Arbor.”
Washtenaw County Sheriff Jerry Clayton also spoke to the crowd about his personal experiences with racism and acknowledged the significance of protesters fighting for police reform.
“I talk to you as the sheriff of Washtenaw County, but I also talk to you as an African-American male in this country,” Clayton said. “Don’t think that just because I was elected sheriff that I am exempt from discrimination, let’s not get that twisted. All of what we do and all of what you’re doing is for … the folks in the future. The ‘defund police’ chants don’t shake me, that means everybody’s awake.”
Some crowd members said they felt disappointed with having people in power like Taylor and Sheriff Clayton speak at the rally. Aine McGehee Marley, University of Michigan alum and Ann Arbor resident, was the first to speak at the rally and later told The Daily she was disheartened by the presence of people in power, especially when their actions have not reflected the notions of racial justice.
“After I saw that people like the mayor and the sheriff were going to speak, I actually reached out to Jeff to speak as well, because I think that it is not okay to invite those groups of people into the protest space, especially when Aura Rosser was murdered when both of those people were in positions of power and didn’t do anything about it,” McGehee Markely said.
Mike Steinberg, former legal director of the ACLU of Michigan and University Law School professor, also weighed in on the federal agent deployment and the crossroads the nation now faces.
“We are all here today to stand in solidarity with our sisters and brothers and fellow activists across the country who are out in the streets in the middle of a pandemic to say that Black lives matter,” Steinberg said. “We’re also here because we’re at a crossroads. We are at a time in our history where it is unclear if we will strive towards the principles of democracy and civil liberties, or if we’re going to become a police state.”
Abdul El-Sayed, local activist and former gubernatorial candidate, spoke about his personal experiences with racism growing up and emphasized the danger of the second wave of COVID-19 the nation faces.
“To me, this conversation about democracy gets awfully personal awfully quickly,” El-Sayed said. “We are facing two pandemics right now, not just one. There’s one that we’re protecting ourselves because of these masks, and another: We’re protecting 83,000 lives that die because of systematic racism every year by being out in these streets.”
El-Sayed is a public health expert and physician by training. He spoke about the influence of racism on public health.
“Racism, make no mistake, is a public health issue,” El-Sayed said. “We are here today because we have realized that we have no other choice. We have to decide that we are going to make sure in this society of ours that… when we hold certain truths to be self-evident that we will stand up and make sure that everybody in this country, Black folks in this country, will have the full right and opportunities that they have deserved for 400 years.”
After local activists and politicians addressed the crowd for over an hour, the group took to the streets in downtown Ann Arbor where police blocked off intersections at each corner of the route. Starting on East Liberty Street, the crowd wove around to Main Street where dozens of customers and servers at restaurants joined the crowd in cheers and raised fists, many of whom were seated on the very streets the protestors marched on.
As he chanted through a blow horn at the front of the march, Ann Arbor resident Edward Dance told The Daily it is protests like these that give him hope for change. He emphasized the need to continue this effort, especially in areas where racial inequality is most prevalent.
“I think the protest really was effective in terms of galvanizing Washtenaw County’s environment, but I think we need to keep up the momentum, especially going towards some of the other counties that exist in this country like Ypsilanti, even going to Dexter, and places where you can experience where the front lines are when it comes to fighting for racial equality and justice,” Dance said.
Brendan Closz is a high school teacher who traveled from Brighton, Mich. to attend the rally. Waving a “Black Lives Matter” flag, Closz marched with a sea of protestors down State Street, chanting “No justice, no peace, no racist police.” For Closz, this protest is about standing up in support for those who cannot stand up for themselves.
“I’m marching right now for my students, I’m marching for their parents, I’m marching for their equality right now,” Closz said. “I’m obviously a white male, a cis white male, the most privileged class that has ever existed in the history of the world, and it’s our job to stand up for equality for voices that can’t stand up for themselves. That’s why I’m here.”
As the group made its way around East Washington Street and then State Street, the crowd took a pause at the intersection of South Division and East Liberty. While police blocked off passing cars, the protesters kneeled in silence for eight minutes and 46 seconds to honor the late George Floyd.
During the march, State Rep. Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor, told The Daily that these protests are important for the future of the United States.
“I think the future of our country is at stake,” Rabhi said. “Whether we’re going to be a nation of oppression that condones racism and fascism and colonialism or whether we’re going to be a nation that confronts the past and our history and try to move the country forward.”
Rabhi discussed the deployment of federal agents to cities across the nation such as Portland, Ore., and the impact it has on the country as a whole.
“We’re seeing the erosion of our democracy,” Rabhi said. “The erosion of America, and what this rally is about is upholding that we believe in a better country that can move in a different direction and confront the failures of our past.”
Rabhi also said that while these federal agents are not currently in Ann Arbor, events like these are a sign that they are not welcome in the city.
“We’re making it clear early on if they want to come here they’re not welcome,” Rabhi said. “Making it clear before they even think about it they are not welcome.”
Summer News Editor Sarah Payne can be reached at email@example.com. Summer News Editor Kristina Zheng can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article has been updated to include a corrected spelling of State Rep. Yousef Rabhi’s name.