Ypsilanti resident Audrey Anderson’s voice carried across the University of Michigan Diag Saturday, echoed by about 100 people at a protest against racial injustice organized by the nonprofit Survivors Speak.
“Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around,” Anderson sang. “I’m gonna keep on marching, keep on standing, keep on ‘til justice comes.”
She told the crowd she’d first heard the song as a little girl when Martin Luther King Jr. led the freedom riders through the Jim Crow South in the 1960s. Anderson noted the recurring nature of police brutality, comparing the brutality freedom riders were met with decades earlier to the violence protesters faced across the country this past summer.
“I never thought I would be seeing this again, and again and again,” Anderson said.
Saturday’s “Where Do We Go From Here?” protest came in the wake of the “wanton endangerment” charge filed against the police officers who shot Breonna Taylor and Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel’s finding that a Washtenaw County Sheriff deputy’s use of force against Sha’Teina Grady El was justified. In May, protests erupted in Ypsilanti after a video showed the officer repeatedly hitting Grady El in the head.
Elected officials, candidates and community members spoke out against racial injustice in education, the criminal justice system and the economy during Saturday’s event.
Eli Savit, Democratic candidate for Washtenaw County prosecutor, said the charge for wanton endangerment — but not for Taylor’s murder — proved that “Black lives are devalued.”
Bill Amadeo, Grady El’s attorney, told the crowd he is committed to fighting Nessel’s decision in the Grady El case. He said he is also representing many young Black men who are overcharged in Washtenaw County.
“They have been victims of the criminal justice system,” Amadeo said. “If we’re going to move forward, this bullshit needs to stop, and it’s only going to stop if we all sit down and talk as a team.”
A recent report from the Citizens for Racial Equality in Washtenaw found significant gaps in the treatment of different racial groups in the county’s criminal justice system. The report revealed prosecutors charge people of color more often than they do white people.
U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., told The Michigan Daily before the event on Saturday that she was one of the people who suggested the Grady El case go to Nessel’s office.
“We need to have someone who’s going to look at what facts are,” Dingell said. “Sometimes they’re really difficult findings that are made. We’ve got to figure out how we’re going to go forward from here and have a legal process that’s fair, open and transparent (and) treats everyone the same way, and also talk about the problems we still have.”
Dingell told the crowd she was frustrated by the lack of progress on racial issues in the U.S., a failing exposed this summer amid a series of high-profile police killings. She criticized President Donald Trump’s leadership during the unrest.
“We have a problem of injustice in America,” Dingell said. “But what we need is a leader who’s not afraid to have uncomfortable conversations, not a leader who’s gonna put kerosene on a fire and divide this country with fear and hatred.”
Rev. Joe Summers, pastor at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation, pointed to the general wealth of University students, many of whom he said come from households making hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, as evidence of the disparities in the community. He said the nation’s education system gives the wealthiest families access to high schools that send students to elite universities. Meanwhile, college-aged Black men are more likely to go to prison than graduate college in Michigan, he said.
“And it costs almost as much to send someone to prison as it costs to send them to a place like the University of Michigan,” Summers said.
Art & Design sophomore Emma Peterson said she came to protest the lack of indictment in the Taylor case. She said she was inspired by Summers’s call to action.
“Since we’re privileged enough to have the opportunities that this university gives us, our obligation is to give back to our communities,” Peterson said.
Other speakers included Nick Roumel, candidate for Washtenaw County Circuit Court Judge, and Krystal DuPree, candidate for Ann Arbor Public School board.
After the speeches, the crowd filed out of the Diag to chant and march through downtown Ann Arbor.
Aside from some of the organizers, the protesters were almost all white. For Michigan State University sophomore Savannah Fort, the racial makeup was nothing new.
“My senior year (of high school), I was the only Black person in my classes,” Fort said. “It’s like, why am I the only person there? It’s not an equitable environment.”
Fort said she was frustrated not to see many other Black people at the protest.
“It’s our problem, and I know (white people) are the solution to the problem, but we have to also come out and support ourselves before other people can support us,” Fort said.
Southgate resident Peter Potoski said he has been involved in protest movements since his time at the University in the 1960s. He said the baby-boomer generation failed to sustain the social progress made in that era.
“If we would’ve kept on keeping on, you guys wouldn’t be out here having to do this now,” Potoski said. “This is, quite frankly, embarrassing for my generation.”
He challenged the younger generations leading protests to continue demonstrating until they are successful.
“At that point in time, I want you to look at me and go, ‘Okay, Boomer,’” Potoski said.
The protesters passed through the middle of Main Street, their chants drowning out the low hum of lunch diners. Trische Duckworth, executive director of Survivors Speak, said she directed the crowd to stop when she saw some people “shaking their heads with disgust.”
“The whole thing with a protest — it is to provide a nuisance,” Duckworth said. “Let’s stop and let them know what we’re here for and what we represent.”
The marchers paused again at the corner of Main and Huron Street, where a white man on the sidewalk appeared to heckle them. Fort said the man yelled at the crowd to “go to college and get educated,” to which she yelled back, “I am in college.”
Duckworth took issue with the man’s complaints about the group blocking the street and directed her bullhorn at him, after which the man nodded, gave a thumbs up and walked away.
“I know you’re inconvenienced, but guess what — so are all the Black lives being lost,” Duckworth said. “So are all the Black lives right here in even Washtenaw County. So many disparities — it’s coming to an end, sir. Racial equity is happening, whether you like it or not.”
Daily Staff Reporter Calder Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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