Drop the Charges, a community-led movement, took to social media to petition for the city of Chelsea, Mich. to rescind the charges against 29 residents of the city who received tickets — including 7 juveniles  — for impeding traffic during Black Lives Matter protests on July 31, Aug. 13th, and Sep. 4th, 2020. 

Community members spoke for more than an hour during public comment at a Chelsea City Council meeting Feb. 16, where dozens of community members called for dropping the charges against the protesters. After much debate and consultation with the city’s lawyer Peter Flintoft, the council voted unanimously to recommend that the Chelsea Police Department repeal and refund the citations.

Mayor Melissa Johnson, who leads the Chelsea City Council, said she was uncertain of the council’s legal ability to make decisions of this nature, according to the Detroit Free Press and evident from her questions at Tuesday’s meeting. 

“Council Members and residents should ask if they are comfortable with Council Members having the power to have allegations of violations of law ignored or dismissed,” Johnson said in an email to the Free Press. “How do you ensure that such decisions are free from political or personal motivations?”

Following the 7-0 vote, the ultimate decision lay in the hands of Chelsea Police Chief Edward Toft, who could choose whether or not to comply with the recommendation.

In a press release Friday morning, the Chelsea Police Dept. indicated their intention not to go forward with the dismissal. The department also defended their use of enforcement, citing the frequency of marches and ARCY’s lack of pre-planned routes coordinated by leadership.

“There are no plans for the Chelsea Police Department to dismiss any of the violations currently before the court,” the statement said. “However, no new tickets will be issued from this point forward in regard to these 2020 ARCY/BLM demonstrations.”

According to a post from the Drop The Charges Facebook group, Toft said over the phone that he believed it would be an “ethical violation on his part to honor the request of the board.”

Building tensions in Chelsea

Beginning in early June 2020 and continuing throughout the year, residents of Chelsea participated in weekly peaceful protests for social justice following the death of George Floyd. The protests were organized by Anti-Racist Chelsea Youth in support of the BLM movement. 

According to the press release from the Chelsea Police Dept., Toth warned at a City Council meeting on July 20 that protesters would be identified and enforcement action would be taken for people protesting in the street without a permit.

There were three marches occurring in the coming months — specifically on July 31, Aug. 13 and Sept. 4, 2020 — where enforcement actions were taken after marchers were identified following various investigations, according to the Friday press release.

According to an independent investigation conducted by Whistleblower Law Collaborative LLC, there was evidence of selective policing by the Chelsea Police Department on July 31. Police officers videotaped and photographed protesters on their way to a peaceful protest at Pierce Park and later used this evidence to issue citations to citizens as young as 14 years of age for obstructing traffic.

“The use of and reliance on those images creates a strong, and impermissible, inference that individuals were selected to receive citations because they spoke out at a public gathering which included statements critical of the police department,” the report said.

Counter-protesters organized a “Patriot Parade” on July 31, during which they yelled at and harassed members of ARCY and other protesters, according to the Detroit Free Press. There is no record of any of these counterprotesters receiving similar citations. 

The report also concluded those experiences in July left many Chelsea residents “deeply distrustful” of their police department, a sentiment which was strongly echoed by members of the community through interviews with The Michigan Daily.

Christine Pieter, who received a citation — in addition to her daughter, mother and stepfather — said she is in full support of reforming the Chelsea Police Department. She said she was glad that the protests this summer had set change into motion.

“(Last week’s City Council visionary meeting) lasted for close to four hours,” Pieter said. “One of the pieces to that meeting was police reform. So (after) this whole summer, somebody is finally listening. It took a report by an outside agency investigating, it took Drop The Charges … but finally, at least it made the agenda.”

According to the report, many witnesses present at the protests that day felt the actions of the police were “aggressive” and “unnecessary.”

Pieter agreed they had been specifically targeted by the police.

“They tried to silence us,” Pieter said. “They knew we were (at the park) every week, so they knew who we were. It’s a small town.”

U-M lawyers take the case

On June 25th — a month before the protest where the citations were issued — 16-year-old Mya King was assaulted by an older woman while she was peacefully protesting at Pierce Park in Chelsea. The woman was charged with misdemeanor assault, according to the Friday Chelsea Police Dept press release. 

King, one of the few people of color in Chelsea, said she feels like she is being punished for speaking the truth after receiving a citation in the mail for her presence at the Jul. 31st protest, according to her mother Priya King, who spoke out at Tuesday’s City Council meeting.

The University of Michigan Law School’s Civil Rights Litigation Initiative, directed by Prof. Michael Steinberg, was brought in to defend King.

Three law students who are part of the clinic, including third-year Law student Diane Kee, were tasked with making the case to dismiss the civil infraction once it became clear that the city was not going to drop the charges earlier this year. Kee told The Daily that she was proud to be working for a defendant like King, who is fighting for social justice.

“What I’ve loved about clinical work is the ability to apply the law to real peoples’ cases, especially to a young person like Mya, who is so committed to calling out racial injustice and building this more inclusive community,” Kee said. “We’re really proud to be representing her through the Civil Rights Litigation Initiative.”

The state statute that the protestors were alleged to violate allows for people to disturb traffic only if they are “soliciting contributions on behalf of a charitable or civic organization.”

According to the legal brief from the initial hearing on Jan. 25, the U-M lawyers, in tandem with ACLU lawyers, argue that the statute itself is unconstitutional because it allows for certain activities to impede traffic and not others.

“The biggest thing we were trying to get at was that it’s unacceptable for the city to use an unconstitutional means to shut down protected speech,” Kee said. “The state has no business regulating speech and punishing people based on what they’re saying.”

On Monday, according to a statement released by CRLI, Judge Anna Froshour dismissed the charges against King and the other residents of Chelsea who received citations. This comes after continued attempts by the CRLI to dismiss the charges back in Oct. and Nov. 2020 and the unanimous vote by the Chelsea City Council.

“This decision is a victory for Mya and all those who marched with her,” Kee said in the statement. “Judge Frushour’s decision is a recognition that Mya  and her friends should be applauded, not punished, for peacefully marching for racial justice.” 

King also expressed her relief following the ruling. 

“There’s still a long way to go as we try to promote an anti-racist Chelsea, but this is a  good first step,” King said.

Youth-led movement for anti-racism in Chelsea

David Bloom, U-M alum and resident of Chelsea, is a newer member of the Drop The Charges movement and said he is passionate about the cause. He said Chelsea is an example of a problem that towns all over the nation are dealing with. 

“We’re a poster child for a town struggling with anti-racism,” Bloom said. “We’re a poster child for selective enforcement in a lily-white town. We’re a poster child for white fragility.”

Bloom says that in the 30 years he has lived in Chelsea, a town with a population of about 5,000 that is more than 95% white, the voting patterns of the city have changed from Republican to Democrat. He said that this is not due to a population turnover but caused in part by the actions of ARCY and the youth of Chelsea.

Pieter agreed that the movement for reform began with the kids of Chelsea.

“It started in the schools,” Pieter said. “It started with (the youth) noticing that there are racist kids in the school who are being led by their racist parents … If you don’t fit Chelsea’s boxes of being an academic, or good at sports, or white, or straight, then you are ostracized and made fun of.” 

Some citizens who spoke during the public comments section of Tuesday’s City Council meeting had received citations themselves. They donned “Drop The Charges” Zoom backgrounds and gave impassioned five-minute dialogues calling for change. Many said they believed Chelsea would be branded by the media as a racist town if they didn’t vote to repeal the charges.

During an interview before the council’s vote, Kee expressed her support for the citizens fighting to drop the charges.

“It’s important that Chelsea is able to hold their representatives accountable and ask them to do the right thing,” Kee said.

This story has been updated to include information from a Feb. 19 Chelsea Police Department press release and a Feb. 22 court decision.

Daily Staff Reporter Brooke Van Horne can be reached at brookevh@umich.edu. 

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