A small sign reading “POLICE GO AWAY ZONE” was affixed to a mid-sized platform, in front of a much larger crowd of Black Lives Matter protesters. About a thousand people poured from the downtown Ypsilanti sidewalk and the steps of the Ypsilanti District Library into the street, occupying an entire block of Michigan Avenue by the start of the city’s Black Lives Matter protest Saturday afternoon. On the loudspeakers, 70s funk bands and Bob Marley were interspersed with hip hop and more contemporary anthems by Kendrick Lamar.
The voice of Terril Cotton, one of the organizers of the protest, could be heard through the loudspeakers. He addressed the crowd, which skewed older than the protesters in neighboring Ann Arbor over the past week. He said this was his first time organizing something like this.
“Thank y’all for coming — I was not expecting this many people,” Cotton said. “We trying to keep this as peaceful as possible, (with) hopefully no problems. But if you can't be peaceful, go home, somewhere else. Just leave.”
Cotton invited protesters to come forward and say a few words before they began marching. Many took him up on his offer, including Ann Arbor resident Sina Webster, who called on the crowd to acknowledge that their protest was taking place at the start of Pride Month.
“It sounds like the consensus is that white people are choosing to give up Pride to focus on the Black Lives Matter movement,” Webster said. “I don't know about anybody else, (but) the same way I wake up and cannot take off my brown skin, I cannot turn off my queerness.”
After over an hour of testimonials from primarily Ypsilanti residents, protesters began to march. University of Michigan Medical School student Mary Fessler was among them, holding a sign that said, “White Coats for Black Lives.” She talked about a virtual protest put on by the Black Medical Association at the University that she had participated in the day before, as well as what brought her to Ypsilanti’s demonstration.
“This (protest) doesn’t solve it,” Fessler said. “But this is what I can do today. What I can do tomorrow might look different, but this is what I can do today.”
Rackham student Nadhira Hill was one of several members of the Graduate Employees Organization at the protest. Hill told The Daily she found it important to be there in solidarity with her GEO colleagues. However, she hopes to see more concrete action, pointing to GEO’s joint statement with the Students of Color of Rackham, among other graduate student organizations, as an example of this follow-through.
“It’s unclear how many people are going beyond just attending a protest or just posting something in solidarity on social media,” Hill said. “So I think that that’s also a really important thing that they brought up at the protest … not just stopping there … (but) continuing to do your part in making our communities more inclusive and being more uplifting of Black voices and Black individuals in our communities.”
State Sen. Jeff Irwin, D–Ann Arbor, also marched with the protesters. He told The Daily about legislation he is working on in the efforts against police brutality, in addition to his participation in various protests in Washtenaw County.
“I think the work that we need to be doing to end police brutality happens at protests like this,” Irwin said. “It’s got to happen at the kitchen table. It’s got to happen in the legislature, too. So I’m working on a number of bills to try to address police brutality.”
He elaborated on one such bill he proposed that the State Senate passed last week. The bill says it mandates more extensive training for police officers on implicit bias, de-escalation techniques and mental health screenings.
“I thought it was stunning that … we have requirements for so many other professions to go in and be exposed to a new training that’s available, and (yet) it’s the first time we’ve been requiring that here in Michigan,” Irwin said. “That police officers would not just have to go to that basic training and first … initial certification … (but) then they (would) have to come back, you know, over the years, and be exposed to and learn some of the new techniques and some of the new tactics that are taught.”
Like many of the protests in the last few days across the U.S., Ypsilanti’s protest remained peaceful, and was marked by demands for criminal justice reform. This was most prominently expressed at one stop along the march: the Ypsilanti Police Department. Protesters flooded the front yard and lined the steps to the entrance of the building, where a circle of protesters formed around Ypsilanti Police Chief Tony DeGiusti.
For about a half-hour, protesters fired questions at DeGiusti. Several asked whether he thought the department’s training was adequate, including de-escalation techniques with people who suffer from mental illness. Several others asked why he was carrying his firearm amid a crowd of unarmed, peaceful protesters.
Ypsilanti resident TJ Greggs offered DeGiusti his megaphone, which had a “Fuck the Police” sticker on its side. DeGiusti accepted and addressed those within hearing distance.
“We know that there’s a lot that needs to be done,” DeGiusti said. “And we are committed to do the work with you. Together. Okay? So, that being said, you know where I work.”
Protesters asked DeGiusti to take a knee with them for a moment of silence, and he complied.
Freedom Jacques, a Western Michigan graduate and prospective Michigan Law student, was one of the most vocal in the exchange with DeGiusti. She told The Daily about her personal experiences with discrimination from police officers in Ann Arbor.
“We have to come out here and literally talk to the cop, because (when) we get stopped by a cop, there's no talk,” Jacques said. “My hands are up.”
Jacques’ child was with her at the protest. She talked about the unique fear she experiences as a Black mother.
“I have kids out here,” Jacques said. “I can't let them leave my side because I don't know what you're gonna do for them. I don't know what you're gonna do to them … Are you going to protect them because you’re an officer? I’m supposed to be safe and feel safe when I’m around you, but I’m the enemy right now.”
After the exchange between the protesters and DeGiusti, protesters reconvened where they had first assembled outside the Ypsilanti District Library. One speaker summarized the interaction with the police chief for those who hadn’t been close enough to hear it.
“He said he’d listen to us. Make him listen to us,” the speaker emphasized.
The speaker urged the people to follow one of DeGiusti’s recommendations to get involved with the Ypsilanti Police Advisory Commission, which many of those gathered around DeGiusti earlier had claimed they’d never heard of.
Ann Arbor resident Johnny Malek was among those close enough to direct questions at DeGiusti. He shared his reflections on the exchange on the steps of the police department with The Daily, emphasizing the need for both the police and the community to be involved in changing the community.
“I believe that he wasn't prepared to respond to us as a people, as if he hadn’t thought about it beforehand,” Malek said. “The biggest lack of communication I noticed from Chief DeGiusti is the lack of an actual plan. What are you doing to instill these policies moving forward? What is your plan, as the chief of police of Ypsilanti? What programs are you actively instilling on your officers to make them join the community, be a part of the community, to work with us and not against us?”
Greggs also shared his reflections on the exchange with Chief DeGiusti in an interview with The Daily, specifically noting the importance of having open communication between the police and the community.
“I’m very happy that the police chief did take the opportunity to come up and speak with us,” Greggs said. “That was a big thing with him because I know that, again, this is the entire reason we’re out here. He did listen, or at least he tried to.”
Throughout the day, Greggs repeatedly climbed onto a large planter in the median on Michigan Avenue and held up a sign that said “STOP KILLING US.” He talked about how he had held the same sign three years ago at another Black Lives Matter protest in Ann Arbor.
“When I got back from the protest three years ago in Ann Arbor, I was like, ‘I shouldn’t throw this away,’ because I feel this isn’t done, and I’m going to have to bring this back out,” Greggs said. “I don’t want to feel that way again when I go home tonight. So we need change now.”
Daily Staff Reporter Julianna Morano can be reached at email@example.com.