Last weekend, The Michigan Daily reporters went to 11 different protests, driving 269 miles and speaking to almost 100 people in 10 cities about why they came out. Some said it was their first time protesting. Many more said they were used to protests in big cities, but they never expected protests of this magnitude — or even protests in general — in their suburban hometowns. When asked if not before, why now, almost everyone had the same answer: People are tired, and they want change.
This article is the first installment of a four-part series on police brutality protests across Metro Detroit over the weekend of June 6 and 7. Check back at michigandaily.com this week for parts two, three and four.
It was a sight many said they thought they’d never see.
Ulysses Wright and Charlie Evans were working at the Hungry Howie’s in Ferndale on Saturday afternoon when thousands started flooding past their storefront window, marching in protest of police brutality. The two went outside to take in the sight, which left them speechless and nearly moved Wright to tears. Wright said the crowd meant so much to him because he is a Black man in America, but also because he has never seen people come together like this.
“It makes me want to cry, like you don’t really care about anything else in the world,” Wright said. “I think the world kind of stopped for me, and I’ve never had that feeling. There was no existence except taking it all in. It’s hard to put it in words, because that’s just cheapening it. It was like literally if God himself came to show us he was God, that was it.”
Over the weekend, tens of thousands wore masks to march in suburbs throughout Metro Detroit against police brutality, joining millions across the country and around the world in wave after wave of protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd.
Throughout the latter half of the 1900s, the growth of the suburbs often came at Detroit’s expense, as capital and white residents moved out of the city in droves while Black residents were prevented from following. To this day, Detroit is unique among other metropolitan hubs across the country in that much of the wealth is concentrated in its outlying suburbs rather than in the city itself.
The majority of those arrested in the first several days of Detroit’s protests lived in the suburbs. Through the week, protests began spreading to Detroit’s suburbs, many of which are predominantly white.
According to Sterling Heights resident Megan Williams, her ancestors had been slaves and her mother had walked with Martin Luther King Jr. She marched in her very first protest in Ferndale on Saturday afternoon.
“We don’t want to repeat cycles,” Williams said. “I refuse to birth a child into a world where they have to do any more than us.”
Below are some of the protesters from Saturday on their experiences with racism and what this current moment means to them. You can read more from protesters on Saturday in Part Two of this series coming soon.
Despite its small size, the group of about 20 people standing in front of the Bloomfield Hills police station was hard to miss. They held signs condemning police brutality as some cars driving by honked in support.
Southfield residents Nate and Tamika Taylor brought their two young sons to protest along Long Lake Road. Both said they were out to push for a better world for their kids.
“We just thought it was disheartening in today’s age when you see an African-American male lose his life on television,” Nate Taylor said. “That’s something I didn’t want to show my boys, but it’s something that they need to know goes on in this world. We just want to make sure they’re treated fairly as they grow and progress into young, African-American men.”
Berkley resident Starr Bialk, a University of Michigan alum, said she thought the roadside protest was important because even a small number of people showing up is visible. According to Bialk, because Bloomfield Hills is a “really white, upper-class part of the area,” it felt to her like one of the more important places to bring the Black Lives Matter message.
“If people aren’t here, it’s maybe easier for people to avoid it, if they don’t want to be a part of it,” Bialk said. “If you bring it to them instead, it shows them they can’t avoid it. It’s everywhere and it’s happening.”
A few hundred protesters met in Southfield at Hope United Methodist Church before marching down Civic Center Drive.
Detroit Resident Ronisha Bannerman said the Southfield protest was more soothing than the ones she had attended in Detroit.
“Those (Detroit protests) were rowdy, more upbeat,” Bannerman said. “This one was more chill, and I really appreciated that. There was gospel music playing, and it was really calming for me. The one downtown had me really pumped up, this one was more laidback. It was what I needed today.”
Southfield resident Myra Gracey, a retired Detroit police officer, participated in the march because she wants to see more reform, training and professional development in police departments. She said high-profile police killings like George Floyd’s are not lost on officers.
“Being a retired police officer, what happened probably affected us more mentally than others, because we all have the job to protect people,” Gracey said. “Killing people with our hands is very upsetting and disappointing.”
Royal Oak resident Erika Swilley said she thought it was important to have protests in the suburbs to challenge all the police departments in the different neighborhoods. To her, taking a stance by coming to Southfield’s protest was an opportunity to not only talk the talk but also to literally walk the walk.
“(The protest) was just a reflection of what our country can be,” Swilley said. “People of all ethnicities coming together for one common goal.”
The predominantly white protesters walked in circles under hanging flower baskets on Main Street from 11 Mile Road to Fifth Street, before marching down and closing a portion of 11 Mile Road.
One protester, Detroit resident Karl Jackson, is a combat veteran who was deployed in 2013 and now back in civilian life. He said fighting for his country is one of the greatest things an American can do.
“Now, I’m fighting for my life as a Black man, and for my people here,” Jackson said. “We’re all Americans. When one of us hurts, we all hurt.”
Growing up as a boy in Detroit, Jackson said he knew not to go past certain suburbs at a certain time. Jackson likened the protective measures he has to take to his experience as a soldier.
“You may not have to take certain precautions driving, but as a Black man today I have to. You know, I have a veteran status on my license,” Jackson said. “I keep my phone positioned on the camera just in case. I keep my wallet where it's visible. Those things are just like me being a soldier. I have to prepare myself, you never know.”
As a soldier, Jackson said he defended everybody’s First Amendment rights, whether he agreed with them or not. When asked his thoughts on former NFL player Colin Kaepernick’s controversial act of taking a knee in 2016 during the national anthem to protest police brutality, Jackson said the national anthem represents something “totally different” to him.
“As a Black soldier or a Black veteran, when I looked and saw what Colin Kaepernick did, I wasn’t looking at the fact that he was protesting the military,” Jackson said. “It was him using his right, which is what I raised my hand and defended the Constitution up to my life for.”
Among the stream of people in street clothes walking by, it was hard to miss the 20 doctors and medical students marching in their scrubs and white coats holding a sign that said “White Coats for Black Lives.” Many of them were from the family medicine unit at the Henry Ford hospital in Detroit. Those interviewed said they wanted to stand with and show their support for the community that they serve, one that is largely Black.
Dr. Alicia Steele is a part of the inaugural class of the Wayne State University Urban Track in Family Medicine residency, and she is working to address health inequities and lack of access to health care for Detroit’s minority communities. She said every institution can have systemic racism and violence, specifically pointing to the disproportionate burden of COVID-19 on Michigan’s Black community.
Despite fears of some that protests might aid the spread of the virus, Steele said now is the time everyone has to speak because she believes racism is also a public health crisis.
“Yes, coronavirus is awful and it’s taking people’s lives, many of our loved ones,” Steele said. “But racism has been doing that as well. For many of us who come from communities of color, we see how damaging to our lives racism has been and continues to be … Of course it’s not ideal, but there’s certain circumstances that draw you and you have to, especially as a doctor, you have to use your privilege and use your place to speak out.”
Rick and Yolanda Williams, business owners in Royal Oak since 2007 and parents of children in Royal Oak schools, stood filming the protest as it went by. Both said they had never seen a protest like this in Royal Oak, with Rick Williams noting he “didn’t even know there’d be this much support in Royal Oak.”
They said they took an interest in the protest because they are “Black in Royal Oak.” When asked what that is like, Rick Williams said “it’s like being Black everywhere.”
“You can be pulled over — that’s happened here,” Rick Williams said. “To see people want change and come out because they’re fed up, that’s the thing I’m focused on. Being Black is the same experience, it is what it is. But to see people want to fight for that cause, that’s why we’re here.”
Anyone could tell there was a sizable crowd gathered in front of the Ferndale Police Department, about a five-minute drive up Woodward Avenue from the border of Detroit. But it wasn’t until the protesters started marching down and closing a portion of Nine Mile Road, filling it from one side of the road to the other and filing by for almost 10 minutes, that one could begin to comprehend the true scope of the thousands chanting to denounce police brutality and racial injustice.
Like Hungry Howie’s employees Wright and Evans, Public House employee Claude Chapman came outside of his restaurant to watch the mass of people go by. In a city with a history of LGBTQ+ activism, he noted the significance of the crowd walking over rainbow-painted streets in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“A lot of trans people, a lot of Black (and) African-American queer people were at the Stonewall protests and that kind of ties into what's going on right now with the Black Lives Matter movement,” Chapman said.
Grand Blanc resident Adarrey Humphrey came to the Ferndale protest with his partner. He told The Daily about an experience he had at a Big John Steak & Onion when a police officer walked in behind him, right after a white man fatally shot Trayvon Martin in 2012.
“I looked back, didn't think anything of it and then two seconds later I started sweating,” Humphrey said. “I was like, ‘What if this is exactly how every other situation started with a Black man and a cop?’ I almost couldn't hold it together because I was like ‘Damn, I just want to get a sandwich and go home and eat, but I might not see my mom or my dad or my brother.’ I just want people to understand that that's just, that's how it is. I don't have a record. I’ve never been to jail, but for some reason, it could have been my day for the police officer to have been like, ‘What's in your pocket, other than your wallet?’ And then you guys would’ve been saying my name instead of someone else’s.”
Humphrey added he believes if racism can be taught, then so can equality.
Ferndale resident Peggy Harp marched with her sign that read “Stop the looting in Ferndale.” She explained her sign was a reference to police officers pulling over and writing tickets to more Black drivers than white drivers.
“For me, my suburbs were built on white supremacy and white flight and white people getting theirs and screwing the rest of the population,” Harp said. “We’re neighbors (with Detroit), and if we want to dismantle racism, white people have to do it and white people have to do it in their own communities. I mean, this is where my influence is, right? I pay taxes here, so this is where I tell my government and my representatives: I’m not cool with this shit.”
Similarly, Williams said she thought it was important to have the protest in cities such as Ferndale, particularly because she is racially profiled more in predominantly white communities than in Detroit.
“(The protesters) need to do it where the laws can actually be changed, where the government system or the higher powers don't look like us,” Williams said.
Ferndale Police Department Sargent Baron Brown told The Daily his department was one of the first in Michigan to mandate body cameras on all officers all of the time and conducts monthly "fair and impartial policing audits" to review random footage to ensure complain with the law and community guidelines. Brown said it is time for the Department to listen rather than talk.
"We recognize that some changes need to be made," Brown said. "That's why it's so important to be in a state right now where we're just listening."
Pontiac resident Donta Harris walked among the protesters, handing out flyers urging Oakland County residents to hold their prosecutor accountable and vote for a candidate who will work to end racial police misconduct and mass incarceration. Harris, a first-time felon, said a white person could do the same crime he did and get less time, which is part of the problem with the criminal justice he is hoping to invigorate protesters in Ferndale to fight.
“It starts here, and we’re trying to take this movement to the prosecutor’s office,” Harris said. “We’re trying to get (Oakland County prosecutor) Ms. Cooper to come out, give us a talk, sit down. If we can stop some of the social injustice inside of the court system, then we can start some of the change from within.”
This article has been updated to include comment from the Ferndale Police Department.