Councilmembers kneeling sparks debate over intention of protest
Aug. 26, 2016, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick remained seated during the national anthem of a National Football League preseason game to protest the oppression of people of color and ongoing issues of police brutality in those communities. Over a year later and thousands of miles away from Levi’s Stadium, Councilmember Chuck Warpehoski, D-Ward 5, tweeted he would take a knee during the evening’s City Council meeting “out of respect for the aspiration that we be a nation ‘with liberty and justice for all.’”
Four of the 11 City Council members decided to follow in suit of Kaepernick — Jason Frenzel, Sumi Kailasapathy, Chip Smith and Warpehoski. During the council’s meeting, Kailasapathy explained her decision to kneel, wanting others to judge her patriotism “by her actions.” In an interview with CNN later in the week, she touched on inclusion — citing her experiences as a refugee — and brought up police brutality with The New York Times on Thursday.
Smith had not planned to kneel before the evening, but upon entering the City Council chambers, Kailasapathy approached him and asked him to join her in protest.
“She is the only member of Council who’s a person of color, she’s a woman, she’s a refugee, she’s a naturalized citizen,” Smith said. “If she asks me to kneel in solidarity with her — for this absolutely, I didn’t give it a second thought.”
He later released a statement, stating he knelt to stand in solidarity with those who experience racism, sexism, classism and homophobia every day.
Councilmember Graydon Krapohl, D-Ward 4, was one of the council members who chose to remain standing, citing disrespect to military service members. Kaepernick, however, switched from sitting to kneeling over a year ago after consulting with veterans on an appropriate action.
“Personally I didn’t think it was appropriate, that’s not something I would do; I would like people not to do it,” Krapohl said. “But I understand and respect the folks that do do it, that they feel that they have a message, something they want to say, and it’s their right to do it. From my perspective I’ve served 30 years in the military and I think it’s disrespectful.”
Following the evening’s meeting, council members who knelt received criticism, echoing Krapohl’s sentiment that the gesture was disrespectful to the U.S. military. Others condemned the council’s “empty gesture,” noting a lack of political action in regard to issues of police brutality in the Ann Arbor community.
Austin McCoy, a postdoctoral fellow at the University, took to Twitter to call on City Council to do more to address racial inequality than kneel during the Pledge of Allegiance.
Ann Arbor city council members and the mayor are better off challenging the prosecutor, police, and the police union if they really care.
— Austin McCoy (@AustinMcCoy3) October 22, 2017
In an email interview with The Daily, McCoy explained his condemnation of the council’s actions centered largely around their failure to mention the fatal shooting of Aura Rosser in their reasoning for kneeling. Rosser, a Black woman, was shot by an Ann Arbor police officer in her home on Nov. 9, 2014 — her death sparked dozens of local protests and calls for police reform.
“The original intent of Colin Kaepernick’s protest was not just to highlight structural racism, but to call attention to police killings of African Americans,” McCoy wrote. “Failing to link that intent explicitly with Rosser’s death demonstrates a denial of local law enforcement’s role in contributing to the national trend of the police killings of African Americans. It also continues the troubling trend of rendering black women like Rosser invisible in conversations about racism and policing.”
More recently, the Ann Arbor Police Department came under fire for a violent arrest of local Black teen Ciaeem Slaton September at the Blake Transit Center. AAPD Police Chief Jim Baird wrote an email to the council that a personnel complaint is under review. Council members have not brought the arrest up at meetings in the last month.
McCoy noted City Council members have the ability to actually influence policy and if they care about racial inequality in policing, they should use their position to change local law.
“I think it is important for elected officials, and those in power, generally, to be more specific about how they plan on going about addressing the relationship between policing, structural racism and sexism, and poverty here in Ann Arbor,” McCoy said.
Last month Rackham student Dana Greene knelt on the block ‘M’ for 21 hours. While he appreciates the thought behind City Council members’ kneeling, he too believed as public officials, they can do more.
“The reason I protest and many other people protest is we feel like we don’t really have the ability to make progressive change outside of our ability to protest and so that’s why we decide to do it,” Greene said. “City Council members on the other hand have the ability to do so. I can appreciate them kneeling in solidarity but I also want to see action followed up by that.”
Policing in Ann Arbor
On July 13, 2016, the Ann Arbor Human Rights Commission published a statement calling on city officials to expedite the formation of a civilian police oversight board. The oversight board was originally suggested following the shooting of Aura Rosser, but Jim Baird, Ann Arbor Police Chief, strongly urged no action be taken until the city completed a third-party audit of the police department.
Seven months later, Feb. 21, 2017, City Council approved a $200,000 contract with Chicago-based security consulting firm Hillard Heintze to assess community relations between police and AAPD, and offer suggestions in implementing a civilian police oversight board. In March, the council moved forward with phase one of the review.
Many Ann Arbor residents were upset with the council’s decision to ignore the Human Rights Commission’s recommendation and postpone the potential implementation of a oversight board.
“Instead of throwing full support behind the Human Rights Commission’s report calling for citizen oversight, the city spent another $200,000 on an external review conducted by a private consulting firm founded by police officials,” McCoy wrote. “The snail-like movement of this process makes me wonder whether or not city government wants citizen oversight. It is clear that the police do not want it because (Baird) has already said so. However, I do not care what the chief says, every police department in this country needs citizen oversight, including Ann Arbor’s.”
Frenzel explained the process halted in an effort to ensure it expands to be more inclusive.
“Certain council members, myself included and certain community members pushed to have more voices included in the collection of information and that postponed the output of the report from them,” Frenzel said. “We were suppose to get that report in August and now we're getting it in November because they had to take a step back and collect more information. It's still debatable how inclusive that report is or is not, but that work has from some vantage points attempted to be more thorough.”
According to Krapohl, a comprehensive review of the police department takes time.
“I don’t think we have many of the problems a lot of communities do across the country,” Krapohl said. “There are always ways we can get better and unfortunately many of these things take time. There has to be a deliberate process of review to ensure fairness for everyone involved.”
Phase one of the study consisted of collecting data on community members and law enforcements perspectives through surveys and forums. This took place over the summer meaning student voices were largely excluded.
City Council will discuss the Hillard Heintze phase one study in a work session Nov. 16. Smith anticipates it will suggest comprehensive reform.
“I fully expect it to challenge some of the standard ways we have always done things in Ann Arbor, I expect it to recommend a citizen oversight committee, I expect it to recommend changes to some of the departmental operating procedures; it might even go so far as to say real reorganization of the department,” Smith said.
“For reasons beyond my understanding, the Hillard Heintze study — the data collection component — the community conversation happened during the summer predominately when obviously students aren’t around, that predispositioned the data collection to a certain scenario,” Frenzel also noted.
Minority communities on campus have frequently expressed issues with over police. A Daily article published last Friday found at least six citations were issued to houses associated with Kappa Alpha Psi, a historically Black fraternity, and Latino fraternity Lambda Theta Phi during the Oct. 7 football game against Michigan State. Of the 10 predominantly white fraternities surveyed by The Daily, none received citations.
Many of these lie within in Smith’s ward. Smith said he acknowledged changes must be made.
“I see the communication issues and gaps our police department has with, in particular, the African-American community here and I think we have to address that. To address it means we need to take a pretty self-critical look,” Smith said. “And taking a knee in solidarity with Councilmember Kailasapathy is my way of saying, ‘Hey, I’m going to look hard in the mirror and see if their are better ways to do this.”
There is still concern that acknowledging a problem simply is not enough.
“There have been several instances of police brutality and I haven't seen action being taken behind those incidents and so kneeling in solidarity is a nice gesture, but city council members are in a position to make greater change than that,” Greene said. “I would be ecstatic if I saw policy being developed to actually address these issues of police brutality and white supremacy but I am not sure if I am necessarily seeing that.”
Co-opting versus allyship
In late September 2017, President Donald Trump tweeted a call on NFL players to stop kneeling during the national anthem and “disrespecting our Flag & Country.”
If NFL fans refuse to go to games until players stop disrespecting our Flag & Country, you will see change take place fast. Fire or suspend!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 24, 2017
The tweet brought the debate back into the national spotlight. A growing number of professional athletes, high school athletes and fans subsequently began to kneel during the national anthem.
On Sep. 27, 16 members of New York City’s city council knelt during the Pledge of Allegiance and a dozen members of San Diego’s city council did the same on Oct. 10.
Some argue the popularization of this gesture detracts from Kaepernick's original goal: to comment on oppression and police brutality in the Black community.
“While councilwoman Sumi Kailasapathy acknowledged that policing issue was on her mind, neither her nor Chuck Warpehoski mentions Aura Rosser by name, again, rendering her invisible in all of this,” McCoy said. “They haven’t said anything about Ciaeem Slaton’s violent arrest last month.”
Greene suggested protesters should expand on why they kneel, but as long as they recognize its original intent.
“It's not like this issue isn’t an issue in Ann Arbor, it is and all over the country but specifically we have had several instances of this in Ann Arbor,” Greene said. “For you to not even acknowledge that the reason this was started was for police brutality – that’s coopting the movement, that's not acknowledging what the original protest was about.
The decision to kneel has forced Frenzel to think hard about the fine line between co-opting a movement and being an ally.
“I am very concerned with the idea of co-opting a message and movement and how do you balance coopting with allyship … from my experience they overlap a lot on a pretty regular basis,” Frenzel said.
“Every community has their issues. There are injustices going on around this country — all across the country — all across different communities,” Greene said. “It's important that we acknowledge those but let's also recognize what started this, we can turn this into something bigger, into something more, but to not even acknowledge why it started, and to recognize that’s a problem particularly for African Americans in this community and across the country rubs me the wrong way.”