Hundreds protesting police brutality flood Washtenaw Avenue

Thursday, May 28, 2020 - 10:55pm

Protestors walk through Ann Arbor to in reaction to police brutality in Washtenaw County.

Protestors walk through Ann Arbor to in reaction to police brutality in Washtenaw County. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Calder Lewis

Only a woman’s cry stopped the march that halted traffic along Washtenaw Avenue Thursday, as hundreds of community members protested police brutality after a video surfaced of a white Washtenaw County sheriff’s deputy appearing to punch Sha’Tenia Grady El, a Black woman, in the head multiple times during an arrest early Tuesday morning in Ypsilanti Township. As the sobs of Ypsilanti resident Ann Diggins, Grady El’s sister, pierced through the crowd, protesters paused. The drum beats and chants of “no justice, no peace” and “Black lives matter” fell silent. Then, after a few moments in her niece’s embrace, Diggins and the marchers pressed on. With a national spotlight focused on race and policing in the wake of George Floyd’s death, Diggins said the recent incident in her hometown has not left her mind.

“I haven’t slept in three days,” Diggins said. “Every time I fucking close my eyes, all I fucking see is that man putting his hands on my sister, and I just can’t deal with it no more. I can’t hold in my anger. I tried and it’s not working. I’m trying to do this shit the right way, and it’s not working.”

Organized by the non-profit Survivors Speak, the protesters first gathered at the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office in Ann Arbor to listen to speakers for about two hours, then marched onto Washtenaw Avenue and a surrounding neighborhood. Police blocked off about a mile of Washtenaw Avenue, as well as both directions of U.S Highway 23 overhead. 

Daniyal Grady El, Sha’Tenia’s husband, was tasered during the incident and also arrested early Tuesday morning. He said after he and his wife were released from the Washtenaw County Jail, the Taylor Police Department picked up Sha’Tenia to take her to Wayne County Jail on an alleged warrant. 

“Taylor (Police Department) had no reason to come pick her up after she just been abused,” Grady El said. “She should have been allowed to go to the hospital and take care of herself and get her wounds taken care of. And then for Taylor to send her to Wayne County, and have Wayne County wrap her up in their system is just ridiculous, especially during COVID-19. They're not supposed to be bringing anybody new into the court system, into the jails, unless they’ve committed an actual crime. And so it’s just a travesty going on the legal system right now.”

According to a Facebook post, Sha'Tenia Grady El has been released from the Wayne County Jail as of Friday afternoon. 

Grady El also expressed anger and frustration at his wife’s treatment in the initial incident. 

“Those police officers had no right to do anything that they did,” Grady El said. “The abuse, the punishment that she took at the hands of that officer and whoever else was involved with those officers should be handled in a correct manner, and not being investigated by their own people. They need to be investigated from outside.”

Jason Robinson, a pastor at Reach Church in Ypsilanti, said Floyd’s death in Minneapolis and the incident in Ypsilanti Township provoked the community to demand a change in policing culture. 

“If you have a culture where officers can step over that line, but there’s no repercussions, then it keeps happening over and over and over,” Robinson said. “But if you have a culture where people know the community will rise up, then officers will think twice about those moments of frustration, those moments of anger and just those moments of just downright racist bigotry in our communities. So the goal of it is creating a culture where this will not be tolerated.”

Michael Robinson, pastor at Ypsilanti Community Church, said protesting outside the Sheriff's Office sends a strong message about bridging the gap between the department and the community. 

“I also believe the department is willing to work with us,” Robinson said. “I believe that they would’ve done everything in their power to shut it down, so I believe that Sheriff (Jerry) Clayton is really trying to show us he wants to redeem all of the chaos that has gone on in Washtenaw County.”

Raeshonda Bullock, Sha’Tenia Grady El’s best friend, said the incident is especially disturbing because it has disrupted the Apple Ridge neighborhood the Grady Els call home.

“Their whole neighborhood is like a family,” Bullock said. “When they do barbecues, everyone barbecues. You can walk from house to house, like it’s just inviting, and it’s sad to see other people come from outside the community and cause issues. And then to have a very aggressive police force, it’s crazy. Her kids saw her get beat up. It’s not okay and they’re traumatized.”

Bullock added she has talked with her own son about police brutality, a conversation she says a white mother would not have with her child.

“My son is at war the second he walks out that door because of the color of his skin,” Bullock said. “He’s at war. How does a 14-year-old understand that? Not even a 14-year-old, we’re having these conversations at eight, nine, 10, because these young boys that are getting killed look like him. It’s not okay. And we’re scared.”

The crowd at the sheriff’s office was racially diverse, and almost all protesters and speakers wore masks. Jason Robinson commented on seeing so many people of different races come together to support the Black community. 

“I'm encouraged about how many of our Caucasian brothers and sisters are out there, because one thing for us as Blacks to come out and fight for our rights,” Robinson said. “So many of our Caucasian brothers (and) sisters in this community see... the systematic racism, and for them to join with us has been phenomenal.”

Multiple times during the protest, people who appeared to be counterprotesters agitated the crowd, drawing attention away from the main speakers and leaders. As the protesters walked along Washtenaw Avenue on the way back to the sheriff’s office, a man walking alongside the group confronted Ypsilanti resident Davion Pipkins. Pipkins said the man told him, “This is our nation. We got here first.” Leaders with bullhorns urged protesters to ignore the man, but many engaged with him as he shouted at the group. Pipkins later commented on the frustration he felt in the moment. 

 “We always try to be the bigger person, but Black people always have to be the bigger person in a situation and that’s what’s really making me mad,” Pipkins said. “We’re always taught to be the bigger person, but nobody else is being the bigger person here. We’re getting so big to everybody so small, so why do we have to be the bigger person and everyone else doesn’t?”

Diggins said she was impressed by the hundreds of people who showed up to the protest, and their support offset some of the pain she felt about her sister’s arrest. 

“I’m shocked at how many people came out here, because I never really thought anybody cared that much about other people,” Diggins said. “I see that they do, and my heart is filled with a lot of joy.”

As Diggins expressed her gratitude for her fellow protesters, she broke down into tears again. 

“It’s probably the only thing that’s keeping me going right now,” Diggins said. “It’s keeping me from falling apart.”

Note: This article has been updated to include Sha'Tenia Grady El's release from the Wayne County Jail.

Summer News Editor Calder Lewis can be reached at calderll@umich.edu.