‘This is another pandemic’: Civil rights protesters take to the streets in Ann Arbor

Sunday, May 31, 2020 - 2:56pm

Saturday afternoon, hundreds of community members gathered at the University of Michigan Diag and marched through Ann Arbor in protest of recent incidents of police brutality against Black Americans that shook the nation. In his opening address to the crowd, Ann Arbor resident Myles McGuire, the sole organizer of the event, called it a “civil rights protest.”

“Here we are, putting our lives in danger during a pandemic to protest civil rights,” McGuire said. “Not equal — civil. We’re asking people to be civil. Asking. We should not have to ask for civil fucking rights. We should not have to fear that our brothers and our sisters and our mothers and our fathers are going to be slaughtered by the ones meant to protect us and save us and help govern our communities.”

McGuire commented on the diversity of the crowd gathered before him, which was predominantly young and multiracial.

“We have to be in this together,” McGuire said. “This is not going to start and end with Black people. It’s not going to start and end with cops. It has to be done together.”

After asking the crowd “Are you with me?” McGuire invited protesters to follow him across the Diag towards the State Street shopping area. Protesters marched throughout the downtown streets, holding signs and chanting, “Hands up, don’t shoot,” “Black lives matter” and “No justice, no peace.”

Ann Arbor resident Kash Rai held up a sign reading, “Our skin color is not a crime.” He said he wanted to send a message that law enforcement should treat all citizens equally, regardless of race.

“It's mostly about white cops treating colored people less than they would treat another white person, such as a noise complaint,” Rai said. “It’s ‘Hey, shut this party down,’ to a Black person versus, ‘Can you just turn it down?’ to a white person, which I've experienced personally.”

Rasem Piromarm, a recent graduate of Caledonia High School, said he found out about the protest from his cousin who lives in Ann Arbor. Having grown up facing discrimination in his predominantly white township, Piromarm said he came as a show of solidarity, 

“All I grew up hearing was, ‘You’re a terrorist. You’re a bomber,’ because I’m Muslim,” Piromarm said. “It was like it was me against the world … And I relate so much to what’s going on. Just everything about what the cops are doing right now —  I don’t understand how we even have to protest.”

After marching through downtown, protesters reconvened in a circle around the Diag. McGuire called for a moment of silence, then invited those present to take the megaphone and share their stories.

Caption: Protesters came forward and shared their stories with the crowd.

Caption: Protesters came forward and shared their stories with the crowd. Buy this photo
ANNIE KLUSENDORF/Daily

A Ypsilanti native and recent graduate of Grand Valley State University spoke first. The speaker has requested anonymity in fear of retaliation. 

He shared that, while his family has had positive experiences with officers in the past, he was disturbed to see a video of a Black woman, Sha’Teina Grady El, being punched in the head by a white Washtenaw County sheriff’s deputy in Ypsilanti Township last week.

“I woke up at 8 a.m. like I do regularly … (went) on Twitter and I saw that woman getting beat by the same cops that have saved me and my family,” the speaker said. “For me, that’s scary. I live in Grand Rapids. I’m not here in Ypsilanti all the time. So if something happens to my mom and I catch word of that on Twitter or something like that, I’m not gonna lie, I’m going crazy. I’m showing out. I’m doing whatever I can to show those cops, straight up, you’re not gonna do that to people who look like me, you’re not doing that to my mom. So now I’m proud to say, ‘Fuck cops.’ I’m saying that straight up.”

Eastern Michigan University student Dayvon Steen attended protests in Ypsilanti last week after the incident involving Grady El. He commented on the significance of a large protest focused on racial justice in the heart of Ann Arbor, which has a much smaller Black population than Ypsilanti.

“In places like a suburban area in general, it’s cool when you get to see a lot of people that aren’t Black— like white people— come out and support the Black community, cause there’s not much of a Black community in areas like this,” Steen said.

University alum Jennifer Cruz studied racial disparities in the School of Public Health. She said coming to the protest was her way of viscerally supporting marginalized communities instead of just writing about them. 

“To show up, especially in the middle of a pandemic, knowing the risk that I'm taking, these are minimal risks compared to what Black and brown folks go through every single day,” Cruz said. “Not being able to go on runs, not being able to do anything. So me putting myself at risk, being in a big crowd of people, not necessarily social distancing is like the bare minimum of what I could do.”

The second time protesters marched through the streets, additional cries of “Say his name” rang out from protesters, followed by “George Floyd” as well as “Trayvon Martin.” Several drivers temporarily slowed by the protesters’ route could be seen taking out their phones to capture images and recordings of the protest, with some honking their horns in unison with the protesters’ chants.

Officers from the Ann Arbor Police Department were also present along the routes. McGuire said AAPD officers spoke with him before the event, offering to help him direct the march through traffic and check in at every intersection. 

Protesters of all ages turned out and marched, while the organizers corresponded with AAPD at intersections along the route.

Protesters of all ages turned out and marched, while the organizers corresponded with AAPD at intersections along the route. Buy this photo
ANNIE KLUSENDORF/Daily

“I was fortunate enough to have them show that courtesy, and that willingness, and, you know, just stand with us because they're also affected by this,” McGuire said. “They have families as well and they don’t want to have their jobs demonized or, you know, have their badges revoked.”

Rackham student Travis Jones III said the large show of support during the pandemic indicates a sense of urgency for the movement against police brutality and a chance to break the cycle of anger followed by inaction. 

“A lot of times it’s like, we're serious, but then we'll go back to our regular lives because we have obligations,” Jones III said. “With the pandemic going on, this is another pandemic because there's riots going on across the entire world. This is what our second pandemic is.”

Medical student Solomon Rajput — who is currently challenging U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., for Michigan’s 12th congressional seat — said the support of people who were risking their health and safety to attend the protest demonstrated the strength of the movement. 

“Think about how much larger this crowd could be if we were not in the middle of a pandemic, and marvel at how large it currently is,” Rajput said. “The size of this crowd says that we are done waiting on our politicians and our structures in this society that keep insisting there's nothing that can be done, that Black people who just died at the hands of brutality are just collateral damage in the fabric of American life.”

Protesters marched down State Street, passing by the Union.

Protesters marched down State Street, passing by the Union. Buy this photo
ANNIE KLUSENDORF/Daily

The size of the protest grew steadily as the afternoon went on. The marchers passed by Engineering senior Marlon Green’s home as he was leaving to workout and he changed his plans to join in. 

“I couldn’t have timed it any better,” Green said. “ I literally walked out and everybody was coming through. I was on my way to keep going, but eventually I was like, ‘Let me go ahead and join this.’ Why not?”

Earlier, McGuire emphasized the need for sustained energy in movements that normally die out. 

“I think a lot of people may assume that this is just something that will blow over after a few protests, a few monologues, a few riots,” McGuire said. “We have to challenge legislation. We have to challenge local officials. We have to vote. We have to vote.”

Jones III said that given the “crazy” events of 2020, there is no such thing as normal anymore.

“We knew stuff was gonna be different once we got out of the quarantine, and this is obviously different,” Jones III said. “Change is coming, or rather, change is already here."

Summer News Editor can be reached at calderll@umich.edu and Daily Staff Reporter Julianna Morano can be reached at jucomora@umich.edu