A sea of maize and blue mixed with Eastern Michigan’s green colored the sunny Diag. Cardboard signs raised over the crowd of mask-clad heads, broadcasting the words that have become the slogan of the summer: “Black Lives Matter,” “Say their names,” “Racism is the virus,” “Why not now?,” “Skin is not a crime” and many more. Passionate chants reflecting the written words filled the silence amid the windy air.
In the middle of it all was Ann Arbor Police Chief Michael Cox — a 30-year public safety service professional originally from Boston. Cox’s son — also named Michael— played football at the University of Michigan from 2009-2011 before transferring to the University of Massachusetts and going on to get drafted by the New York Giants. Cox Sr. thought he had seen the last of Ann Arbor but came back when offered the Chief of Police job in 2019.
Cox, who is Black, showed up off-duty Aug. 30 in support of the student-athlete-led Black Lives Matter protest.
“Well, actually I got an invite to participate or at least show support for Black Lives Matter,” Cox said. “And it’s not the first time I’ve done that.”
There are few who know the horrors that Black people face in this country better than Cox. While undercover in Boston in 1995, he was brutally beaten by his fellow white police officers. He was mistaken for a suspect; the result was extensive head and kidney damage.
It was reported — in a CBS Boston article — that Cox was met with plenty of resistance when trying to receive compensation and he alleges the police department tried to cover it up. He and his family also faced several threats from the public and the police department. Cox ultimately gained compensation via a civil rights lawsuit, but the aftermath over the beating caused even more damage.
“Being a Black person and understanding what it’s like growing up in this world, being discriminated against and racial inequalities and all the things that people talk about — that’s me,” he said. “I’ve certainly been through a lot of things.”
Cox, though, refused to leave the department after the incident. Within two decades, he rose to the second-highest position in the Boston Police Department, superintendent, and led the Bureau of Professional Development and the Police Academy.
Cox certainly does not have a perfect record; in February he was placed on administrative leave due to allegations that he created a hostile work environment. An investigation ordered by the City of Ann Arbor concluded this:
“There is no evidence that the Chief was behaving in such a way (yelling, etc.) as to create a hostile work environment. However, there is evidence that people feared retaliation by the Chief, and they had a legitimate basis for that fear, whether or not that was the Chief’s intent.”
Still, Cox has dedicated his career to trying to fix some of the many issues that police departments in America have.
“I’ve made it my passion to try to get rid of some of these things for as much as I can control and it’s not easy,” Cox said. “It’s not easy cause you don’t always have the support because what happens on the inside, most people don’t understand the culture of the things you have to try and change.”
In the past few months of protests and marches calling for an end to mistreatment of Black people in America, police have come to the center of attention. The videos of George Floyd, Jacob Blake, Rayshard Brooks and countless others being brutalized by police officers serve as daily reminders of the deep flaws in the justice system.
And while Cox was not a perpetrator of those incidents, he understands that he wears the same type of uniform as the police officers that were. He shoulders some of that responsibility because he and other law enforcement officers are charged with the duty of protecting and serving people. Protestors in every state agree that, right now, the police are more than just failing to uphold that responsibility.
However, Cox differs from most cops because once he takes the uniform off, he loses his authoratitive position and becomes subject to the same rampant discrimination as any Black man in this country — liable to the horrors that have been at the forefront of people’s social media feeds and televisions throughout the past few months. The beating he suffered at the hands of his coworkers serves as a brutal reminder of how far this country has to go to achieve true equality for all people.
“I’ve been around a long time,” Cox said. “Some things have gotten better, but then sometimes it gets worse at the same time.”
As a Black man in this country, Cox has overcome adversity that white people cannot understand, complicating his quest to fix the very system he works in. That importance of raising awareness of these issues, Cox says, is why college athletes speaking out matters so much.
“It’s using your power for good,” Cox said. “It’s like superheroes. They have all these people that follow them and listen. … It is so impressive to come and listen, and the people talking about what they're gonna do and how they’re gonna do it. That’s very hopeful to me because the future is about young people.”
While deeply supporting the movement, Cox still encourages people to have conversations with people like him who are actually in the system they wish to fix.
“I wish we would have more dialogue with people who actually seek out opinions of some folks inside,” Cox said, “on how we can really make a change versus all the people on the outside saying how to make a change because that’s difficult, … When the conversation doesn’t include the people that need to change, it’s really hard to say you’re going to get real change.”
As both a law enforcement officer and a Black man, Cox is dedicated to showing his support for the student-athletes who decide to use their platform to speak up. He has sacrificed and struggled his entire life with the hope that one day things will get better — even if he’s not here to see the final result.
“You’re the future,” Cox said of college students. “I am closer to the end of life than the middle. So I appreciate and just hope. It makes me feel good.”