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 third installment of a four-part series on police brutality protests across Metro Detroit over the weekend of June 6 and 7. Read part one here and part two here. Check back at michigandaily.com this week for part four.
In 2018, Oak Park resident Marcina Cole, a local activist and organizer, organized a protest against police brutality outside of the Oak Park Police Department in response to a fatal shooting by two Oak Park police officers. The event was attended by 15 people.
Cole said she has been organizing protests around issues of racial injustice such as inequities in health care and police brutality for years. Yet, she said people were unenthusiastic about her work.
Looking around at the hundreds gathered at the intersection of Nine Mile road and Coolidge road in protest of police brutality, Cole said the protest in Oak Park on Sunday was the largest she’s ever seen in the city.
“No matter the zip code, you will find people in support of our mission to stay alive and in support of the families who lost their loved ones at the hands of police,” Cole said. “So, the fight continues. It’s a never-ending fight. I can’t fight all the battles but I’m so glad that everybody is sharing that we make a difference. Now they get 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.
Canton resident Joe Graham came to the Plymouth protest with his wife and three kids. Graham, who said he’s been racially profiled by police since he was 12, said he hopes bringing his children to the protest will instill in them a drive to change the world for the better.
“I want them to learn to be able to have a voice,” Graham said. “Things like coming out, peacefully protesting, allows them to have that voice and fight for what is right. Right is always right.”
The Daily contacted the Plymouth Police Department, who did not respond in time for publication.
Below are some of the protesters from Sunday on their experiences with racism and what this current moment means to them. You can read more from protesters on Sunday in part four of this series coming soon.
12 p.m. – Plymouth – 93.1 percent white and 1.3 percent Black – $80k median household income
With a bubbling fountain, picturesque storefronts and families spread across the lawn of Kellogg Park, downtown Plymouth could’ve been mistaken for a scene at Disney World moments before the protest began. Plymouth resident Heather Johnson said the protests throughout the week for police brutality were the first she’d ever seen in her “polite” town.
“I think people feel comfortable sharing how they really feel on the right side of matters like justice,” Johnson said. “It seemed like it was time to show what we stood for as a family. It was pretty hard to not participate when it was in our backyard.”
Hundreds lined up on the diagonal sidewalks surrounding the fountain, marching past the 1941 Penn Theatre sign that read, “They spoke in once voice, & they were heard” on one panel and “And they were Black and they were white,” on the other.
Westland resident Maya used to go to school in Plymouth. She told The Daily about the time Plymouth police stopped her and some of her Black friends while they were walking around downtown, much like she was doing for the march.
“They told them they couldn’t go past the point because it was blocked off,” Maya said. “I think there was something going on. They let the rest of my friends go, but they didn’t let us go. That didn’t really make sense to me, but I understood why. We kept asking them, ‘Why won’t you let us go through?’ They just walked away.”
Redford resident Lovell Kirby said he doesn’t think he’ll get to experience such a moment again in his lifetime.
“This is the first protest I’ve ever been to,” Kirby said. “I’ve never really experienced it. Let’s say I have kids, I can tell them, ‘Look, I was here. I was actually here to experience this,’ and I can tell them about it.”
1 p.m. – Oak Park – 36.1 percent white and 56.2 percent Black – $50k median household income
Oak Park Police Officers arrived at the Oak Park protest with a truck full of ice cream for everyone present. Oak Park City Councilmember Solomon Radner, a civil rights lawyer who said he uses his privilege as an “upper middle class, white Jewish kid” to travel around the country suing against police brutality, said the ice cream truck was a testament both to the department and the community.
“This is probably the only BLM rally or protest in the entire country where there were this many police that showed up, not with tear gas and not with helmets and not with riot gear, but with ice cream,” Radner said. “And that really says a lot, not only about our police force but about our residents, because the police knew that wouldn’t be an issue here, and the residents are not afraid of the police. We live in harmony together, it’s actually a beautiful thing.”
But what protesters really wanted was to march.
At first, protesters lined all four corners of the Nine Mile Road and Coolidge Road intersection, waving signs to a cacophony of supportive car honks. After a group of speakers addressed one corner of the group, an event organizer told the crowd gathered that police had asked them to not march.
Oak Park resident Ryan Mims, husband to the event organizer and Oak Park resident Tyler Beltz-Mims, said it was good to see the police officers pass out water and snacks.
“It’s good because all cops aren’t the same, and that’s what some are getting out of this, that all cops are bad, they’re evil, they don’t like Black people, but that’s not the case,” Mims said. “They’re here with us, they’re leading this whole event. They’re marching, well, not marching, because we were told not to march. But I wish, that would be great, if we could march. But just this here, with all these people is enough.”
Later during the protest, some members of the crowd insisted the group march anyway. The group started walking down Coolidge Road, chanting “Let us march.”
Detroit resident Jacob Barlow, one of the first in the line of marching protesters, said the march needed to happen.
“If you are uncomfortable with it, that's the point,” Barlow said. “It's not supposed to be comfortable. This protest isn't a comfortable conversation. It's very uncomfortable.”
Some of those uncomfortable conversations, Barlow said, occur when parents tell their Black children “don’t do this, don’t do that,” to stay safe around police officers.
“I've always had a chip on my shoulder, a little thing on my shoulder telling me, whispering in my ear, if you encounter the police to come home alive,” Barlow said. “That's the gist of it. I wasn’t taught ‘Serve and protect.’ I was taught, ‘Come home alive.’”
Steve Cooper, Oak Park public safety director, told The Daily he supported the protesters marching but was more concerned with the safety issues that might arise.
“It was more of a safety issue as far as having enough manpower to keep them safe with the number of people,” Cooper said. “I don’t have a problem with the marching, it’s just once you actually get into the street then you have other issues as far as vehicular traffic that you have to worry about when you mix with the pedestrian traffic, so that was the main concern.”
One speaker, Oak Park resident Shaun Whitehead, told the crowd he has lived in Oak Park all his life, only leaving to go to law school. He now has his own law firm in the city.
Whitehead said he believes there are a lot of “good cops” in Oak Park, a statement he said he couldn’t repeat in other cities in the area.
“I do not say this in Dearborn, I’m not going to say it when I go out to Livonia,” Whitehead said. “But if we can get the 99 percent of good cops here in Oak Park to be replicated across this country, then we wouldn’t have this problem. And why is that, what is the solution? They have coffee and cops, they get to know their community. They know what music we listen to when they pull us over. They know what we talk about. They know our dialect.”
However, other protesters’ views of the Oak Park Police Department were more mixed. Oak Park resident Tyler Eldridge said she has felt racial bias when dealing with some Oak Park police.
“They are quick and effective in solving your issues, but when it comes to feeling like a sense of ‘We’re in this together and we’re united’, I haven’t really felt that,” Eldridge said. “So do I feel like they’re going to show up and resolve my crime? Sure. But do I feel like they’re going to treat me equally because I’m Black? Maybe not.”
Cole was more pointed in her critique, referencing the death of Todd Stone. Stone, diagnosed with cancer and bipolar disorder, was killed inside his mother’s home by Oak Park police in 2018. The Oak Park Police Department said Stone called authorities telling them he was armed and threatening to “shoot up the neighborhood.”
The Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office ruled the shooting was justified in March 2018. Stone’s mother and brother disagreed, contending the situation could’ve been handled without shooting Stone and Stone was “just crying out for help.”
In April 2018, Cole helped organize a protest against Stone’s death outside of the Oak Park police department.
Education experts have long argued the gap in property taxes funding area schools between wealthy and poor areas have compounded educational inequities. The Oak Park School District received $4.2 million in local funding for the 2019-2020 school year, while just two miles north, Birmingham Public Schools received $57.1 million.
Dan Kraiza was one of about twenty teachers from Oak Park High School who attended the protest. Kraiza described Oak Park as an “all Black school,” with physical demarcations of systemic racism in education.
“The classrooms are a little bit bigger, the heating and cooling doesn’t always work, the technology’s old,” Kraiza said. “We don’t have the same stuff that in the suburbs, where I live and send my daughter to school, that she has.”
As a Black teacher at Oak Park High School, Peggy Baggs said well-meaning pity from white teachers can limit the potential of Black students.
“A lot of my white colleagues feel a sense of, ‘Let me do something to make it level, so I’m not gonna have this expectation on them,’” Baggs said. “‘Let me lower the expectation, because I already know before they even have a pre-test or anything.’”
Oak Park resident Justin Harris, a current Michigan State University student, graduated from Berkley High School. As one of the only Black kids in most of his AP classes and in student government, he said he definitely felt profiled or judged most of his time in high school.
The racial bias became explicit when Harris ran for student body treasurer junior year.
“Somebody straight up told me I wasn’t going to win because I was Black,” Harris said. “Because there had never been a Black officer at that school before, they were just like, ‘It’s not possible.’ That bothered me and it still bothers me that someone felt comfortable enough to tell me that. But it just showed me how the world really is. At the end of the day I won, so it showed me that I have it in me to do whatever I need to do to succeed.”
Jerron Totten, social outreach coordinator and legislative advocacy specialist at LGBT Detroit, was one of the speakers who addressed the crowd. Totten said as a Black gay man, he has no doubt if he had encountered the four officers involved in Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis, they would’ve recognized his Blackness before they realized his gayness.
“To my heterosexual Black brothers and sisters, I want to remind that Black LGBT+ folk are among the first to speak up when social injustices occur and in the forefront of the fight,” Totten said. “And unless you subscribe to the fact that Black LGBT+ life is Black life, your shouting ‘Black Lives Matter’ has no meaning … To my white LGBT+ folk, those who identify as male in particular, I want to remind you that sleeping with Black people does not exempt you from racism. If you fetishize Black genitalia and remain silent as we are hunted and killed in the streets of this country, you are part of the problem.”
In reflecting on the protest, Mims-Beltz said they hoped the multiracial crowd and their love for one another could be an example for what Beltz called an “evolving city.”
“I, Ryan, being Black, it means a lot to me for my husband, who is white being here, and us interracial couples, it’s hard being in a relationship, people look at you different,” Mims-Beltz said. “It just means a lot to me that he’s here and he organized this whole thing for me, and it just shows me he really supports me. He doesn’t care who he can be with, he doesn’t care about race, he doesn’t care how you sound, how you talk, he doesn’t care. And that’s what I love most about him.”
Daily News Editor Claire Hao can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Summer News Editor Calder Lewis can be reached at email@example.com.