Ken Coleman: Use your passion in your backyard. Detroiters got Detroit covered.

Detroit protest of George Floyd's killing, May 29, 2020 | Anna Liz Nichols

I covered last Friday’s George Floyd killing protest in downtown Detroit and was struck by the number of men and women who attended. 

I saw Detroit activists with whom I am very familiar. I saw Detroit City Council Member Mary Sheffield and Detroit Board of Police Commission Member Willie Burton, two elected officials who represent my neighborhood. But most of the people there were young and white and didn’t appear to live in Detroit.

The late afternoon rally and march was peaceful and I reported it as such. But come nightfall, far too many protestors, most of them white, became hostile and looked more like vandals.  

I’ve lived in Detroit all my life and I was happy to see suburban whites push back against police brutality and the killing of Floyd, the African-American man whose life was taken last week in Minneapolis at the hands of white police. 

But I didn’t like seeing the destruction of property in my hometown. Mayor Mike Duggan said on Sunday that 75% of the protesters are from outside the city. Arrests include people who live in  Midland, Shelby Township and Nashville, Tenn.

We know how to protest in Detroit and request backup when needed. Our African-American majority, in particular, has a long and storied history of fighting for social justice and collaborating with good-intentioned whites to do so. 

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The Detroit NAACP, for example, defended Dr. Ossian Sweet, his brother, Henry, and others when the Black men were attacked by hostile whites in 1925. Henry Sweet was a Black man charged with killing a white man Leon Briener. 

The NAACP branch bolstered the defense team consisting of African-American attorneys Cecil Rowlette, Julian Perry and Charles Mahoney with additional members led by Clarence Darrow, a white man. Sweet was successfully defended by a white lead attorney who convinced an all-white jury.   

Ossian Sweet Home | Ken Coleman

Seventy years later, the branch and others vigorously fought against the Michigan Legislature’s Republican majority as the Detroit Recorder’s Court was eliminated and merged with Wayne Circuit Court. It saw the Legislature’s power grab as one that would diminish the opportunity of the city’s African-American majority to receive equal justice in the courts. 

The legislation to eliminate Recorder’s Court, which ultimately was successful, was sponsored by a suburban lawmaker, Deborah Whyman, a Canton Republican. The Detroit NAACP called for stakeholders throughout the state to join its effort to fight the legislation.

Allies are important. No doubt about it. So I’ve got some advice for well-intentioned white folk from the suburbs: I want you to have that same energy that you have displayed in Detroit over the weekend to protest driving-while-Black cases in the suburbs. Join with organizations that have been fighting for justice in Eastpointe, Allen Park, Sterling Heights and Warren. 

As the Advance reported earlier this year, a Detroit Justice Center (DJC) report pointed out many low-income metro Detroit residents traffic tickets have become victims of “an ever-growing web of unpayable fines, suspended licenses, warrants and the constant threat of incarceration — a potentially life-altering ticket to jail.”

These conditions are part of a recipe for “wealth extraction” and incarceration, DJC officials said. The social justice organization contended in the report that suburban district courts extract huge sums of money from poor, Black drivers. Those proceeds help to fund local government.

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DJC offered 13 recommendations in the report. It suggests eliminating misdemeanors that “criminalize driving while poor,” expunge all existing misdemeanors convictions for traffic offenses and repeal civil infractions “that are unnecessary or that penalize driving while poor.” 

It also calls for local government to stop “profit-seeking” traffic enforcement, stop the “traffic enforcement-to-jail-pipeline” make transit safe and accessible for everyone and end driver license suspensions.

What if protestors who converged on Detroit this weekend showed up at suburban city halls and lobbied state lawmakers to help carry out DJC’s recommendations with the vigor they displayed over the weekend?

What if those same men and women worked with Indivisible, a grassroots political organization, in Oakland and western Wayne counties to help elect a Democratic Party majority in the Michigan House of Representatives? 

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What if those same men and women called up state Sen. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) and helped pass SB 945, a bill designed to strengthen community-police relations and reduce excessive use of force by police officers?

Your passion is needed in those places. You should double your efforts in those spaces, if you haven’t already. That’s where Detroit needs you the most. Support candidates who feel the way you do. Encourage your neighbors to do the same. Vote out of office men and women who don’t support your agenda. 

That’s the best way to help bring justice to people who look like George Floyd and me. 

When it comes to Motor City protests, Detroiters got Detroit covered.

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.