As Detroit protests near third week, civil rights leaders eye big changes

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

Meeko Williams, a leading Detroit activist and organizer, declared through a megaphone to a crowd of hundreds on a muggy late afternoon: “Let this be the catalyst because your vote still matters. Your vote still counts.” 

“We have marched in the street. We did not march in the street for nothing,” he continued at a May 29 rally and march that began at Detroit Police Department headquarters. “We can take over our communities from New York; L.A.; Miami; Chicago. Everywhere and Detroit. We have to take that energy and take it to the polls. We have to put it in the ballot box. We want Donald Trump out!”

Williams, an African American who grew up on the city’s north end and was educated at Northern High School and Wayne County Community College, has been a steady and consistent presence at these daily gatherings.

As protests in Detroit enter their 14th day, Detroit area civil rights leaders have assessed the actions that have come after the Memorial Day death of George Floyd, an African American who was killed at the hands of Minneapolis police.

Meeko Williams speaks at a Detroit rally | Ken Coleman

Have the protests been effective? What are the next steps? Has the law enforcement response been appropriate? The Advance asked several Detroit-area civil rights leaders how they felt.

The Rev. Wendell Anthony, Detroit Branch NAACP president, believes that the protest is appropriate but has been critical of early demonstrations that involved vandalism that occurred in Detroit on May 29 and May 30.

“We support peaceful protest, but we don’t support tearing up our city and you going back home and us left holding the bag,” Anthony said about those demonstrations that appeared to have many white and suburban participants. “We hope that we can take this moment and make it into a real movement to change our condition and not maintain our same position that we find ourselves in.”

Detroit police reported more than 140 arrests during May 29 and May 30, Most of those arrests were carried out on people who live outside the city of Detroit, according to Police Chief James Craig.

However, more city residents have taken part in protests in recent days.

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at a June 4 march against police brutality in Southeast Michigan | Gov. Whitmer office photo

One of them held on June 4 included Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist. Leading into the three-mile march from Highland Park to Wayne State University was Bishop Charles Ellis, pastor of Greater Grace Temple in Detroit.

“In times of civil unrest it has always been the collective voices of our faith-based communities that have brought calm to the raging storms of injustice,” he said.

Mark Jacobs of the Black & Jewish Coalition also participated in the walk.

“This is a time for outrage, for there is much to be outraged about,” Jacobs said. “But it is also a time for us to be outraged together. Our unity in the face of racial injustice is our strength. Good people of all colors, faiths, and ethnicities can and must step up our efforts. This is a time for solidarity, for commitment, for community involvement.”

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Anthony offered a similar sentiment.

“The opportunity of a lifetime must be seized in the lifetime of the opportunity,” Anthony said last week. “There is now another opportunity to do what is right. We have been here before. We have seen the visible and deliberate acts of inhumanity often forced upon the backs and necks of African Americans.”

Kamilia Landrum, Detroit Branch NAACP executive director, participated in a protest march on the Belle Isle bridge on June 5 attended by Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson. The Rev. Charles Williams II, National Action Network Michigan chair and Pastor of Historic King Solomon Baptist Church, has participated in a protest that involved a procession of automobiles. Concerned about coronavirus spread, he has stayed away from rallies and marches led by Meeko Williams and others. 

The Rev. Williams is skeptical as to whether the recent protests will result in tangible policy reform.

“It feels just like the Occupy [Wall Street] movement,” said Williams, referring to the progressive socio-political movement that opposed social and economic inequality and sparked sit-ins, rallies, and other demonstrations during 2011 and 2012. “It was here and one day it was gone. A lot of rhetoric and not one policy.”

He suggested that protesters more involve themselves in public policy at all levels of government. Similarly, Steve Spreitzer, Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion CEO and president, said that the protests are fine, but more is required, particularly from the white community.

NAACP protest in Lansing draws more than 1K

“How do we bring people to an honest examination of themselves?” said Spreitzer, who is white. “Perhaps it’s creating accountability in ways to hold themselves accountable to growth action.” 

Portia Roberson, Focus Hope CEO and a member of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, said that she was pleased to see protests that were well attended by whites.

“I think that now where’s getting to the next step, because you can’t protest forever,” Roberson said. “You’ve gotta have some asks. I think that it’s going to be incumbent on a lot of folks to say what are the asks that come out of this protest.”

Roberson, a Detroit native who worked in the President Obama Justice Department, feels that the Detroit Police Department’s reaction to protests in the early days “was a little extreme” with imposing a curfew and using rubber bullets and teargas against protesters. She, however, credits the department for moving away from those strategies in recent days.   

Some of the Detroit marches have been led by people other than Meeko Williams. Activists Tristan Taylor and Nakia Wallace also have emerged as demonstration leaders and head the group called Detroit Will Breathe. Williams and Taylor battled publicly on Tuesday over who is the leader of the movement. 

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Williams, who led the first Detroit protest on May 29, has emerged as one of the city’s highest profile progressive activists, helping lead the clean water movement for several years. 

Taylor also is known in the Detroit activist community, but Detroit Will Breathe is a new organization. Williams and his supporters, which includes Detroit Charter Revision Commissioner Joanna Underwood, have argued that Taylor does not speak for them. Underwood and Taylor were engaged in a brief shouting match on Tuesday.  

Nonetheless, Taylor and Wallace issued a set of demands and met with city government officials on Tuesday:

  • Create an independent office for disabled citizens
  • Defund and demilitarize the police
  • Do not carry out eviction orders
  • Do not criminalize homelessness
  • Drop all charges and citations against protesters
  • Drop citations received by Detroiters during the stay-at-home order
  • End “consensual” sex between police officers and those under custody
  • End Project Greenlight, a public-private community partnership that uses real-time camera surveillance throughout the city, and facial recognition software to identify suspects
  • Make Detroit a sanctuary city, a municipal jurisdiction that limits cooperation with the national government’s effort to enforce immigration law
  • Prosecute and fire any police officer involved in police brutality
  • Restore and maintain running water for all Detroiters

Detroit Deputy Mayor Conrad Mallet Jr. expressed optimism about moving forward.

“A lot of the social concerns that they raised we share and have things in motion that we believe will be effective,” he said. 

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman reports on Southeast Michigan, education, civil rights and voting 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.