Whitmer, Legislature mark Juneteenth, tensions flare in Senate

Sen. Erika Geiss | Nick Manes

On Wednesday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued a proclamation declaring Friday as Juneteenth Celebration Day in Michigan to commemorate the day in 1865 when slavery was abolished in the United States.

Whitmer noted the recent deaths of several African Americans that have sparked anti-police brutality protests in more than 2,000 cities across the country.

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Juneteenth is a crucial day in our nation’s history to remember how far we have come and recognize how far we still have to go,” said Whitmer. “During a time when communities of color are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, and when the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery have shone a light on the systemic racism Black Americans face every day, we must work together to build a more equitable and just Michigan. I’m proud to declare June 19, 2020, as Juneteenth Celebration Day, and will continue to work tirelessly to create a state that is equal for all.”

Both the Michigan House and Senate followed suit Thursday and passed Juneteenth resolutions. Senate Resolution 127 was sponsored by state Sen. Marshall Bullock (D-Detroit) and state Rep. Tenisha Yancey (D-Harper Woods) sponsored House Resolution 279. SR 127 ended with: “Resolved, That we recognize the devastating legacy of American slavery, and encourage all citizens of Michigan to educate each other and future generations on the history of slavery in order to ensure that this tragedy will never be forgotten or repeated.”

Some tension flared in the Senate, which came after several incidents in recent months, including Sen. Dale Zorn (R-Ida) wearing a Confederate flag mask on the floor and Sen. Kim LaSata (D-Bainbridge Twp.) declaring, “I am not Detroit” in a committee hearing on the impacts of COVID-19, which has hit Southeast Michigan hardest. And Sen. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan) admonished two Black colleagues, Sens. Sylvia Santana (D-Detroit) and Erika Geiss (D-Taylor), as “shrill” for calling out racism during the coronavirus crisis.

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Bullock gave some more history on Juneteenth in a floor speech.

“Dating back to 1865, it was on June 19 that the Union soldiers, led by Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas, with the news that the war had ended and the enslaved were now free. Now take note — this was 2 1/2 years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation which officially freed all slaves January 1, 1863. Think about that,” Bullock said.

“… With those words, our country changed and we’re still changing. We will continue to change, striving always to make it right and to make this nation better for all. We have the opportunity to look back at 155 years, give homage to those who have gone before us, those who have paved the road to freedom, many with their lives. We stand on their shoulders. We as a collective, from all walks of life, are a part of this progress and we celebrate freedom.”

State Sen. Tom Barrett (R-Potterville) struck a conciliatory tone.

“It’s no secret that in this chamber we often have adversarial positions on important issues that we’re facing as a society and as a state,” he said in a floor statement. “As a country today we’re still grappling right now with what our history means and how we acknowledge it, both the good parts and the ugly parts. I appreciate my colleagues bringing this resolution forward to celebrate one of the good parts of our national history. Landmark and seminal moments like Juneteenth in our history should be recognized and celebrated by all of us.”

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LaSata also gave a statement and said she taught Juneteenth when she was a fifth-grade social studies teacher. But then she asked her colleagues to “walk across the aisle” if they were “offended” by another senator instead of “lash[ing] out” in a floor speech or social media.

“We know that this is a great day in history, the Emancipation Proclamation. We know that we have come a long way. We also know that we have more work to do and it can start with us,” LaSata said. “There are 38 Senate members. We all have different backgrounds and different ideas.

“Colleagues, please, the next time you’re bothered or offended by something you heard from one of your 38 colleagues, please, I ask that you walk across the aisle — and maybe it’s not even a matter of walking across the aisle, maybe it’s walking forward or backward — and ask your colleague to explain what they meant because you want to understand where they’re coming from. Maybe you took it a different way but you want to really understand because you care. When we’re tempted to lash out or give that floor speech or go on social media, please talk to one another, as difficult as it may be, because it starts right here.”

Geiss praised Barrett’s remarks as “lovely and meaningful” but did take issue with LaSata’s speech on Twitter, referring to he as “Karen,” a common term for middle-class white women who are fond of asking to speak to the manager. Geiss said LaSata “admonished those of us who have used our voices to speak our truths.”

Geiss said sometimes “an issue is so deep that it warrants a larger, broader, public conversation, not one that is quiet and can be ignored or denied. And it was right in line with the way that certain folks like to “tone police” how we protest & dissent. Can’t kneel. Can’t march. Can’t fucking breathe. It stems from the discomfort of some folks who are afraid to deal with hard issues that need to be rectified.”

Following the resolution’s passage, the Democratic caucus and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist sung the Black National Anthem in the Capitol rotunda.

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Susan J. Demas is a 19-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 3,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 60 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.