Chokwe Pitchford, Rayonte Bell and state Sen. Marshall Bullock (D-Detroit) | Marshall Bullock photo
Updated, 6:01 p.m., 10/20/20

State Sen. Marshall Bullock (D-Detroit) told the Advance on Tuesday that someone called police on him while campaigning in West Michigan on Saturday for a Democrat who is trying to unseat state Rep. Pauline Wendzel (R-Watervliet).  

Bullock was door-knocking in an affluent riverfront residential community in St. Joseph with Chokwe Pitchford, the 21-year-old House Democratic nominee from Benton Harbor, and Rayonte Bell, a candidate for the Berrien County Commission. All three are African American. Bullock said they were approached by a St. Joseph public safety officer. 

“As soon as I saw the squad car pulling up, I said, ‘This is about to be some bulls—,’” said Bullock, referring to a recent series of incidents across the country between Blacks and police, which has sparked a resurgence in the Black Lives Matter movement.

State Rep. Pauline Wendzel

Michigan’s 79th House District is located in the Southwest corner of the state. It includes the majority African-American city of Benton Harbor, as well as overwhelmingly white St. Joseph and Watervliet, among other communities. 

The House district, which has been held by the GOP for the last quarter-century, has a population that is 70% white, nearly 21% Black, almost 4% Latino and 2% Asian.

Republicans currently hold a 58-51 voting advantage in the state House. One seat is vacant after the March 29 death of state Rep. Isaac Robinson (D-Detroit). Marshall and other Democrats want to flip at least four seats in an effort to gain control of the lower chamber and the 79th is one of their targets. 

“I know that I was racially profiled,” said Bullock, chair of the Michigan Legislative Black Caucus. 

He noted, however, that the officers, one who was white and one who Black, were friendly and not intimidating. Bullock said the department had received a call from a resident about three suspicious Black men walking up to homes and peeking into windows, something that Bullock denies.* 

He said that canvassers have been trained to ring a doorbell and take several steps away from the door as COVID-19 protocol for social distancing. 

Chokwe Pitchford

“We weren’t looking through windows,” Bullock said. 

The St. Joseph Public Safety Department confirmed that the encounter had occurred without incident. The officer quickly recognized that the group was canvassing.  

“I don’t think we talked with them for more than 20 seconds,” said Steve Neubecker, public safety director. “He [the officer] wished them good luck with their candidate and that was about it.”  

This isn’t the first time that Black candidates have had the police called on them while campaigning. In 2018, Shelia Stubbs, an African-American woman, said someone called the police on her while campaigning door-to-door for a Wisconsin state assembly seat.

“I felt humiliated. I felt outraged, I felt angry. I felt embarrassed,” Stubbs told CBS News. Stubbs, a Democrat, later that year won the seat. 

Richard Czuba, founder of Glengarriff Group, a Chicago-based polling firm, grew up in Berrien County. He pointed out that Michigan’s 79th House seat has been solidly Republican held for decades, but Democrats are now actively competing for it. 

Wendzel won the seat 56 to 44% over Democratic nominee Joey Andrews in 2018. 

Michigan state police director discusses racial profiling, community outreach

“If [Democrats] can ride a wave of political trends that has resulted in white college-educated women moving away from the GOP,” Czuba said, Pitchford has a shot. 

“Democrats have the potential, but it’s gonna take a whole lot,” he said. The race could come down to Lincoln and Royalton townships, Czuba added.

“There are a lot of college-educated employees of Whirlpool [in Lincoln and Royal townships],” he said, referring to a major employer in the region. “It’s very Caucasian, so they would really have to get caught in the national movement.”

Bullock said he does not know if the St. Joseph encounter was politically motivated. He said that the neighborhood had both Democratic and Republican candidate lawn signs. Some residents told them that they had or planned to vote for Pitchford. 

“Most of the folks were cool,” Bullock said about the residents he spoke with. “But somebody called the police on the Black boys.”

Correction: This story has been updated to include both officers involved.

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.