Amid protests in the face of a pandemic, Detroiters push for solutions and solidarity

From the frontlines of the protests to behind the scenes, Detroiters are finding their own ways to push for accountability and change after days of protests demanding justice for the death of George Floyd, a Black man in Minnesota who died after a white officer knelt on his neck for nearly 9 minutes.

Over four days of protests, hundreds of people have been arrested in clashes with police, including 110 who defied curfew on Sunday. At a press conference on Monday, Police Chief James Craig said more than 70% of the people arrested were from outside of the city. On Sunday, protesters who defied curfew ran from the scene after tear gas was deployed, while Monday’s protest largely ended without incident.

The protests come at a time when Detroit is reeling from the coronavirus that has disproportionately affected Black residents in the city. As of Monday, there were 11,085 confirmed cases and 1,377 deaths.

For organizations like the Detroit Justice Center, a nonprofit law firm that works for economic and racial equality, the pandemic and the protests “shine a light on what we've already been saying,” says Casey Rocheteau, communications manager for Detroit Justice Center, which was among several civil rights organizations to sue the Wayne County Jail calling for the release of inmates in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. The center also locally holds the protest bail support fund for The Bail Project. Aside from one person who the bail disruptors were planning to help if he was still in custody as of Monday afternoon, the center hasn’t had to bail anyone out yet but is looking to see if there are ways to support those who may not be able to afford to pay for tickets, she says.

“We know that the pandemic has disproportionately affected Black folks and so does police brutality, police violence, police murders,” they say. 

“This moment is a watershed for a lot of people,” they add. “[The work is] more about continuing to make the case for alternative routes to safety than through these structures, which are clearly failing people.”

Here are ways Detroiters are using their platforms and talents to push for solutions to address the racial inequalities that have been brought to the forefront in recent days.

Scenes from the protests

For Timothy Blackman, a musician who lives in Southwest Detroit, he felt compelled to show up on the frontlines of the protest because he wanted to send a message to community leaders and make sure people are accountable for their actions, he says.

He participated in Friday’s protest, which he described as “a powerful display of everyone being united.” He shared several photos on Facebook and wrote about the solidarity he witnessed.

“It wasn’t just Black people, it was everybody,” he says, who is Black. “The was the most beautiful thing to me and something I’ve never experienced before.”

“Over the years, it seems like there hasn’t been a lot of resolution to the issues we’ve been facing,” he says “It’s gotten to the point where we have to make a stand.”

After participating in Friday’s protest (he went home before the crowd headed downtown where things escalated with police), he plans to express his views and protest through music.

“Now is the time to make our voice heard,” he continued. “Before there may have been more excuses but now you can’t run from it. It’s in your face.”

Justin Woods, a Michigan State University student majoring in media information and a Detroit native, was triggered after watching a video of a Black-owned business in Minnesota get looted. Not wanting to see that in Detroit, he created 25 signs that said “Black owned/Please don’t loot” to hang in storefronts to direct protesters that the business shouldn’t be the target of their frustrations.

On Instagram, he's reposting information that others might find useful at this time and he also posted a video from the Sunday protest where people were getting tear-gassed, including himself.

“What I want to do is spark the conversation. I want people talking about eradicating the system and finding [a way to] come up with new ideas,” he says. He pointed out the Flint sheriff who marched with protesters.

“That’s what I want to see everywhere,” he says. “I don’t want to see Black people getting killed for no reason anymore.”

Creating conversations

In the current climate amid the protests, public relations professional Brittni Brown says there are a lot of conversations happening right now. She’s working with fellow Black millennial leaders in the city to bring together diverse voices, bridging the two worlds of city leaders and anyone who wants to help support, to the table to create an action plan.

“We’re tired of marching, we’re tired of arguing,” she says. “Let’s get together to build strategy where we pull back the layers and get the conversation get started.”

She added that so many others are trying to do the same thing and the goal is to get on the same page and unify.

“For me, I’m seeing a lot of people … attacking each other,” she says. “It’s important we start the conversation. We’re not understanding why people feel a certain way.”

She says her fellow organizers are still fleshing out the strategy for the virtual convening and plan to announce details in the coming days.

For Weatherby resident Lauren Gillon, who works as an EMT and medic, she’s using her platform as a Black influencer and food blogger.

“It is crucial that at all times we use our platforms to influence as well as raise awareness and make a change,” she says. “If I can post what I have for dinner more than three times a week, I can share with my followers about the brutal injustice happening in the Black community and how we can all play our part.”

Watching her community battle racism and COVID-19 “has truly pushed me to find more ways that I can help the cause in my own way and sharing how others can find their place as well. It is because of the systematic racism in our country that today, Black individuals are majorly affected by health care inequity, a failing and racist education system, unequal pay in the workforce, and murdered in cold blood by the same individuals sworn to protect us. Now is the time to open your eyes, find how you can make a change, elect appropriate leadership, and create opportunities for minorities to fill leadership positions in all workforces.”

While she isn’t planning to be on the frontlines of any protests, she’s finding a different way to get involved. She’s planning to help feed participants in the Belle Isle Freedom March this Friday. Event organizers said in the Facebook event listing that the peaceful demonstration, which will recreate the historic Selma march across the Belle Isle Bridge, the goal of "the march is to offset the tension that has unfortunately been attached to this wonderful movement. We need to come together in solidarity at this time."

“Activism can be shown in many other ways, whether it's spreading accurate and live updates via social media platforms, donating money to funds, actively serving and voting in [your] districts, creating safe havens for peers in this hectic time, and providing health care in communities,” she says.

North End resident Reshounn Foster is focusing on taking care of her community.

“I personally believe that protests, marches that can potentially lead to civil unrest and harm can exacerbate the trauma that we already have,” she says.

At 51 years old, she’s “the progeny of the Great Migration. I’m the progeny of civil rights and the privacy of human rights and the progeny of women's rights. And I've seen protests over and over and over and over and over again. And we're still in same position, all this crazy s*** hasn’t evolved, it hasn't changed, it hasn’t stopped.”

Instead of protests, she’s having conversations on working on “micro solutions,” from analyzing police reports and training, redirecting buying power to build a more equitable infrastructure, and studying history to learn from it.

“All I can really do is just be an example and have people ask me, What did I do? Or what am I doing? And then we have that dialogue.”


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Read more articles by Dorothy Hernandez.

Dorothy Hernandez is a freelance writer and editor who frequently writes about food at the intersection of culture and business. She has contributed to NPR, Midwest Living magazine, Eater, and a variety of other publications. Visit her website and follow her on Twitter @dorothy_lynn_h.