The nearly nine-minute video of a Minneapolis police officer killing an unarmed Black man, George Floyd, on May 25 set off protests across the nation (and the world), including in and around Detroit. It was a breaking point for many Black Americans, including Wayne State University’s Black Student Union president, Jeremiah Wheeler.
Wheeler, 22, is the west side product of two lifelong activists. His father, Heaster Wheeler, is an assistant secretary of state focused on minority issues after more than a decade as executive director of the NAACP’s Detroit chapter, and his mother, Jennifer Wheeler, founded The Michigan Training Center on Abuse and Trauma of Children.
Their son is following in their footsteps. The rising senior pursuing a business degree spoke to Hour Detroit as he left a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Troy on June 1 organized in response to Floyd’s death and other prominent cases of unarmed Black Americans dying at the hands of police. That protest was peaceful until a 68-year-old motorist was arrested on a charge of veering his car to hit a protester. Later, some officers patrolling the event showed solidarity with protesters by kneeling in a video that went viral.
Hour Detroit: Why did the George Floyd video set off so much activism when there have been so many other cases?
Jeremiah Wheeler: It’s the straw that broke the camel’s back. That’s all it is. Black people are dying, and not just dying — Black people’s lives are being taken. George Floyd was another example of this systemic issue. So why this case in particular? This one was blatant. It makes it easier for other people who try to play the fence on police brutality. There’s no way you can be on the wrong side of this and be a reasonable person or say you care about Black people. This was no accident. It was very clear.
Why go all the way to Troy to protest?
The organizers were a group of young ladies who said we needed to protest in the suburbs where racism lives free and unopposed, and they were right. This was the first protest I went to because my energy has been put toward stuff that we’re going to do as the Black Student Union.
What is your Black Student Union doing?
We hosted an emergency community call on Saturday to give our peers the opportunity to raise their voices and speak their pieces. People really just needed some healing, to vent. Then we asked for solutions, and people gave solutions. Our team believes that our strengths are communicating and making the connection between other organizations. We want to do some type of demonstration. We want to make sure we’re strategic and calculated as well. So we’re connecting activists. Voting, voter registration, and voter education, all of that came up.
Some protests have turned violent, although it’s unclear who instigated the violence. How do you explain that?
That’s not for me to explain, honestly. Black people are in pain. Black people are murdered, and violence is committed against us every day, whether it’s by the police, by the systemic racism we see in institutionalized disparities, in public education, whether it’s by the food apartheid that we call “food deserts.” That’s violence against humanity. That’s not justice. I don’t have anything to say toward any form of protest because the point is not the protest. The point is what the problem is. And the problem is that racism, sexism, and genocide are at the root of the foundation of America. Until we acknowledge it, until we can turn it around, that’s the only thing that’s worthy of true time, energy, and discussion. Once we solve those problems, the other issues will solve themselves.
In general, how do Detroit police interact with Black Detroiters?
The Detroit police and fire departments and all public service departments should represent the citizens that they serve. So we’re not in the clear in Detroit. Most police officers and public servants are not from the city. That’s an issue, and there’s a lot of people in the city that not only need jobs, but they would love to serve their own communities. But there’s so many roadblocks and disparities and there’s not enough attention on recruiting young Black people into the service areas. I’m not standing up for the police or the fire department until they recruit and retain conscious, Black-loving police officers.
Have you had scary encounters with police?
When I was in high school, I was blessed to go to this private school for three years in Oakland County. We had this fair, the St. Mary’s Fair. Now, I wasn’t beaten by the police or anything, so I don’t want to drag it out like that. Nonetheless, the police approached me. We were behind the tent and they flashed the light in all my friends’ faces. We said something, and he said something like, “Y’all better shut up or I can make your night a bad night.” We were sophomores in high school. They just made it evident that many officers don’t care what the truth is. They just go by their biases and prejudices.
Do you remember your first experience with racism?
I grew up in unapologetic blackness. That’s my family, that’s my church, that’s my community. It wasn’t like I just woke up and got shocked by the news: “Oh, wow, they’re killing black people.” I already knew we need us to love ourselves ’cause the world doesn’t love us.
How do you feel about protesting amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has hit the Black community especially hard?
It’s very unfortunate that we have to protest for our lives in a time when our lives are being taken by two invisible viruses. That the virus of racism had to show its ugly head during this time, that’s just America being America. What can we do? We’re supposed to stay home because the virus can kill us, but we’ve gotten killed in our homes —
Breonna Taylor. You know what I’m saying? So you just gotta fight. But we’re wise. People are out here with masks on.
How should non-Black folks advocate for the Black community?
Commit. Commit to the struggle. Commit to the Black liberation movement. Commit yourself. Commit your life in one way or another. You can commit your leadership, your voice, your resources, your talents. Just commit to freedom. Join an organization that fights for freedom. Support a ministry. Vote and get your family to vote. Support Black businesses. Those are ways you can fight.