Detroit Activists and Leaders on What Needs to Be Done Now

Plus, how to keep the fight against racial injustice moving forward
detroit activists blm protests
Detroit activists have led protestors in the city since last week, calling for justice for George Floyd and other black people who have died at the hands of police officers.

The protests demanding justice for George Floyd and the countless black lives lost to police brutality continue throughout the state and the country. In Detroit, protestors were led by local activist Tristan Taylor in a victory march on Wednesday night as Police Chief James Craig announced he wouldn’t stop the march — despite protestors breaking the city’s 8 p.m. curfew — because the demonstration remained peaceful. As local protests went into night seven yesterday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer called for police officers to intervene when they see fellow officers using excessive force. Here, Detroit activists and community leaders share their thoughts on the protests and the work that still needs to be done. 

“It benefits us most when those who don’t look like us actually use their privilege and their power where they live.”

For Kayla Kennard, racial justice work is something she says she’s been exposed to since “the womb.” The 22-year-old Detroit native’s grandparents were involved in the civil rights movement. Her father is a local minister and worked for the NAACP. She’s been mentored by Rev. Charles Williams II, chair of the National Action Network’s Michigan chapter. And Kennard is currently the sixth precinct delegate for the City of Detroit.

She says it’s essential for people in surrounding suburbs to organize where they are and use their privilege to speak out on the injustices the black community faces. “Usually what ends up across the country is that our urban communities become ground zero,” Kennard says. “You have very passionate people, non-black folks who want to be involved and engaged. They come where we are, which I think is important because they’re physically putting themselves out on the line for us. But what I think is more important is for those who do not live in the city of Detroit, it is their duty to highlight the issues in their community. I think it’s important for our non-black neighbors and friends, and brothers and sisters, to make sure that they’re vocalizing in their community because that is their place of privilege. I think it benefits us most when those who don’t look like us actually use their privilege and their power where they live.”

Kennard finds the Detroit curfews unfair because limiting the times of those out demanding justice further agitates the situations and potentially leads to tension later at night. However, Kennard believes the Detroit protests haven’t gotten as volatile as protests in other major cities because there hasn’t been a major clash yet between demonstrators and police.

“It may be an unfair comparison between Minneapolis and Detroit because George Floyd didn’t happen here, though we are connected in pain and sorrow,” Kennard says. “Don’t get me wrong, we definitely have issues with the police here. We have criminal justice issues throughout our state, but we at times have handled policing differently. It could be the fact that here in Detroit, the people that we have turning out are simply like, ‘we’re not going to provoke or incite violence until we feel like that’s been inflicted on us.'”

Moving forward, Kennard wants to see police officers go beyond kneeling in solidarity and hold other officers accountable for abusing their power. She urges internal accountability within leadership. She’s encouraged by the global solidarity, but protesting is not the “end all be all” — organizations need to make clear demands for policy and structural changes.

“When we think about the civil rights movement, it wasn’t just the speeches that kept the movement going. It wasn’t just the protest. It was the letter-writing; it was making phone calls and organizing in every state,” Kennard says. “While we have people on the streets, some of us are going to have to strategize and demand that our officials come to the table with us.”

“If the protests die down, if the momentum dies down — then we won’t have anything.”

Sharron Reed-Davis, president of the Black Student Alliance at Michigan State University, shares similar views. The 21-year-old Detroit native also disagrees with the curfews, viewing them as a way to keep people from demonstrating their right to protest. She feels the police kneeling and hugging protestors is ingenuine. Reed-Davis says to keep the protests effective, the police and government have to understand something needs to happen.

“If the protests die down, if the momentum dies down — then we won’t have anything,” Reed-Davis says. “We’ll be back, right where we started, which is getting killed by police and police not being held accountable for their actions. I’m very proud to see all the protests happening in all 50 states. But I also feel that the government, this president that we have, they don’t support us. This is something that is systematic. It needs to change from the top and start trickling down to the bottom, but that is not happening.”

Reed-Davis hopes people continue to demand justice for Floyd and the black community at large through protests and other plans of action. “We need to spread awareness. We need to talk to our local government officials. Write letters to your state representatives and to the senators. Everybody needs to keep sharing their stories because that’s how we make an impact. I just believe that if we keep going, we will accomplish something. Everybody needs to keep the hope alive.”

“Our mantra is, ‘Freedom should be free.’”  

Representatives of The Bail Project’s Detroit chapter have attended protests and will provide bail of $5,000 or less for demonstrators who are arrested. TBP is a national nonprofit that provides free bail assistance for individuals across the country. The Detroit site is housed in the nonprofit law firm Detroit Justice Center, which runs Michigan’s only revolving bail fund. If an individual has been arrested at a local protest or knows someone who has, they can go to detroitprotestbailout.com and fill out a form to request assistance.

“We’ve been camping out at the [Detroit Detention Center on] Mound, so when protestors get there, we are there onsite, so they don’t have to spend the night in jail,” says Asia Johnson, bail disruptor for TBP in Detroit. “We are deeply committed to supporting and protecting the protestors and we know they want change.”

They’ve also assisted in providing transportation alongside Michigan Liberation, a criminal justice reform nonprofit, for people that need to get home. While Johnson says their bail services have fortunately not been needed yet, she’s received an outpouring of support from individuals wanting to donate money, volunteer, and help organize.

Johnson encourages individuals to donate on TBP’s website. They can specify in the memo section to apply their donation towards the Detroit site. If donating to TBP or the Detroit Justice Center isn’t an option, doing the research and volunteering for TBP and other organizations is just as critical to supporting the black community now and moving forward.

“This tragedy is just one of seemingly endless attacks on black and brown bodies. It’s the over-policing of communities of color. It’s the injustice of the cash bail system and pre-trial detention. The problem is so vast, a lot of people feel overwhelmed and helpless,” Johnson says. “But getting out there and getting your voice heard — whether it’s protesting or donating or spending time on the phone making calls — that’s what we need, the support of the people to even think about creating change. Our mantra is, ‘Freedom should be free.’”

 “In order to make change, you gotta be in the room.”

As a mentor for many young black men in Detroit and beyond, Toson Knight, dean of students for Detroit’s Western International High School and executive director of nonprofit youth organization Caught Up, is a firm believer in providing the space for his mentees to continue the conversation beyond the protests.

While working in Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s office as deputy district manager for the Department of Neighborhoods, Caught Up was birthed from Knight’s desire to connect young men with city officials, community leaders, and other resources as they enter manhood. Since starting in 2015, Caught Up has worked with over 300 youth from Detroit and other cities in southeastern Michigan. Knight also helped start Brotherhood: No Boundaries Mentoring Program, which collaborates with Detroit Public Schools Community District and the Detroit Police Department.

“I believe by being a part of your community, you have to be a part of the conversations,” Knight says. “I’ve always been talking about that, and allowing them to know what’s going on not only in the Detroit community, but the communities around them. We’ve been having those conversations, like ‘What do you do in this situation?’ or ‘How do you feel about the police?’”

Knight has attended all the Detroit protests thus far and brought some of his mentees along for a couple of them. He believes the police have done a wonderful job handling the protests. While Knight says most police departments need more training on how to deescalate situations and have a better relationship with their community, he doesn’t think Detroit has that problem, and that’s in part why protests haven’t gotten as violent in Detroit as they have in other major cities across the country. He agreed with the curfews because he witnessed how the earlier protests would go from peaceful during the day to chaotic at night, but was happy it wasn’t enforced Wednesday night as things remained peaceful.

“Now that you got their attention, now you need to sit at the table.”  Knight says. “Being in the room, that’s one of my biggest things. Putting them in front of people where they can talk to the mayor and the chief. I’m not against the protests, and I believe that it brings a lot of awareness. So, when things like this happen, I believe you still have to be in the streets and make your voices known. But then where do we go? What’s the solution? I believe in sitting down, meeting, and coming up with how we can help.”

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