Bring Them Your Long-haired Hippies, Your Women, Migrants, and LGBT Folks
Traverse City’s Human Rights Commission: Fighting for 50 years of underdogs.
Fifty years ago, in August 1968, a citizens’ advisory committee proposed for Traverse City what would then be called the Human Relations Commission, later to be known the Human Rights Commission, a nine-member board that would go on to advocate for minority rights, women’s rights, the LGBT community, long-haired hippies, aggrieved tenants, and just about anyone who felt they’d been the victim of an injustice.
It took a few years to get going, but once it did, the first topic taken up by the commission was migrant labor. Board members wanted to make sure seasonal workers were treated with respect and fairness in the community.
Although Traverse City, like the rest of the country, has seen progress on countless fronts, the argument over who belongs — and who doesn’t — is an even more divisive issue than it was 50 years ago. Last year, things got particularly ugly when the commission considered making a recommendation that Traverse City be designated a “sanctuary city” for immigrants, a measure that was dropped amid furious opposition.
After that experience, Taylor Nash, chair of the commission, said he has come to the conclusion that the division in society and the tone of the debate has gotten so toxic that, before the HRC can hope to take on any larger issues, it must work toward a basic one: simply getting people to talk to one another again.
“It got pretty intense,” he said. “I knew there was a big divide in this country before we experienced that, but that really hit it home for me in a way that I hadn’t directly experienced before.”
“THE PIGS AND THE FREAKS”
When the HRC started out so many years ago, its members managed to advance human rights by getting people to work together, said James McCormick, a now-retired judge who moved to Traverse City in 1969 and was asked to join the HRC soon after.
At the same time, the board understood its limits. McCormick said the commission was only created by a group of uniformly conservative Traverse City commissioners because they knew that its creation would make the city eligible for certain federal funding.
“It wasn’t that the city fathers — and they were fathers — thought, ‘Gee, wouldn’t it be nice to have a commission that was going to deal with all sorts of social issues,’” he said. “We were struggling a little bit to figure out who we were and what the expectations were from the city, and I think they let us know fairly quickly they didn’t want us doing anything too radical.”
The first area where McCormick recalls that the board made progress was in confronting the tension between the police and the hippies. The latter, in those days, populated the city in large numbers and liked to loiter on Front Street, upsetting business owners. McCormick said everyone referred to the two sides as “the pigs and the freaks.”
The HRC arranged to have a few hippies and a few police officers get together for informal talks. McCormick said some of the meetings took place at his house.
“The police started off very reticent, but after a couple of meetings, everyone relaxed,” he said. “The hippies agreed to being off of the street by a certain time and no drugs downtown.”
Soon after that, McCormick said, a businesswoman came to the HRC to complain that when she attempted to have lunch at a restaurant known as the place where businessmen made deals, she was asked to leave.
“I was assigned to that case and I said, ‘Well let’s test it.’ … She and I met there for lunch,” McCormick said. “Sure enough, someone came up to us and said, ‘Sorry.’ I could be served but she could not be served.”
The HRC approached the owner, who happened to be a woman. She was unwilling to change her restaurant’s policy because she thought it would be bad for business. She wanted a place where businessmen could feel comfortable discussing whatever they wanted to discuss, and she believed women were gossips, and men could not be comfortable talking in their presence.
“‘Women are gossips. They can’t help themselves,’ she said,” McCormick said. “After some pressure from us, she changed her mind.”
MORE DIVISIVE TODAY
Next up during McCormick’s tenure was the appearance of Third Level crisis center, which opened in a residential neighborhood near the Traverse City Golf & Country Club in the early 1970s. Some neighbors were incensed because Third Level offered drug treatment, and they feared it would bring addicts into their neighborhood.
“The neighborhood went kind of berserk, and they actually chose leaders,” he said. “It was a fairly big controversy, and it was brought to the HRC. Probably the city thought that was a good place to dump it.”
McCormick and his fellow HRC members decided the solution would be, once again, to bring people together to talk. They organized meetings where residents could talk about their concerns, and they convinced Third Level to establish a neighborhood liaison who could be called if trouble arose.
That calmed down the tension, more or less, until a few years later when Third Level moved to another site, McCormick said.
Perhaps, McCormick said, the HRC is lower profile and seemingly less effective today because city leadership is so much more progressive, unlike in those early days. Also, it helped early on that many of the conservative residents of Traverse City were conservative in the model of former Gov. William Milliken, a Traverse City native who was a moderate Republican and who supported human rights.
“It might be more of a divisive thing today because of the sharp division between the right and left,” he said.
Immigration certainly wasn’t the same kind of issue then as it is today. Back then, most people felt warmly toward migrant workers and understood the importance of the migrant community to the area’s economy, he said.
“Everybody felt very positive about the migrants — it was kind of patriarchal — people said, ‘Our migrants are good people, and we take good care of them,’” he said.
FROM TENANT RIGHTS TO GAY RIGHTS
In the 1980s and early 1990s, members of the HRC took on topics like whether middle school boys should be able to play girls sports and vice versa. The commission also got into the middle of a heated debate over landlord-tenant rights during the period when it was led by Sara Hardy, a city leader who became the namesake for an annual award given out by the HRC. That award celebrated its 25th anniversary this year.
In the last couple decades, much of the commission’s work has focused on LGBT rights.
Attorney Blake Ringsmuth applied to join the commission soon after he moved back to his hometown in the late 1990s.
He served on the commission when a notorious attack occurred outside of the gay nightclub SideTraxx, which led the city to create rainbow bumper stickers, which caused a police officer to protest the placement of the stickers on patrol cars, which made Traverse City a temporary subject of national news reports and brought anti-gay crusader Fred Phelps to town.
The HRC once again found itself moderating between the police and a marginalized group. Ringsmuth said he was disturbed about the police officer’s protest. He recalled: “I won’t forget this. He said, ‘My war is not with homosexuals, it’s with homosexuality.’ And I was like, ‘Well, wait a minute, you’re walking the streets as a police officer with community members who are gay, who are homosexual. How does that work?’”
An “anti” gay rights ordinance, one that would have prevented city commissioners from prohibiting discrimination against the LGBT community, was attempted, and it failed. Later, an ordinance prohibiting discrimination passed overwhelmingly.
Ringsmuth said he is proud of the progress Traverse City made on gay rights, and that it demonstrated to him that he made the right choice to move back.
“I didn’t want to come back to Traverse City because of my perception growing up here, that it was so white-bread and conservative. I had been exposed as a child and in my education to other cultures, other beliefs, other ways of life that I thought were equally as valid,” he said. “I had a perception that that was not accepted here in Traverse City, and if I was going to live here, I wanted to do what I could [to change that].”
To Ringsmuth, the fact that the HRC took up the “sanctuary city” debate last year and that it went nowhere and caused such ugly division is not a sign that the city has taken a step backwards.
“I think that 20 years ago, no one would have said boo about that, and we would never have even talked about being a sanctuary city,” Ringsmuth said. “The fact that we’re even talking about it is a sign of progress. It doesn’t shock me at all that there was a fury raised about it, because the city is a different demographic than the county and the surrounding areas.”
If Ringsmuth were on the HRC today, he said he would attempt to initiate a conversation about the “Me Too” movement in an effort to get conversations started about sexual harassment in northern Michigan workplaces.
HOW TO GET PEOPLE TOGETHER?
Nash, the current HRC chair, also moved back to Traverse City after spending his young adulthood somewhere else.
“I’m from Traverse City, but I moved away for a long time. I came back in 2010. I wanted to get involved in the community in some way,” he said. “I was writing letters to the editor about LGBT rights and discrimination.”
He was recruited to join TC Equality and then asked to apply for a spot on the HRC. He was appointed in 2012, and he’s served during a period when Traverse City has seen its LGBT community flourish.
His joy over the strides that have been made in recent years in acceptance of LGBT issues was dampened by the controversy last year when the HRC took up immigration and “sanctuary city” status, however. That debate got ugly, and personal and meetings broke down into vitriolic hate.
Nash said he isn’t sure what he or other members of the HRC will propose to attempt to improve the tone of the debate. He wants to see people of disparate views get together. That poses a challenge for the HRC, however, because the group, by its nature,serves a liberal agenda.
“We were talking about civil discourse recently, and we’re talking about how can we create an event, some kind of workshop or some kind of community meal, something that encourages people from different ideological backgrounds to interact,” he said. “Until we reach a place where we are becoming a community again — there’s not this entrenchment, this division — I don’t know that we can address any major human rights issues.”
Board member and Northern Express columnist Isaiah Smith resigned earlier this year from the HRC, but not due to the toxic debate over immigration, although he said that got extremely ugly. He said he just had too many demands on his time.
He said he doesn’t think the divide will be bridgeable any time soon.
“I think it’s a national fever, and we have to wait until the fever abates,” Smith said, “and I don’t see that happening this year.”