September 26, 2020

A Tale of Three Cities

At Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Cadillac, Petoskey and Traverse City, organizers have different life experiences, but their hearts are in the same place.
By Patrick Sullivan | June 20, 2020

On a day in the first week of January, Alex Marshall attended church, dropped family off at his mother’s house, picked up some Chinese food, and headed home. He soon realized he was being followed by a police cruiser.

The lights never flashed, and the siren never activated, Marshall said, but when he reached his driveway and got out of his car, the cruiser had pulled up behind him, the officer got out, and a barrage of questions followed. The officer said Marshall stumbled out of his car; Marshall said he slid on the ice-covered driveway.

Marshall, who is black and who has lived in Cadillac since the fourth grade, had installed surveillance cameras in front of his house. He also started filming the encounter on his cell phone as the officer approached. The videos captured a disturbing scene in which Marshall stood his ground and refused to be questioned.

“Have a good day, sir. Have a good day. You didn’t pull me over. I’m not under arrest. Go about your business,” Marshall said in the video, which his sister posted to Facebook. As the officer got closer, Marshall said, “Don’t touch me. Please don’t touch me. Why are you touching me?”

He was forcefully taken to the ground, held at gunpoint, and after several minutes, he was arrested as his young children screamed in the background.

Five months later, Marshall organized a Black Lives Matter protest in Cadillac. Around 300 people showed up. The Cadillac News would publish a front-page photo of Marshall kneeling on the ground in solidarity with a police officer from the same department that had arrested him.

Across northern Michigan, anti-racism rallies have sprung up, usually organized by young people who are fed up not only with the events that have led to protests nationwide but also with the quieter, more out-of-sight racism that they’ve experienced in the place that they live.

There were bumps along the way to the protest in Cadillac, which happened downtown on June 6. A protest was announced and had been approved by the city, only to be canceled days later amid online threats of violence. Marshall marshaled on, however, and the rally occurred as planned, nonetheless.

“We had a couple people that were worried about some of the guys that were down there with guns,” Marshall said. “But they didn’t let fear overcome them or overtake them.”

On the Saturday of the rally, the same police forces that had been the subject of conflict and looming danger in Marshall’s life showed up. This time, they were there to serve and protect. City officials also cooperated with the organizers, he said.

“They were very, very, very accommodating,” he said. “They participated, and they did a lot of things to help us to make sure we were safe. The director of the city police and the captain reached out to me and made sure my family was safe.”

When Marshall returned home that day, he said state police were parked outside. He said he took that as a sign they were watching his house to ensure that he and his family were OK.

Nonetheless, Marshall said there is work yet to be done. Racism has been a part of his life since he moved to Cadillac. He remembers his first day at school, when he was told he was “dirty.”

An unnerving aspect of experiencing racism, Marshall said, is that it is so perplexing.

“I didn’t do nothing wrong, and they hate me for the wrong reason,” he said.

But since then, despite the challenges, Marshall said he’s seen reason for hope. He’s known people who were racist, who later made it known that they had changed.

Marshall said he hopes the current movement will lead to police reform.

“We have to clean up law enforcement and reform different policies with the police,” he said.

In Petoskey, a group of moms who have biracial children decided that it was an important moment and that the protest should come to the shores of Little Traverse Bay.

Sheila Hartson said until now, she had been so busy building her cosmetics business that she didn’t get too involved in political causes. She admired her friend Meredith Kennedy, though, because it seemed to Hartson that Kennedy always had or made time to speak out.

When the Black Lives Matter protests spread across the country, Hartson reached out to Kennedy.

“When this went down, I proposed to Meredith, I said, ‘Hey, let’s go out there.’”

They chose to stand near the empty heart of Petoskey, the long-vacant block near the city’s center that’s been the site of so many proposed hotel developments over the years. What they found there was anything but an empty heart. A group of teenagers and young adults were already out, holding a socially distanced demonstration.

Hartson and Kennedy learned that the younger people had come up with a plan to stage a sign-only demonstration for a period from 10am until 2pm due to coronavirus, then everyone had planned to leave their signs attached to the fence. The police department had nixed that idea, however.

“The police department told them that they could not leave signs there, that they had to be attending them,” Hartson said. “I said, ‘Hey, don’t give up.’”

Hartson and Kennedy teamed up with the younger activists and together they developed a plan to hold a large-scale socially distanced series of “assemblies,” a term that they prefer over “protests.”

The rules: Everyone had to wear masks. Everyone had to stay six feet apart. They used a clothesline and tied a knot every six feet so that participants could measure their distance. They even went to a discount store to buy 30 hula hoops people could use to symbolize their separation. It turns out, they had underestimated the level of participation.

“Turnout was, I think, the first night was over 100, 150 [people]. The second night was over 200. The third night was over 300. It was crazy,” she said.

Hartson takes care to note that they are not protesting the police; they are demonstrating against racism and that the ultimate goal is to get more of the region’s citizens to acknowledge that racism is a real problem.

“I personally believe that there are more good police than there are bad police,” Hartson said. “We support the police. We understand that there is a need for them.”

The Petoskey organizers said that as the days passed, it became clear that something wonderful was happening: People who had been reluctant or nervous to show up initially decided to join the assembly.

Kennedy, who is Anishinaabe, said she was heartened to see the arrival of some other Native people after that first day because, although the event was inspired by Black Lives Matter, her people suffer the burden of racism also.

Once Kennedy showed up in traditional Native American dress, it encouraged other women to join the assembly.

“They came down because they could see there was someone else who looked like them,” Kennedy said. “As an indigenous person, we are on tribal land. As indigenous people, we have really made a stand in our community that indigenous sovereignty and black liberation go hand in hand.”

Kennedy, whose husband is a black immigrant, declined to get into the specifics about what life as a minority is like a region that is so overwhelmingly white.

“I am actually going to say, ‘No comment,’ because my husband told me today, ‘Please tread lightly,’” she said.

That’s not to say that racism hasn’t been on the minds of Kennedy and her family.

For three years, Kennedy’s daughter, a ninth-grader, has stood alone and demonstrated in front of her school on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Each year, she has stood alone in the cold January air.

The recent assemblies have been a revelation, said Kennedy. Her daughter is demonstrating again, but now she is joined by a large group of people.

“She wasn’t alone anymore, and I know that that was really impactful for her,” Kennedy said. “That was huge for her to see other brown people out there.”

Courtney Wiggins, an African American woman who has lived in Traverse City for a year and a half and Up North for eight years, said she helped organize a protest in Traverse City because she hoped to find a like-minded community.

“It doesn’t matter where you’re at — if you’re a person of color, you’re probably experiencing some level of racism, and so this is a cause that’s of course very close for us,” Wiggins said. “I have a young son who will be nine soon, and I’m tired of living in a society where racism is accepted. These acts of violence really need to stop.”

A few years ago, Wiggins met Betsy Coffia, a long-time activist and a Grand Traverse County commissioner, so she reached out to Coffia to connect with others who felt as she does and might want to join forces to organize locally.

“I got ahold of her and I said, ‘Do you know anybody who’s going to be doing anything? Because I need action. I need to do something in the community,’” Wiggins said. “And within 24 hours, we had a protest going.”

Protests at the Open Space downtown attracted more and more participants as the days went by, leading to a June 6 demonstration that attracted thousands of people.

The group behind the protest also organized an anti-racism and anti-oppression training workshop. In a few days, 160 people had signed up. After the second protest, more than 300 wanted to take part. It’s a sign, for Wiggins, to feel some hope.

“It seems like Traverse City, there’s some traction here,” she said. “I feel pretty positive about the response that we’ve had so far. … I was completely and totally overwhelmed for all the people that showed up for our second protest.”

Holly Bird, one of the organizers, is an indigenous woman and attorney who lives in Traverse City and serves as a tribal judge. She has members of her immediate family who are African American, and she said her position gives her insight into how the region’s law enforcement and courts are tainted by racism.

“I’ve been here since high school, and I’ve definitely noticed the sort of quiet and subtle racism that happens in northern Michigan, and some of it isn’t subtle,” Bird said. “Silence can actually be less subtle than a lot of people imagine, and there’s a lot of that here. The lack of inclusion, the inability to find jobs sometimes, the inability to navigate without the stares, the whispers, things like that.”

As a tribal judge, Bird said she’s seen racial profiling by the police and tougher charges and penalties for minorities than for whites.

“I know people that get tased on a regular. I know people who get followed on a regular by police officers. Once you get targeted, they target you and your family, and it’s not something that just goes away even if your record improves,” Bird said. “The thing is that these things are quiet, you know — people keep them quiet. And it’s unacceptable in itself.”

Sometimes the racism doesn’t come from the police.

Breana Demaray said she reached out to her friend, Northport native Marshall Collins Jr., about getting involved in the demonstrations because she’s recently experienced racism in her personal life and wanted to get in touch with a broader community.

“I think Marshall added me to the group chat, and I literally woke up to like a hundred messages, and I’m like, ‘What is going on?’ I had reached out to Marshall because I have been going through a few things on a personal level, experiencing racism, and I didn’t really know how to handle it. There were a lot of things I wasn’t really comfortable addressing with the people involved, so I think my involvement with what’s been going on with the protests,

I think it was kind of a wake-up call in realizing that my voice is not alone.”

Back in Cadillac, Alex Marshall is planning another protest for June 19, aka "Juneteenth," a day many Americans honor and celebrate the end of slavery.

He is still facing resisting arrest charges from the incident in January, but he said he has faith those charges will eventually be dismissed. He admits he got into some trouble when he was younger but noted he’s since turned his life around and found God. He said that he’s a committed family man today, one who drives a truck and is trying to start a nonprofit with a singular goal: spreading love.

More importantly, perhaps, Marshall said he hopes this year’s demonstration brings change to society.

“I believe in change. I believe in forgiveness,” he said. “I have God on my side, so I can conquer anything.” 


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