Local leaders discuss what's next for racial justice in Washtenaw County

As our community joins so many others in envisioning a more just way forward, we asked six Washtenaw County activists what they want to see as our community's next steps in confronting police brutality and systemic racism.

In the wake of George Floyd's death in Minneapolis, protests against police brutality and calls for racial justice have spread across the country, including numerous demonstrations here in Washtenaw County. The national movement has prompted widespread discussion of reforming, defunding, or abolishing the police, as well as a broad array of larger systemic changes.


As our community joins so many others in envisioning a more just way forward, we asked six Washtenaw County activists what they want to see as our community's next steps in confronting police brutality and systemic racism. Here's what they said.


(Editor's note: These interviews were completed before Ypsilanti Mayor Beth Bashert's resignation on June 23. Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.)

Desirae Simmons.

Desirae Simmons (Ypsilanti resident, activist, co-director of the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice (ICPJ), and member of the nonprofit Liberate Don't Incarcerate and the Ypsilanti Planning Commission's Housing Affordability and Access Committee.)


Q: What comes next for Washtenaw County in terms of addressing racial inequality?


A: I think that overall, Washtenaw County is in a really great position to be a leader in this country for addressing systemic racism and inequality. We apparently have some political will here, and we have people who say they believe in equality and who are showing up in all these different ways. So what we don't have at this point is the will to put our money where our mouths are. We need to have our budgets demonstrate our values, and to do the deep work along with the community to promote health and safety for all of us.


Q: What practical steps can we take in Washtenaw County to promote racial equity?


A: With Liberate Don't Incarcerate, our work is focused on abolishing the punishment system overall, and that has come together with a focus on the county prosecutor. It's the first time in almost 30 years we're going to elect a new person into this office. On June 17, there was a demonstration outside a courthouse about a young person in our community. The person harmed by this young person's action was asking for restorative justice, the young person involved was ready for restorative justice, but the county prosecutor said no and the judge upheld that. This person with a lot of power in terms of making these determinations is actively pushing against really simple reform. Our platform is not only focused on things the county prosecutor could do but how all areas of the punishment system are in the way of what we see as providing health and safety for all.


Q: What misconceptions are you seeing about the idea of defunding the police?


A: I've seen people pushing against it saying things like, "Well, what about mass shootings and murders?" I don't like to be glib, but police haven't stopped those things from happening. I am more interested in how we stop those things from happening from the beginning. How do we get further upstream to the root cause, so we don't have to only deal with what happens when people are expressing their fear, anger, and poverty?


Q: How do we address those root causes?


A: One thing about the idea of defunding: that money goes somewhere else. Where as a community do we want that money to go? What we pay attention to grows, so what are we trying to grow? What the budget shows us is that we're trying to grow the police state. Yes, I would like there to be more focus on safety, but you don't have to have a gun on your hip and a baton in your hand in order to promote safety on the street. One of the things that leads people to being in jail is housing insecurity, for instance, being forced to stay with someone in circumstances you don't want to be in. Why don't we take that money [that the sheriff's office uses for helping prisoners with reentry] and use it in the area of housing?


Q: Are there any positives in Washtenaw County in this area?


A: Our county is poised to be a leader in this area, to be an example for others to follow. We have a racial equity office within the county. And our health department, from what I can tell, is something we should really be proud of and invest more in. They're looking at things with an overarching public health perspective, looking at the social determinants of health and recognizing how all these different indicators actually tie into racial and economic disparities in this county. There's a space of hope within this.


Q: What concrete steps can be taken next to foster equity in our county?


A: I suggest looking at trainings that are happening [in police departments]. From before my time with ICPJ, there have been people already in conversation with the sheriff's office around anti-bias training, and they had received an agreement to be able to observe one of these trainings, but that was not followed through with, and this has been years. People should actually look at what the training consists of, and who is doing the training. I would push as an immediate step having training done by people in the community.


Payton McDonald (Ypsilanti resident, activist who self-identifies as an abolitionist, and co-director of The Mutual Aid Network of Ypsilanti (The MANY). Views expressed here are his own and do not represent The MANY.)


Q: What are your thoughts about the protests in Washtenaw County over the last few weeks?


A: I see so many people who are, in an unprecedented fashion, more excited about police and prison abolition than I've ever seen in my time organizing. As a human species, we're going through quantum evolution with the way we're processing power, and that's encouraging, but as with any large-scale revolution or social upheaval, there's always going to be pushback and resistance from the established power structures to try to turn and control the narrative. Reform is being pushed by major media, high-profile political candidates, and local activists that are more interested in coordinating with and collaborating with established power structures and changing those structures than in abolishing those power structures altogether, and it's disheartening. Police abolition is in direct conflict with reform. A new style of policing could be even worse than what we have. It could look like hyper-surveillance of communication and finances, more private surveillance, and security outsourced to private industry. That creates more inconsistency and lack of accountability and transparency.


Q: What would you like to see instead?


A: When we imagine a world without police, the three Ds are defund, disarm, dismantle. But we tend to get stuck on defund. That leaves us with police and with prisons as well. What we're asking for is democracy, participating in budgeting [at the municipal level], and as the working class, being able to say where our money is going, and that's away from police to alternatives to police and prisons. My hope is that people are waking up to the fact that we can create a world without police. There are experimental collectives based on feminism, solidarity, and de-incarceration that have been created in northern Syria and Chiapas in Mexico, and we could learn from them.


It can look like us creating neighborhood councils that are directly democratic, rather than top down. We can empower them by defunding the police and pouring that into democratic budgeting for schools, health care, and access to food. We need to throw out career politicians and replace them with people who came from the streets, people from the neighborhoods most impacted, and with the most insight into how to accomplish liberation.


It can also look like breaking contracts with police at neighborhood associations, hospitals, and schools. There are examples around the world where … armed men and women democratically elected in the neighborhood act as temporary defense and are directly accountable to the neighborhood. And it can be rescinded if they're not facilitating their duties. Instead of asking who is going to protect us, let's ask how can we protect each other? How do you take autonomy into your own hands and empower those around you to do the same?


Q: What other concrete steps can be taken locally?


A: I'd like to see people hosting more events based on abolition and sharing skills, knowledge, and resources to build neighborhood democracy. Checking on neighbors, throwing small socially-distanced block parties, and at the end, having a quick and informal meeting where people make decisions together with their neighbors about how to protect each other and hold each other accountable. That's a tangible step people can get into.

Joseph Summers.

Joseph Summers (Ann Arbor resident, pastor of the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation in Ann Arbor, member of the Washtenaw County Poor People's Campaign, and former co-chair of the Michigan Prisoner Reentry Initiative who has gone on to organize the group Friends of Restorative Justice.)


Q: What are your next steps in promoting restorative justice?


A: Our plans are to present to the county board of commissioners in the next couple months a vision for how our county can move toward a restorative justice system. That begins with the creation of a restorative justice center that could help guide the county through the process. Ultimately, all justice is local. We could have control over county funding in a way we didn't at the state level. The majority of county government funds go into criminal justice, with more than 40% to the sheriff and jail, about 20% to courts, and something like 10% to the county prosecutor's office. Last year, the county board of commissioners hired an equity officer to look at how county funds are being spent, and part of the task is to look at whether we're increasing or decreasing racial equality. So, as the biggest single factor in our county's budget, the criminal justice system is the big nut we need to look at.


Q: What would restorative justice look like locally?


A: Everybody pays lip service to the concept of restorative justice, but for some, that means basically using restorative justice practices for people who have committed the most minor crimes. We need to move to a restorative justice system that doesn't just use these practices for minor crimes but for significant crimes in which people are really hurt as well. One of the outstanding proponents of that, Danielle Sered, sees in her work in New York that 90% of victims of violent crime choose to go through the restorative justice process rather than have their cases go through traditional courts. It's not because they're particularly compassionate but because they live in neighborhoods where they can see that the traditional focus on punishing people makes their communities less safe. People with problems go into prison and come out with worse problems.


On the level of minor crimes dealt with by district courts, we've developed a veterans court, a drug and alcohol court, and a mental health court. All of these courts are helping to divert people out of incarceration and helping them get the help they need to be a successful part of society. However, we have none of these options on the circuit court level, where more serious crimes are dealt with and where the cutting edge of restorative justice work needs to happen.


Q: What else needs to happen in Washtenaw County?


A: As part of the Poor People's Campaign, we had a large summit a year ago January, where 150 community people gathered for eight hours to talk about how we break up the caste system in our county. One of the single biggest factors was that the criminal justice system again and again shows up as one of the primary factors in reproducing poverty and keeping people poor. That's what I'm excited about: focusing on these points where we see the economic and racial caste system and how we can reimagine and transform.


As part of a faith leaders forum, we wrote a letter addressed to the county sheriff and called for a town hall. We had about 70 local faith leaders sign on in a few days and had an online town hall meeting with Sheriff Clayton to hear how upset and concerned faith leaders were. Jerry Clayton is an example of someone who has made some great changes, and yet we're aware that we're now in a time where significantly more change is needed.


I've been so encouraged to witness in all these protests enormous diversity in terms of race, religion and non-religion, and diversity of gender and sexual orientation. It just feels like a new generation is claiming what has been talked about for a long time and are making it a reality in the streets of our country right now. And that gives me great, great hope.

Trische' Duckworth.

Trische' Duckworth (former Ypsilanti resident now residing in Belleville, founder of Survivors Speak, and leader of several protests against police brutality in Washtenaw County.)


Q: What are the next steps you see as important after the protests are over?


A: A lot of people look at the protests as one thing, and then the next steps are something else, but we believe that protest comes in many different forms. We've done email protests, and showing up after different incidents to county commissioner meetings. It takes all of that.


The decisions about how we distribute money are on our county commissioners. We need equitable solutions, and so we need to be there [at commission meetings] and be there every time. We're telling the government we are in control, and we're taking back the power. You work for the people. Voting for the president is a trend, but local and state elections and holding those politicians accountable is the most important step as individuals and communities. We need to become more involved in local and state government.


Q: How do we get the community more involved in local government?


A: As a leader, when you see something is not working, the onus is on you as a leader to try another route or go in another direction. Maybe that looks like hosting a free dinner and talking about how to get the community involved. We've been told that there have been community policing conversations out here, and people are not showing up. People have fear and distrust in government and police, so why would they want to be involved? They feel their voices are not heard, and when they do show up, nothing happens. The onus is on leaders to put their heads together and figure out what we need to get the community to the table.


Q: What can White folks do to help the cause?


A: I have seen a lack of our Caucasian brothers and sisters using their voices for these issues. If police brutality is not on your radar because it's not your life and you don't live in those shoes, you won't necessarily pay attention to it. With George Floyd, there is no way people could look away. The world was stopped, on lockdown, and then this horrific thing happened. It doesn't matter if you came on board before or right now. We're all here right now. Black people alone cannot end the effects of racism and White supremacy. We need our White brothers and sisters on board to complete the process.


Q: What else needs to change?


A: I want a focus on the media. A lot of media agencies don't always share the truth. They're putting things out that cause confusion among groups of people fighting and trying to unite. Somebody reads something that's not true and decides they don't want to be part of that movement. I'm challenging news agencies to report the truth, to get feedback from all sides, and make sure reporting isn't biased. If we all need to come to the table, that includes the media as well.

Hoai An Pham.

Hoai An Pham (Ann Arbor resident, daughter of refugees, organizer for We the People MI and Huron Valley Mutual Aid.)


Q: What are your thoughts about the protests going on right now?


A: I think what is really hopeful about the current moment is that so many people are open to learning about police and prison abolition for the first time, and are asking questions about what's next. Too often, the systems shaping the status quo push people away from imagining what a world could look like without police and prisons. People don't realize the role police are playing right now. People think the structures that exist are actually serving folks in a good way, and that's not the truth.


Q: What misconceptions are you seeing about the idea of defunding or abolishing the police?


A: Particularly as a survivor [of sexual violence] and as an abolitionist and organizer, I'm really hoping that folks are able to take seriously how important it is to be digging into the decades of work done on this issue by Black, queer abolitionists, and understanding that questions that are coming up now have already been asked and answered in the past. People are asking those questions [about who to call for help if police are abolished] like it's a "Gotcha!" moment. They want to know if we've considered this, and yes, we have. Abolitionists are there because of things that happened to them. I never dug more into it until I was sexually assaulted twice in a couple of months and started digging. I know prisons aren't the way to go. And reporting to the police isn't the way to go. We all know, to a certain degree, that when you call the police, nothing really happens. And in the next sentence, they'll say, "Well, if we just reformed them, something different would happen." But we're never going to reform something inherently violent.


Q: What next steps do you think we need in Washtenaw County?


A: We had somebody [Aura Rosser] murdered by police in this area in 2014. People in this area recognize with George Floyd that this is police brutality, but when it happens in their backyard, they don't consider it that way. Folks in this area are pretty convinced that police are good. There's "only" been one police killing, but police have a strong history of violence against Black and Brown people. That's not unique, but what is unique is that they want to deny it.


Abolitionists have called for defunding. What our mayor and less radical folks are calling for is a police oversight commission and investing in more trainings. But we definitely should not be investing more money into police. We have a police review board, but that still isn't able to help counter the violence people are experiencing. The call to defund the police could mean investing in community resources if we had funds to do so.


People really don't understand how much military gear cops have. Police should really not be coming to these protest spaces with shields and guns and SWAT cars and rubber bullets. People are calling the police to help with mental health crises, but police don't have the training or the willpower to actually be helpful, and that's an example of why we can't be relying on them in the way society thinks we should be.


Q: What else can we do to address systemic racism and police brutality in our area?


A: For folks looking to get organized, there is probably work going on in your area. It's really important that we keep reading about this, keep discussing new ideas as they come up. Abolition is something I came to after studying and discussing these ideas with people, working together with people. So much of abolition isn't about prison and police but how we treat each other, how we build communities, creating places of love and trust.

Yodit Mesfin Johnson.

Yodit Mesfin Johnson (Ypsilanti resident, activist, CEO of NEW, and founder of Black Men Read.)


Q: What comes next for Washtenaw County?


A: We need to have a hyper-focus on the voices of Black, Indigenous, and other leaders of color. Thinking specifically about things like defunding the police, when we ask how we can reallocate those resources, the narrative should be guided by the communities most impacted by policing. NEW is preparing to launch a video series with Black individuals and other POC leaders about what to do with the $50 million in the sheriff's budget. I'm also thinking about the Ypsilanti mayor's racist comments. You can't expect to use a restorative justice approach with the mayor if you're not applying it across the community. It comes down to values. What do we value in the community?


Q: Are you encouraged that more people are talking about defunding the police?


A: I'm excited to see that more people are open to the idea of defunding or abolishing police as we know it. I think we need more conversations, more awareness. So often we move to reform efforts because we want to see incremental change and not transformational change. We can't do that if we move to action before we listen deeply and listen to those most deeply affected. An emphasis on reform is rooted in discomfort that White people feel, and the dominant cultural norms around defensiveness. We have to be willing to sit with uncomfortable truth, listen, and then design plans to act.


We also have to trust the community when they tell us what they want. And by community, I don't mean figurehead leaders. I mean we need to hear from those neighborhoods where we see the greatest amount of police calls and responses. [Community engagement by police] should be community-driven and participatory in design.


Q: Why do you think so many local activists are emphasizing acting locally, down to the city and neighborhood level?


A: I think people don't understand the racial history of Washtenaw County. People are surprised that they don't know that on the South Side of Ypsilanti they had the equivalent of Black Bottom until urban renewal led to gentrification. When Mayor Bashert talks about "weak" Black leaders, that negates the leadership of those still alive and leading. We have to grapple with our racist past, and we can't deny that people are complicit today, including the Ypsilanti mayor, in oppressing and silencing Black voices. We also have a tendency to tokenize just a few Black voices. It's not enough to say we have X, Y, Z-many people of color on our board. We have to create anti-racist, inclusive tables of decision-making.


Part of it is we need to embrace local activists and organizers and move away from a narrow definition of "leader" that takes into account things like pedigree and title. Leadership comes in many forms. It's vital to look beyond the traditional roles of leadership to find those enacting change and recognize they've been doing it.


Q: Why do you think we've seen so much momentum on the issue of racial equality right now?


A: We definitely have hit a tipping point. I'm not sure if it's the fact that more of us are online, and you can no longer refute what Black folks and people of other marginalized identities have been saying all along. Police violence dates back as long as the history of this nation. Black folks have been talking about this in every century and every decade since then. So, this tipping point has to do with the fact that the data is now irrefutable. You see it in the statistics of COVID-19 deaths. You see it over and over again. My question to the community is how much more Black death do we need to see to believe us when we say that there is a problem, that racism is real? How much more proving do we need to do? We need to ensure that change is enduring, and doesn't last just long enough for White folks to feel comfortable again.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

Photos by Doug Coombe except Hoai An Pham photo courtesy of Hoai An Pham.

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