Challenging anti-Black racism in Port HuronQ&A with Alphonso Amos: Nonprofit Journal Project

Alphonso Amos is the founder and co-lead of Black Lives Matter Port Huron. The nonprofit is dedicated to challenging anti-Black racism across the city of Port Huron and working to dismantle structures that end or limit Black life.

What are the main goals of Black Lives Matter Port Huron?

We fight for Black liberation using mass media and educational programming. Essentially Black Lives Matter Port Huron chooses to participate in the cultivation of a culture that affirms, uplifts, and honors the multitude of life experiences within Black communities. We use our platform to uplift long-standing activists, providing avenues for political education, cultural, social and economic analysis through social, criminal and education justice activism in direct support of those impacted by state-sanctioned violence. Overall our mission is to eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in the violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes and by creating spaces for Black imagination, innovation, and joy.

How and when did your group get started?

We were an unofficial group long before we began the work officially, thanks to individuals in the community like Sean Faulkner, Autumn Fawn, and Kayshea Rivers. I have to uplift those names, because they were working hard, organizing marches after the white supremacist terrorist who stole the life of our beloved brother, Trayvon Martin, was acquitted.

So in 2019, just before the unjust slaying of Ahmaud Arbery and Brianna Taylor and George Floyd, longtime community organizers and the co-founder of Black Lives Matter Lansing and Black Lives Matter Michigan, Angela Austin approached me. She knew me from my work as a former Port Huron City Council member and my work on president Obama's My Brother's Keeper initiatives throughout the state. And she asked me if I would join the movement of Black Lives Matter Michigan by starting a chapter here in Port Huron. I immediately responded yes, because I saw that six years later, we were still fighting the same fight.

So I reached out to other leaders in the community, such as Kayshea Rivers, and Autumn Fawn, and we got to work organizing our first protest. We started with community action forums and roundtables around criminal justice reform. We also held a virtual fireside chat and roundtables around criminal justice reform and a virtual fireside chat with Lieutenant Governor Garlin GIlchrist. We immediately got to work.

What is your relationship with other Black Lives Matters groups around the country?

Black Lives Matter Port Huron is a local affiliate of the official statewide chapter of Black Lives Matter Michigan, which falls under the umbrella of the national formation Black Lives Matters Grassroots. Black Lives Matter Michigan was created by Black Lives Matter Lansing, and we are building local chapters across other cities. [Besides Lansing] We now have Detroit, Flint, Battle Creek, Kalamazoo, Jackson, Port Huron, Washtenaw County, Saginaw, and Benton Harbor under that [banner]. And then as part of Black Lives Matter Grassroots, we support agitation, mobilization, organization, and education initiatives and advocacy. So we're connected with [other chapters in the United States and United Kingdom] as a shared vision and best practices across our organizations.

What can you tell us specifically about your work around the issue of law enforcement violence in Port Huron?

Throughout much of U.S. history, law enforcement meant implementing laws that were explicitly designed to subjugate Black people and reinforce white supremacy. That's why Black Lives Matter, along with hundreds of thousands of others, are calling for city, state, and federal governments to abolish policing as we currently understand it.

In Port Huron, we have been looking at how we can divest local dollars from [traditional] policing perspectives. We know police departments generally have the highest budgets, so we've been looking at how we can work with our courts and our police department to make sure that we have mental health services or drug courts and things like that for folks going through the justice system.

Instead of the police showing up they might need a mental health professional showing up for a crime, so we are really focusing on what that looks like in the region. As part of Black Lives Matter Grassroots, we're calling for the end of qualified immunity and the unjust legal doctrine that shields police from accountability when they kill and harm people. Locally we continue to encourage our local municipalities to reallocate those funds. We're also working in allyship with the local branch of the NAACP and an organization called St. Clair County Organizing for Regional Equity, pushing for a citizen review committee to hold our local law enforcement accountable. We also take complaints from individuals who've had issues with our local law enforcement. When I say individuals, I mean Black and Brown individuals, because we realize Brown folks go through some of the same state-sanctioned violence. For others, who may not look like us, we have ally groups that we try to connect them to, because we realize the importance of understanding that if this is happening to Black folks, it's also happening to other people. But we want to uplift the fact that if we're silent about it happening to Black folks, how can we be loud about it happening to others?

You recently held a remembrance ceremony for Albert Martin, a biracial man who was murdered in Port Huron back in 1889. Can you talk a little about his story and why you chose to honor his memory?

We just honored his memory again this year [on May 20] in partnership with the Port Huron museum and we're preparing for something larger next year with the African-American Legacy Museum in Alabama. They would like for us to bring some soil from the 7th Street bridge where Albert Martin was hung.

Port Huron is the only place in Michigan where the lynching of a man took place and is recorded. We know that other folks probably were lynched, but there were no recordings of those lynchings. In the early morning of May 27, 1889, the Port Huron jail was stormed by unidentified men wearing masks. A biracial man by the name of Albert Martin had been charged with allegedly assaulting a farmer's wife on May 11 of that year. So they took Albert Martin to the 7th Street Bridge here in Port Huron and hung him from the side of the structure where he died at the end of a tightened noose.

Our organization is focusing on ending state-sanctioned violence. Albert Martin bore state sanctioned violence by the hands of vigilantes and jail [authorities] who didn't protect him.
When we raise awareness about historical and racial injustices and shed light on the experiences of marginalized communities, it helps ensure that such stories are not forgotten. It also can stimulate conversations. You can discuss racial equality, social justice and the ongoing struggle against discrimination. And it encourages people to reflect on past and present day issues and work towards a more inclusive and equitable future.

What do you aim to achieve with your Black Men Matter Mental Health Initiative?

Our mission is to help start conversations about mental health within the Black and Brown community and to help build a support system throughout St. Clair County. For this particular initiative we wanted participants to recognize the symptoms of mental illness in Black, African-American men, and understand the barriers of depression that are unique to [them], and know what they could do to help themselves and their loved ones, if they were going through any mental health challenges.

African Americans are as likely as any one else to have mental illness, but we are less likely to get help, because depression and other mental illnesses tend to be left untreated. We know that suicide is the third leading cause of death among African-American males between 15-24. We wanted to be intentional about those conversations, so we had them in curated spaces like the Port Huron Museum and the Citadel Theatre at Enter Stage Right. We've had these conversations in unique ways, whether they're curated conversations like the one at the museum or bowling events where we just enjoying ourselves. The initiative was really about starting a conversation about mental health.

Looking to the future, are there plans BLM Port Huron has in the works that you'd like to share?

Black Lives Matter Port Huron is currently working on expanding our mental health series to [reach] Black women and Black LGBTQ people as well. We're partnering with The Safe Spot, a local facebook community for people dealing with mental health issues like anxiety and depression, on a Black mental health expo. The dates for that are to be determined. We're really looking at how we can grow our Black men mental health initiative to cover all of the Black community.

We are also preparing for an empowerment community education series that is coming up. We have representatives that sit on multiple boards around the community like the St. Clair County Better Together Committee, which is a diversity initiative. We have folks sitting in every arena, whether it's watching city council members, county commission meetings, or being court watchers.

And we're always looking for more people to get involved. We like to tell folks that you don't have to be Black to get engaged with Black Lives Matter. Of course, you have to be Black to be an official member, but we have ally groups that work hand in hand with us, so if you are not Black, don't hesitate to try and figure out how you can jump in and be a great ally to Black folks and Black Lives Matter chapters. Please note, we are really focusing on equity for all, but we are centered on starting with Black people.

This entry is part of our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19, a heightened awareness of racial injustice and inequality, issues of climate change, and more are affecting their work--and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.act Detroit.
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