Detroit is united against racism — but divided on protesting tactics

As Detroit's black community copes with the death of George Floyd, residents are split over how to respond — and the role of white suburban protesters.
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Emma Davis-Roda, 19, left, and Mykah Schaffner, 19, raise their fists while singing "Lift Every Voice and Sing," which is sometimes referred to as the black national anthem, in Detroit on Thursday, June 4, 2020.Sylvia Jarrus / for NBC News

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By Erin Einhorn

DETROIT — When Tray Little heard that Detroiters, like people across the country, were gathering in the wake of George Floyd's death in Minneapolis, he knew he had to show up.

As an African American man who'd felt unsafe around police, he wanted to speak out for racial justice and condemn acts of violence by police officers like the one charged with killing Floyd with a knee on his neck.

Little, 25, a rapper and producer from Detroit's east side, arrived at a plaza outside the city's police headquarters May 29 to find what he called a "beautiful protest," full of "a lot of amazing people," he said.

He also found something he didn't expect.

Here in the city where he grew up — where nearly 80 percent of residents are African American, where locals often boast that theirs is one of the blackest cities in the nation — Little was surprised that many of the protesters who turned out to defend black lives were not themselves black.

In fact, he said, as he came out again and again, joining protesters who've gathered every afternoon at 4 p.m. for the past 10 days, he's noticed that while the protests are led by African Americans and most of the speakers are African American, on some nights, he's looked out across the crowd and seen more white faces than black ones.

Protesters march in Detroit on June 4, 2020.Sylvia Jarrus / for NBC News

In a city with a long, difficult history of racial conflict and segregation, Little is among black activists who've been pleased to see support from white allies. "I was open to embracing it," Little said.

But since the protests began, he's watched race play a role in disputes that have emerged over protesting tactics and goals. Some older black Detroiters and city officials have blamed white suburbanites for late-night clashes with police and vandalism such as damage to a police car, urging them to stay home and protest in their hometowns instead.

Full coverage of George Floyd's death and protests around the country

As Detroit's black community copes with the grief and anger that comes from witnessing yet another death of a person of color at the hands of police, it has been split over how best to respond. Some have channeled their energy into prayerful moments of silence or partnerships with police and elected leaders, such as an effort to bring together major Detroit companies to combat racism.

Other mostly younger black protesters — joined by young white allies from the suburbs — have taken a more confrontational approach, demanding immediate changes both nationally and closer to home. They've condemned heavy-handed tactics by Detroit police who have used tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets to disperse crowds and have arrested dozens of demonstrators. Their list of demands includes removing police from local schools and ending the city's facial recognition surveillance program.

Protester Tray Little, 25, of Detroit.Sylvia Jarrus / for NBC News

In many ways, the city is united and collectively standing up against racism and violence, but as some of these disputes have played out in the media and on the streets during the protests, Little worries they'll undermine the spirit of unity that many had wanted to bring.

"I believe it will lead to something and make some changes and have some impact on the city," Little said, but "if we can all come together and meet on a common ground, that would be awesome."

'Stay up out of here'

The Detroit region, which is one of the most segregated in the country, has been shaped by decades of housing, transit and education policies that promoted white flight, as well as sharp rhetoric from the leaders that have long divided the city and its suburbs.

That history is exactly why some black community leaders have embraced the strong support from white allies over the last couple of weeks.

"There's a new group of suburbanites, suburban white folks that are looking through a different lens than their parents and grandparents," said Zeek, 35, the founder of New Era Detroit, a pro-black activist organization. (He doesn't use a last name.)

Derrick Parker of Detroit and his great-nephews march in the city on June 4, 2020. "I pray for a better life for them so they don't have to suffer," Parker said.Sylvia Jarrus / for NBC News

The diverse protests have been cheered as they've marched through black neighborhoods. But some black leaders and city officials, including the mayor and police chief, are less welcoming.

"You can protest in your own backyard," the Rev. Wendell Anthony, Detroit NAACP's president, said on May 30 after dozens of people — mostly residents of Detroit suburbs, according to police — were arrested for vandalizing property and throwing rocks and bottles at police officers. Police did not respond to a request for a racial breakdown of those arrested, but videos of the arrests showed many appeared to be white. Anthony urged protesters not to cause trouble in the city. "That's putting another knee on the neck of black folk because we got to live here with this pandemic still going on," he said.

A few days later, protesters marched 4 miles from downtown into an overwhelming African American neighborhood on the city's east side. Police arrested 127 of them, mostly for violating the 8 p.m. curfew the city had imposed. Of those arrested, just 47 were from the city.

The next day, local community leaders appeared with police Chief James Craig at a news conference to condemn those who were arrested.

"Stay up out of here," said Ray Winans, 41, a Detroit mentor and community leader. "Leave everybody in the city of Detroit alone. Detroiters know how to work together."

'Voices are being heard'

Part of the reason white people have outnumbered black people at some of the raucous nightly downtown protests in front of Detroit's police headquarters is the harsh toll COVID-19 has taken on African Americans in Detroit.

While African Americans comprise 14 percent of Michigan residents, they've accounted for nearly 40 percent of COVID-19 deaths. In the city alone, more than 1,400 people have died and many more are still reeling from the physical and emotional crush of having contracted the virus themselves.

"This has been a really scary moment for the city, and black folks are already experiencing so much emotional weight just on a daily basis, just trying to go to work and survive facing systemic racism," said Misha Stallworth, 31, an African American school board member and community leader.

But in a city where police-community relations have been relatively peaceful in recent years, some said they've shied away from the downtown protests because they disagreed with the confrontational approach.

On Thursday, several hours before the daily 4 p.m. protest began in downtown Detroit, a largely black group of hundreds of Detroiters turned out for an interfaith unity march led by religious leaders through African American neighborhoods.

That event — which called on participants to wear masks and practice social distancing while marching — was held in partnership with law enforcement agencies. Mayor Mike Duggan and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer were among elected officials who attended and knelt together to remember Floyd and others who have died at the hands of police.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Lt. Governor Garlin Gilchrist II, center, participate in a march with clergy, community leaders and local elected officials through Highland Park and Detroit on June 4, 2020.Office of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer

Bishop Charles Ellis III, 62, senior pastor at Greater Grace Temple in Detroit, made a point of distinguishing the march from the protests that have happened downtown and those that have led to violent clashes with police around the country.

It was the black church, he told reporters, that made nonviolent conflict an important part of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. "We wanted to get back to that," he said. "We can't dictate what anyone else does. But we said we wanted to do a nonviolent peaceful protest."

Detroit, which has a civilian police oversight board, has certainly had problems with racism in its police department, but some city leaders credit Craig, the chief, with addressing them quickly. At least in recent years, the city police have avoided the kind of high-profile incidents that have put other cities in the national spotlight.

Though some Detroiters have been critical of police programs like the Project Green Light surveillance system, which streams live video from hundreds of businesses around the city to a police command center and is equipped with facial recognition, many Detroiters are more likely to complain about the slow emergency response time from the under-resourced department than they are about what police do when they arrive.

"We have built a relationship with law enforcement, community activists and faith leaders over the years," said Anthony, the local NAACP president. "We have access to the mayor. We sit down on a regular basis."

Tristan Taylor, 37, an African American community organizer who has been a leader of the nightly downtown protests, says the large gatherings are getting attention that will lead to lasting change. He was critical of the unity march, suggesting it had been engineered by elected officials like Duggan and Whitmer.

"I think politicians in general do a really good job of having a designated audience for their events and their photo ops," he said.

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He pushed back against suggestions from the mayor and others that the suburban activists have come into the city to do damage, noting that elected officials haven't objected as suburbanites moved into new condos and lofts in the city in recent years, dining in new restaurants where many African Americans say they don't feel welcome.

Critics of the protesters "never had issues when white people were gobbling up properties," Taylor said. "It's so funny that 'outsiders' is the issue now that they're fighting for justice."

Yvette Rock, 44, an African American artist, educator and gallery owner who attended the unity march with her husband and four children, said she appreciated the warm spirit of the event and the fact that it was centered on faith, which is important to her.

She also supports the downtown protests, she said, since both approaches are needed to make change.

"The point is that voices are being heard," she said, "and those voices are all saying we need justice and we need freedom and equality."

'My jury is still out'

Detroit has a long, proud history of protest. This is where the labor movement began. Key moments in the civil right struggle happened here. And some of that history has involved people of all backgrounds working together for a common cause.

"There's a long history of white abolitionists and white activists and social justice organizers coming out to resist injustice, and to me this is an opportunity to tap into that history," said Tawana Petty, 43, an African American organizer and activist who leads the Data Justice Program for the Detroit Community Technology Project.

Laylah, 5, brings up the rear of a march down Michigan Ave. in Detroit. Sylvia Jarrus / for NBC News

But much of this city's history has also been defined by racial conflict. Most white Detroiters left the city in the decades after World War II — an exodus that accelerated after 1967 when black residents protesting police violence clashed with police for five days, setting fires, as police cracked down. The incident — which many Detroiters call an uprising rather than a riot — left 43 people dead, most of them shot by police or the National Guard, and hundreds of buildings destroyed.

Divisive white suburban leaders have long pushed policies to keep city and suburban residents separate, including an effort to stop school integration that set national policy when it reached the U.S. Supreme Court and a program that essentially keeps lower-income people out of certain neighborhoods by letting suburbs opt out of the regional bus system.

That dynamic is the lens through which some have viewed these protests, but history doesn't dictate the future, said Zeek, of New Era Detroit.

The young white protesters are coming to protest police brutality, but as they interact with Detroit activists, they're also learning about education inequality, environmental racism and other issues, he said. They can support the hard work that Detroit organizers have been doing for decades by helping elect people in the suburbs who will advocate for the city at the state and federal levels.

"They're able to be educated and take that back to the rest of their peers and strategize in their communities," he said.

Demonstrators lower their heads for a moment of silence for victims of police brutality on June 4, 2020 in Detroit.Sylvia Jarrus / for NBC News

Still, some black Detroiters view these young activists with a wary eye.

"My jury is still out," said Lauren Hood, 48, an African American community developer and activist who stopped by one of the first downtown protests.

On one hand she was glad to see white activists step up when African Americans are reeling from COVID-19.

On the other, she said, "I hear them chanting 'black lives matter,' but I want to investigate in what ways these people in their personal lives diminish black voices. How many of them wait on the white guy before they wait on me when I order coffee? I would want to examine the ways in their own lives that they perpetuate the ideas of white supremacy while also chanting 'black lives matter.'"

'This is where it really matters'

Many of the white protesters who have come downtown to demonstrate say they're well aware of how they've benefited from racist social structures and are committed to making changes — and that's why they've decided to protest.

"It isn't right," said Kasey Connor, 21, a white woman from suburban Eastpointe. "I wanted to get up and actually do something about it."

When city leaders told suburban protesters to demonstrate in their own communities, many heeded that call.

Protests have taken place over the last week in several predominantly white suburbs — something that stunned and delighted some African American leaders.

"I just couldn't believe it," said Greg Bowens, an African American communications consultant who founded the NAACP chapter of Grosse Pointe and Harper Woods, a group of largely affluent suburbs east of Detroit where at least two protests were held in recent days. "It was just really heartening to see."

Jessica McCullough, 29, said she attended a protest in her suburb of Plymouth, Michigan, last week and was thrilled to see her neighbors in a city that's 94 percent white stand up against racism.

"I've never seen anything like it," said McCullough, who is white. But the next day she drove to Detroit to be a part of the protests downtown.

"This is where it really matters," she said.