In response to the number of unarmed African American men being shot down by police across the country recently and the subsequent ambushes occurring to police officers as well, the EMU Ballroom filled with people from across the Ypsilanti community to talk about policing throughout the community. This was organized by the Washtenaw County Sheriff, WEMU, and a student group called Interrupt Violence.
Over a hundred diverse and unique people filled the ballroom of the Student Center to give speeches on the unity and issues regarding policing in America, community engagement and how to improve American society.
“We need to realize what we do effects others, we need each other,” Pastor Jason Robinson of Reach Church said.
Robinson was one of a cross section of community leaders from around the greater Ann Arbor area who spoke for the first hour. They included representatives from local government, churches and law enforcement. One of them was Ypsilanti Township Supervisor Brenda Stumbo, who spoke about unity.
“I want to talk about the ‘you’ in unity. What that means is you have to be responsible for your actions, for your words, for your compassion. You have to decide that yes, I want unity. I want to say hello to that person. I want to ask that person how they’re doing. I Talk to them, touch their hand. Sometimes it could save their life. People need to know you care,” Stumbo said.
Dr. Benjamin Edmonson, the superintendent of Ypsilanti Community Schools, spoke next.
“Have we really become a society of snap shots from the news? Social media comments, unmonitored vlogging, hurtful postings and a national stage where insults, bullying and death? These clips are leaving lasting impressions on young people who we want to unite, lead and dream big for all that is good in these United States of America,” Edmonson said. “America’s schools are microcosms of the very real world which we leave in. Meaning all schools – public, charter, proverbial and other institutions of learning are mirroring the very ills we try to shelter from the students we serve. This cannot be the legacy we leave our children, as my two sons sit in front of me right this minute.”
Edmonson said that education was “the front line” in tackling all of society’s issues. He criticized committees that are set up to tackle society’s issues, without including the new generation.
“Hatred and division can be literally erased with education,” Edmonson said.
Imam Moataz Al Hallak was another community leader who gave a speech. “As a Muslim American I am here to assure you that we are a part of this community and peace. If someone saves a life, it is as if he has saved every human life. If someone takes a life, it as if he has taken every human life.”
“Our Jewish religion teachers us that every human being carries a spark of the divine creator. This teaches us that we all are capable of constructive lives that bring our world closer to perfection and it also teaches us that we are all equal. And each of us, who carrying a spark of the divine, are God’s children. Sadly, there are too many today in our nation who are sowing seeds of division, who are sewing hatred that many face. There are too many that have turned to violence and there are too many who have surrendered to despair. This gathering states that we reject all of those,” Rabbi Patterson from the Beth Israel Synagogue said.
Next, a panel of five sat at podiums that was made up of Washtenaw County Sheriff Jeremy Clayton, Ypsilanti’s Congresswoman Debbie Dingell, Miles McGuire of the Black Lives Matter movement, Mark Fancher of the American Civil Liberties Union and Washtenaw County Prosecutor Brain Mackie.
One by one, members of the public were able to ask the panelists questions. Dozens were asked, including “How are deputies trained to deescalate?”
Sheriff Clayton answered that officers are given de-escalation training as a part of basic training, but his department was in the process of increasing training.
“Sometimes you have to create a space for people to deescalate themselves,” Clayton said.
Fancher mentioned the Mobile Justice app. This app, created by the ACLU, was created for people who are in contact with the police. It records the interaction between you and the officer. If the phone is confiscated, destroyed, or turned off, the recording is taken to the ACLU, and held privately. The contents can then only be accessed with the permission of the user.
A Native American in the audience, an Ypsilanti resident for 10 years, explained he had experienced discrimination in this town, gone to the authorities, and been rejected. He asked “As a Native American, where do we fit into this conversation, even though we have the highest rate of police violence?”
It was then that Congresswoman Dingell said “I have been listening to this whole conversation. I can’t understand what it means to be an African American male. But I think that we were talking about how each of us has experienced discrimination. For me it’s much more in a social setting than it is in the law enforcement comments that have been made here. I can’t justify anything that’s happened to you. It shouldn’t happen. I live for the day that we’re all color blind or cultural blind, but fear and hatred drive us to a lot of unacceptable behaviors. We have leaders now that are dividing us with fear and hatred more than I ever seen. As a woman, when I applied for my job at General Motors I got ‘Why would a woman want to work at GM?’”
She went on to emphasize her point. “That’s not ok. But that fear and that ok. I’m not justifying their behavior, but we can’t justify anybody’s behavior. It’s not ok, that’s why we’re here!”
In the wake of the shootings of unarmed African American men like Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice, and more recently the shooting of Philando Castile in Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Louisiana, the concept of civilian oversight of the police has gained more discussion in the political world. One of the questionnaires asked the panel about it.
“I think there is a time when citizen oversight is appropriate. Citizen engagement is always important,” Clayton answered. “Citizen oversight is not the silver bullet, it is a tool. But let’s define what you mean by it.”
89.1 WEMU hosted the event. Some questions were left unanswered when the Town Hall ended at 9:00 p.m. Unanswered questions can be submitted on their web site, which will be passed on to the panelists to respond to and the community can look forward to more town halls being held in the future.