Collective bravery: #BLM protest in Ypsi

Interviews by Amber Fellows
Collective bravery: #BLM protest in Ypsi
photo by Aaron Apsey

June 6th was a hot day in Ypsilanti; a day when over a thousand people took to the streets in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and to protest domestic terrorism from the police. Upon entering downtown Ypsilanti it was difficult to miss the many protesters engaged in some of the simplest forms of humanity—offering one another water and snacks, medic support, face masks, flying banners together, street blocking, dancing, stepping up to the mic, fanning others in the heat—in a kind of loosely orchestrated cacophony of dynamic mutual aid and demonstration. 

The seed of an idea for the local BLM event began with Ypsi resident, Terril Cotton, who made an astute request to a popular Ypsi-based facebook group: “Can we plan a protest for downtown Ypsi???” From there the idea picked up support from individuals and groups who reached out to Terril to offer assistance, including, perhaps most controversially, the Ypsi police department.

At the police-escorted march, there were chants for “no justice, no peace,” and calls for reform, defunding, accountability, and police abolition. As the protest ended at the site of the YPD station, discussions about what to do about the police broke out. These included a people’s mic, which drew diverse perspectives for solutions—from getting out the vote, to community reinvestment, to visioning for a world without police. In that moment of collective bravery and vulnerability at the people’s mic a future was felt. Perhaps not coincidentally, it was not long after that the United States and Pride flags were liberated from their nearby posting.  

The following interviews and excerpts of speeches were gathered to illustrate a conversation of ideas within the brilliant and varied community supporting Black Lives Matter in Ypsilanti and beyond. 

What’s Left: What is your name and are you affiliated with an organization?

Goochie: Well my real name is Terril Cotton but I go by Goochie. I’m just an individual, not an organization.

WL: I saw that you initiated the planning for this protest on YAD. Have you organized an event before this one? Would you do it again, and if so, would you do anything differently?

Goochie: This was just an idea I was thinking about so I asked a question then instantly lots of messages started coming: “What do you need”…. If I could do it again, definitely the only thing different I would do—if I knew that many people would come—is make it longer. Like I said— after this virus stuff over for good, watch out! I got a few more ideas in my head…

WL: It was a hot day for being in the streets—how do you prepare for attending a large event that can take all day?

Goochie: Make sure you have plenty of water and encourage people to drink it, and also have medical supplies and people who know what to do in case of emergency.

WL: There have been other protests going on in Washtenaw County—what does it mean to have your community take action and represent the Black Lives Matter movement right here in Ypsi?

Goochie: It means a lot to have the community come together and take action. Hopefully the police chief listens to the people.

WL: I have seen you post about the city not taking care of the sidewalks in the wintertime, which makes them inaccessible. Are there other ways the community could improve? 

Goochie: Yeah fix the streets & sidewalks. Also whoever in charge of the park should have someone come empty trash more often, since they chained up.

photo provided by Payton

What’s Left: What is your name and are you affiliated with an organization? 

Payton: Payton with the MANY: Mutual Aid Network of Ypsilanti 

[Editors note: The MANY is among a coalition of groups hosting the Juneteenth Abolitionist Revival: Block Party & Popular Assembly on Friday June 19th 3pm at Frog Island Park]

What’s Left: What brought you to the action on Saturday?

Payton: I had comrades who had been supporting Terril after he made a call for support. Some had stepped up to do street blocking and other logistical, behind-the-scenes, sort of work—and doing that in a way that was not working with the police directly. Instead of letting the police take the streets and guide the march, the people wanted to take the streets and lead, and they needed safety and security. Having a street-walking team that was going to do that for them instead of, once again, letting the police dictate where that was going to go. 

I was primarily helping people in the effort to support Terril, a Ypsilanti local Black resident in a wheelchair, and [also to help] capture the narrative in Ypsilanti. A lot of the events have been happening in Ann Arbor and have become incredibly liberal—and what I would call conservative—with their police apologism, “reform” angles, and their demonization of demonstrators, protesters, and organizers that want to more critically analyze the police and push towards abolition. I wanted to not only support Terril and my comrades that were helping him, but also push for this more pragmatic and radical angle of total abolition instead of complacency with the police. 

WL: It was a hot day for being in the streets—how do you prepare for attending a large event that can take all day?

Payton: It’s been a really long week and a half for a lot of people. Personally, to recuperate I like to spend time in my garden… but to be completely honest I’ve been struggling, as I’m sure a lot of other people have, to take care of myself and get proper sleep and to eat well. We are moving so quickly right now and I’m trying to take that time to analyze and to listen to what other people are doing [in order] to give and receive support; [that is] really important to me right now.

We were doing a lot of hard-core work just moments before coming into the street—just before going to the demonstration on Saturday many of us had been working at the food pantry Beautiful Gate at a local church on South Congress. [Beautiful Gate] goes from 12pm to 2pm every Saturday. We do the unloading on Friday and then from 9am to about 2:30pm on Saturday we are running the pantry, doing deliveries, and packing custom order boxes. We serve about 400 people a week and about 1100 to 1200 people a month. It [has felt] much like a marathon and for months now [we’ve had to] prepare our endurance mentally, physically, and spiritually to be able to run for that long and that hard.

WL: There were a wide range of ideas on display at the protest and I heard you and others take opportunities to counter assertions of police reform for calls of total abolition. Can you talk about your experience initiating the people’s mic at the site of the Ypsilanti police station, and what it might take to collectively vision as a community with diverse perspectives?

Payton: As for the people’s mic—it wasn’t my idea and I don’t want to take credit for it. I was simply presenting options to people. There was a moment where we were in front of the police department and people decided to get into a sort of one-on-one conversation with a single police officer, and in my opinion that took a lot of momentum and energy out of the day.  [What I] really wished would’ve happened was to have a popular assembly and more of a participatory space in which we occupy the police station and turn its grounds, parking lot, yard, and the building itself, into a space in which people could host workshops, skills shares, and make decisions about abolition.

I saw some people talking to the police officer and asking him about his training and his thoughts on killing Black people, which I thought was not super effective, and I took that moment to start walking through the crowd and update people to what was happening—letting people know that there was a conversation with the police officer that most, a couple hundred or thousand people, were unaware of because they could not see or hear what was happening. I wanted to see more mass participation and so I started asking people what they want to do, and the more people that I talked to the more [I heard] that people were interested in abolition, and about how we get there and what we’re going to actually do—what tangible steps we’re going to take to actually get towards the end goal. Someone proposed from the crowd the people’s mic, and it was at that time then with the megaphone in my hands, I was able to act as a facilitator for this public conversation—that more people now, because of the technique of the people’s mic, were able to engage with. It was much more powerful and inspiring to be able to use this opportunity to vocalize to a mass crowd of people, instead of a single police officer, to communicate ideas about liberation.

WL: With the Minneapolis city government announcing an unprecedented intent to disband the MPD, how might communities like ours learn from the actions in Minneapolis?

Payton: Minneapolis is really setting the tone right now as well as Portland [Oregon] and Durham, North Carolina. There’s a number of cities across the country who have already disbanded their police, mostly for economic reasons. [When] police departments cannot finance themselves and are disbanded, the state police have hegemony over those more rural areas. Some [cities] are moving in the direction of Durham, Portland, and Minneapolis and are right now readjusting in the pathway that I would call reparations: to not only defund and dismantle the police but to use that budget—oftentimes it’s 40% of the budget—for the [people]… To use that money in conjunction for democratic and participatory budgeting [so that] people in marginalized neighborhoods have a say in what it is they want to do with that money: going into schools, food, education, healthcare, housing, etc. I believe that this pathway is really inspiring and that Minneapolis is doing a great job. Thinking beyond Minneapolis, which has obviously become a spectacle, we should be looking globally: We look to Southern Mexico in Chiapas; the Zapatistas have been, for 30 years, practicing a world without police. They have defensive apparatuses that are elected by the people, more people are able to participate in the defense of the commune, and they do this on a completely democratic and neighborhood basis. And, they’ve been able to make decisions about their food, water, housing, healthcare, and defense at the neighborhood level through directly participatory neighborhood assemblies and through a delegate system. In northern Syria very much the same thing has happened with the Kurdish communes in Rojava. They’ve been able to have healthcare, food, defense, education, and housing sovereignty and autonomy through directly democratic neighborhood councils.

When we’re talking about abolition, we have to think much bigger than just getting rid of the police and we also have to think much bigger than just the United States. We have to think about a global system in which capitalism, white supremacy, imperialism, colonization, patriarchy, and homophobia have been able to rein through these large corporate and state entities for 500 years—in this current era of human domination. If we’re going to move beyond police we also have to move beyond these other larger systems as well. And our comrades in these two territories, in northern Syria and southern Mexico, and all across the world from India to Argentina, have been practicing police-less societies for a very long time—I think we should be taking their lead and not just taking the lead of the comrades in Minneapolis, but taking this to a global struggle. 

Sha’teina Grady El’s speech at the BLM protest in Ypsi on 6/6/20

Hey everybody, how are y’all out there, y’all doing good? I am Sha’teina, this is my husband Daniel; we are the recipients of that beating that you saw the Washtenaw County Sheriff [Dept.] distribute, and he [Daniel] is the recipient of that tasering. I just want to say—because you’ve seen the video I have not—I lived it and I don’t remember it all. I want you to let your legislators know that it’s not okay. It goes into you even being stopped, anytime the policy-enforcers get behind you… even if they don’t beat you or tase you, they are harming you on the inside… That causes harm—it causes harm to your body, to your mind. As far as this atrocity that has happened to us, I am trying my best to push it down so I don’t relive it in my mind over and over because it just makes me angry. I know that I’m not the only person that this has happened to, and this is not the first time that this has actually happened to me. It’s not okay. It’s not okay. I want you all to let them know that it is not okay. As the other speakers have said, we have to keep them accountable—we have to keep our Congress people accountable. If they’re going to continue to allow these laws, these statutes and codes, to go on without fixing them—then they have to go. They. Have. To. Go. [crowd cheers]

I’m kind of in my emotions right now because this is beautiful. I want to see this continue and I hate seeing people bicker back and forth; I hate seeing violence; I feel like everybody should get along and I know that I’m living in a dreamworld but I would love to see this all the time. When you come together like this, what you’re saying is “I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper,” and that is how the world should be. My motto is that I treat others as I would have them treat me; I do unto those as I would have them do unto me and if everybody lived that way, including the law enforcement, we wouldn’t have what some say is police brutality, but it’s really domestic terrorism. [crowd cheers] I just want y’all to keep going, to keep it peaceful and beautiful. I love you all. Anyone that has supported us we just want to say “thank you”. 

photo by Aaron Apsey

Anonymous protestor’s speech at the BLM protest in Ypsi on 6/6/20

Hello everybody, my name is [anonymous]. I’m an Ann Arbor native. I feel it is my duty to use my cis and straight-passing privilege to recognize Black trans women today, explicitly, loudly, vocally. [crowd cheers] I recognize that it is Pride month and it sounds like that the consensus is that white people are choosing to give up Pride to focus on the Black Lives Matter movement, which is awesome—I don’t know about anybody else, but in the same way that I cannot wake up and take off my brown skin, I cannot turn off my queerness. [crowd cheers] So while we are making sure to recognize that all Black Lives Matter, let’s do just that and include all Black lives. [crowd cheers] There is a video that has been circulating, if you haven’t seen it protect yourself—I understand, I have not watched it totally. There is a young Black trans woman, Ayanna, who was recently attacked by a group of roughly twenty to thirty people… and what is most heartbreaking about that is that if you watch the video you can see the majority of the people are Black men; so I’d also like to discuss for our community [that] toxic masculinity, transphobia, and homophobia are literally a deadly combination. [crowd cheers] Black trans women are murdered at the highest rate almost out of any demographic, and very often at the hands of people that look like me, and that is disgusting. So while white people use their privilege to talk about all Black lives, this comes directly to the Black community that we need to do better to acknowledge, protect, and love our Black trans women. [crowd cheers]