Today’s protest at East Lansing’s police headquarters and city hall differed in several respects from Sunday’s protest. The event two days ago occurred after protestors marched from Lansing to East Lansing to express grief and outrage over the police murdering George Floyd in Minneapolis and to object to what has happened to black men arrested by ELPD officers.
Today’s event was smaller overall – with about 250 people compared to about a thousand on Sunday – and had a notably higher proportion of white people, many of whom stayed for over three hours to listen and to march in the summer heat.
Mayor Ruth Beier attended this time, listening to speakers and talking with people in the crowd. Beier told ELi, “I’m here right now to listen and show support for anybody who was traumatized by what happened in Minneapolis and by what has happened in East Lansing.”
East Lansing has been rocked by videos and complaints showing white officers’ injurious treatment of black men, including two cases in which black men being arrested had their faces and heads bloodied because of actions taken by Officer Andrew Stephenson, who is white.
Some speakers called specifically for firing Stephenson and dropping charges against Anthony Loggins Jr., who was injured in December 2019 during an arrest that escalated from an initial stop for alleged failure to use a turn signal.
Beier told ELi before the protest she doesn’t want to see this kind of policing continue. She wants to see minor offenses treated as minor and the end of chokeholds and the like.
Beier told ELi at the protest that her power is indirect: “The city manager’s really in charge of things, like police. But we [on the City Council] are in charge of the city manager. So we can tell him what we want and he will implement what we want. It’s not a direct power, but the council itself has a lot of power.”
City Manager George Lahanas did not show up at the protest but issued a statement saying the City is working on change.
Unlike Sunday’s protest, today’s protest featured numerous speakers who covered an array of issues, from systemic racism in policing and American culture in general, to whether and how change will come, to problems specific to East Lansing policing.
James Henson took the megaphone to speak and also helped lead the marches around City Hall and downtown. He told ELi, “I’ve been through the racism, I’ve been through police brutality, I’ve been through it all. And I got sick and tired of it.”
“So many of us died,” Henson said, “we ready to risk our lives just to make a stand.”
Farhan Sheikh-Omar, an activist from Lansing who called for the protest, said the protest was not anti-police but instead aimed at accountability and transparency. He warned that if East Lansing does not change, it will end up with a black person killed at the hands of police.
Sheikh-Omar asked protestors not to engage in acts that would give others reason to “dismiss our protest.” He said, “We are here to demand justice.”
Warren Stanfield III, an African American MSU student who ran for Council but lost in the last election, told ELi, “I’m just here for the protest against police brutality and a lot of the corrupt systems that we have in place here in America that I believe stem directly from the top of our White House.”
Stanfield called for legislative change, saying, “we’re done with an entire system that has stemmed back from slavery, whose goal this entire time has been to oppress us.”
Lakiesha Allen told ELi, “As a black woman, this is the world that I’m leaving for my children, my nieces, my nephews, and those coming behind me. And if we don’t change it, this behavior and these patterns that have been pervasive in our community will only continue, and I don’t want that to happen.”
Livi Pritchett, a white non-binary person, told ELi, “I’m a member of the LGBT+ community and the LGBT community would be nowhere today without black queer people, and black people in general. They kickstarted the Stonewall Riots, they kickstarted queer rights, we have no room to talk if we don’t come to support them in their time of need. I just realized I couldn’t sit back.”
A white grad student and instructor at MSU, Jessica Stokes told ELi, “I came out because black lives matter. Because George Floyd was murdered. Because Breonna Taylor was murdered. Because this has been happening and it keeps continuing to happen and it needs to stop.”
Stokes said she hoped these protests will “allow for coalitional politics to be formed between a wide variety of folks who continue to fight.”
Ellie Myron, a white woman who recently graduated from ELHS, told ELi, “Doing nothing is doing nothing.” Change, she said, starts “with calling out your family members, your friends, your peers who are racist. You can’t tolerate it anymore.”
What was notably missing today was the look of militarized police that we saw Sunday. On Sunday, the Ingham County Special Response Team confronted protestors while wearing SWAT-like gear, carrying large guns, and coming in and out of armored vehicles owned by Michigan State University’s police department.
Asked why today looked nothing like that, East Lansing’s Interim Police Chief Steve Gonzalez said, “The event response on Sunday was coordinated by the Lansing Police Department so I can’t speak for their operational plan. However, today’s event response was coordinated by ELPD as it was an East Lansing centric event.”
Gonzalez told ELi, “we fully support people exercising their right to protest. I want their voices to be heard and to know that we are listening. Our concept of operation today was to achieve that goal.”
Gonzalez issued a statement in advance of the protest referring to “the brutal and senseless murder of Mr. George Floyd,” saying, “Mr. Floyd’s legacy will lead to lasting, positive change of the law enforcement profession and how we interact with our community.”
Today, the only police visible were ELPD officers wearing standard blue uniforms without large weapons. They stayed well away from the protest group and worked only on closing off roads around the protestors.
Gonzalez explained the reason: “as people marched, the officers were instructed to ensure the safety of the group by protecting them from traffic. Too many times, nationally, we have seen vehicles drive into crowds of protestors causing death or injury. Our officers were acting to protect the crowd, not intimidate.”
Asked why he did not attend the protest, Gonzalez said, “I am currently fulfilling two roles, my Deputy Chief position and the temporary Interim Chief position. As such, in conjunction with our command team, I had a responsibility to ensure that our operations were being conducted as directed to achieve the goal” of enabling protest.
The group marched multiple times over the three-hour protest, effectively closing off streets for short periods of time. That included parts of Abbot Road, Burcham Drive, M.A.C. Avenue, Albert Avenue, and Grand River Avenue.
At one point, the marching group passed a house on Elizabeth Street with a huge homemade “Black lives matter” sign made out of a bedsheet. The sign had been put up by a white MSU nursing student living there named Zoe Zacharski.
Asked why she had made the sign, Zacharski said, “I think it’s very important for us white people to stick up for our brothers and sisters, not only standing up but taking every action we can, because this is so important.”
Zacharski said she was glad that the location of her house and sign meant that “The police have to drive by this sign everywhere they go when they leave the police station, so I think it is the perfect spot.”
Council member Jessy Gregg was the only City leader besides Mayor Beier to attend. She told ELi, “I think East Lansing has got a unique problem in the context of what’s happening in America right now, because we’ve got some pretty recent complaints of excessive force that look very similar to what happened in Minneapolis, and so we have to be very cognizant of that fact and we have to move forward quickly and efficiently to make sure that the problems that we’ve had are past problems.”
Gregg said the City Council must “keep this at the front of our agenda – we have to keep working at it. We have to not let it go away.”
Note: Photos by Gary Caldwell for ELi, text by Alice Dreger, interviews contributed by Noa Kuszai.
ELi has a special section dedicated to our current reporting on East Lansing Policing. See it here.