Man behind vandalism of Leelanau County Road Commission says community upholds racism

Aug 11, 2020

 

A Northport man covered county signs to protest a road commissioner's racist statements. While the signs were up for a short time, his images caused a stir on social media.
Credit Tom Swift

On Sunday evening, Northport resident Tom Swift attached a duct tape message to a government building sign.

A few letters in black marker showed what he believes to be true: racism exists in Leelanau County.

Two days before, Tom Eckerle, a Leelanau County Road Commissioner, announced his resignation — following a national outcry over his racist comments and repeated use of a racial slur.

Swift, a registered investment advisor who lives primarily in California but owns a home in Leelanau County, says by Sunday the Eckerle debacle was already old news.

“It felt to me like everyone was trying to push this under the rug because they got the resignation and now no one wants to talk about the systemic problems in the Leelanau community,” he says.

His protest was short lived. According to a report from the Leelanau County Sheriff’s Office, the sign had already been removed when deputies arrived on the scene. But Swift also covered the street signs bearing Eckerle’s name, which led authorities to arrest him for tampering with a traffic control device, including road signs — a misdemeanor. 

Swift my be charged for vandalism.
Credit Tom Swift

The Leelanau County Prosecutor's Office says it is waiting for a completed police report before it will consider charges against him.

 

On Facebook, photos Swift posted of the changed signs drew hundreds of comments, most of them negative. 

 

Swift says he wants to send a message to those who think racism has been rooted out with Eckerle’s ouster.

“No action was taken at the meeting itself to decry his statement prior to the meeting,” he says. “So the entire commission is in it’s own way complicit with what occurred that day by refusing to read it into the record."

 

Chet Janik, County Administrator for Leelanau, disagrees. 

“No, I do not think [the road commission is racist],” he says. “Nor do I think the people of Leelanau County are racist.”

Tom Eckerle delivered his written resignation to County Administrator Chet Janik in person. Janick says Eckerle was not remorseful and would not apologize for his racist comments.
Credit Courtesy Chet Janik

At Tuesday’s county commission meeting, Janik said officials will propose a resolution condemning Mr. Eckerle’s comments and any form of racism in Leelanau.

Janik says the commissioner never backed down from his comments and maintains numerous people support him. Eckerle told Janik he is resigning only to spare the new manager of the road commission the trouble of dealing with a recall election.

In four days, Janik says he’s received 70 to 90 messages from people all over the country who oppose Ecekerle’s rhetoric. 

“Every note I’ve gotten was condemning Mr. Eckerle,” he says. “I think that shows a strong message there.”

With each person that contacts him, he pleads the same thing.

“Please do not judge Leelanau County based on the comments of one individual.”

Janik says locals have contacted the planning department to inquire about the process of changing the name of the road on which the commission building is located. They want to rename the street, currently called East Eckerle Road.

Holly Bird, a member of Northern Michigan E3, an anti-racism advocacy group, says even with Eckerle gone his words will have a lasting effect on the community. Both Bird and Janik say they’ve heard from visitors who say they will hesitate before coming back to Leelanau County. 

Bird says she heard from at least one person who is moving, because of the lack of inclusivity and what she’s heard about racism in the community.

“I think we have a lot of work to do,” she says.

Bird says her group will ask local governments and schools to hold implicit bias training and implement policies that support minority students.

“I’m very delighted to see the outpouring of support for trying to eradicate this type of racism in our community,” she says. “I think that speaks volumes for the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) people here.”

Still, she has a message for those shocked by Eckerle’s comments.

“If you’re not a person of color, then you assume [racism is] not here anymore,” Bird says. “We hear that a lot, ‘we don’t need anti-racism here, we’re fine.’ And we’ve been saying for years, ‘no we’re not.’”

Swift, for his part, hopes people continue to protest.

“I believe people need to stand up and fight against the racism that clearly exists,” he says. “[Eckerle] is part of a larger group of individuals that believe what he postulates. We need to stand against it.”