The Northern Michigan Anti-Racism Task Force demands change — and they want it now

Jun 26, 2020

Northern Michigan Anti-Racism Task Force member Tyasha Harrison with her son at a protest in Traverse City.
Credit Dan Plasman

Since the killing of George Floyd, a group of activists has drawn thousands of people to protests in Traverse City. They’ve also gotten elected officials to consider putting body cameras on local police officers.

But they say they’re just getting started.

Racism Up North

Growing up Marshall Collins Jr. split his time between Michigan and Florida. His parents were migrant workers, and they’d come Up North every year for the fruit harvest.

But when his family eventually settled in Northport, Collins was depressed.

"I was definitely called the n-word more up here than I was in Florida," he said.

He says he’s been pulled over and accosted by police multiple times for small things, like having something hanging from his rear-view mirror.

"That’s just the way of it, which is sad. It’s sad that I even say 'well that's the way of it,'" Collins said. "It's sad that that is put into my mentality to where I'm saying 'that's alright, that’s just the way it is.'”

His dad, who has since passed away, was a pastor. Growing up he told Marshall to not react to that racism and put himself at risk.

But now Collins says, he thinks his dad would be proud of him for leading protests over racial injustice. And when Collins speaks to crowds he finds himself saying the same things that his dad said from the pulpit.

"His message was pretty simple, it was love, it was kindness, treating people the way you want to be treated," Collins said. "I say some of the exact same things.”

Quiet racism

But sometimes the racism isn’t overt.

Breana Demaray is black and has lived in northern Michigan practically her whole life. Demaray says she’s had racial slurs hurled at her around town, but she says “quiet racism” is almost constant.

Subtle things like glances at the grocery store, and questions about where’s she from or even about her hair.

"Whether it be from family members, friends, teachers, classmates, whatever. [It's] the constant reminder that you don’t belong," Demaray said.

Demaray says she’s learned to live with this. She’s learned to communicate and interact with people to keep herself safe, but it's never easy.

"And that should not be a thing. I shouldn’t have to tell my siblings who don’t sound like me but look like me to never come back to this town, because I’m afraid for them," she said.

The Task Force

Demaray and Collins are two members of The Northern Michigan Anti-Racism Task Force. It is more than black voices. The leadership council is made up of 11 people from different ages, ethnicities, genders and orientations.

But most of them didn’t know each other when George Floyd was killed in the custody of Minneapolis Police. Several met at early protests, started organizing and talking about how they could change their community.

At a protest in early June, Task Force member Courtney Wiggins spoke to a crowd of well over a thousand. A video was shared on social media.

"You all might be wondering: what do we wanna see? What kind of change do we want here for our community?" she told the crowd. "I have a list of demands."

10 Demands

The group came up with 10 demands for local politicians and law enforcement.

Wiggins says, if implemented, they would make northern Michigan much safer for people of color.

For example, they want more de-escalation and implicit bias training in local law enforcement and they want some of their budget diverted to community health programs.

“We need to hold everyone accountable for this to work,” Wiggins said to cheers at the protest.

Traverse City Police Chief Jeff O'Brien speaks at a protest over police brutality. Marshall Collin Jr. is in the background.
Credit Dan Plasman

Body cameras

The task force might have an early victory in getting Traverse City Police to use body cameras. The City Commission will vote on those body cameras at a budget meeting in July.

City Police Chief Jeff O’Brien has met with the task force about this. He says he’s wanted body cameras for years. He wouldn’t comment on the task force’s other demands, but says he has learned from this moment.

“It’s definitely given me vision to understand what the African American community is going through,” O'Brien said.

The task force says the demands for law enforcement are meant to prevent an incident like Floyd’s homicide in northern Michigan. But body cameras are just a starting off point.

Other demands for elected officials, like the sheriff’s office stopping all cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), are meant to make people of color feel safer Up North, according to Wiggins.

“I’m very optimistic that we’ll see something, will it be in the exact form that we have? I don’t know, but I think we will see some positive change,” Wiggins said.

And she says they’re just getting started. The Task Force has raised about $30,000 to get body cameras for the county sheriff's office.

Traverse City Police Chief Jeff O'Brien speaking to reporters
Credit Max Johnston / Interlochen Public Radio

Most of the public comments at several city and county commission meetings have been in support of the demands.

But County Sheriff Tom Bensley is skeptical.

“The demands kind of set me back a little bit, because if you wanna have a conversation I don’t think that’s the way to start. It’s kind of in your face, and 'you have to do this,'” Bensley said.

Bensley spoke at a protest earlier this month, and he’s met with the task force, but he doesn’t think body cameras are necessary. He said he also thinks his department should cooperate with federal agencies like ICE.

"We have cooperated with [those agencies] in the past, they are a great resource for us," Bensley said. "We assist them when they ask, and I suspect that that will continue."

Demanding change

Several task force members say they’re demanding change locally because it’s their right as tax-paying constituents. Marshall Collins says the group's demands are reasonable, they’re policies that other communities have implemented and people of color have been asking for for a long time.

“I have thought, well maybe we should change the word demand maybe we should change it to a request. But you know what, I’m gonna be straight with you, I demand a change,” he said.

And what will happen if their demands aren't met?

"There is an election coming up," Courtney Wiggins said.