'Should we leave?' A Black family wonders if they are still welcome in northern Michigan

Sep 30, 2020

Northern Michigan is mostly white and rural. If you’re Black, like Dilla Scott and her three children, life Up North can be hard.

They say they’ve been harassed over their 30 years living here. They’ve endured, relying on each other and their faith in God.

But now the arrest of a family member has shaken their conviction.

And they are wondering if it is time to go.

Editor's note: This story does contain language that some might find disturbing.

The arrest

In early January, 24-year-old Alex Marshall and his family went to Church. They go every Sunday. This time they decided to have Chinese food afterwards. Alex went to pick it up while his family waited at home.

After getting the food, Alex was on his way to his mother's house. Cadillac Police Officer Jake Foutch was driving behind him in a cruiser. When Alex eventually parked in front of his mother’s home, Foutch pulled in too. Alex later said he wasn’t sure if he was getting pulled over because the officer didn't flash his lights.

Alex got out of his car. Foutch stepped out of his cruiser and approached him.

Alex recorded the interaction on his cellphone.

"Is there an issue?" he asked Foutch.

"Get your hands out of your pocket we'll start there," the officer replied.

"No we don't have to take anything out of my pocket," Alex said.

Foutch said he saw Alex run a stop sign a few blocks back and slip while he was getting out of his car. Alex was being investigated for drunk driving, Foutch said.

"I watched you run the stop sign back there," he said.

“Okay why didn’t you pull me over back there? You just followed me all the way over here," Alex said as he walked around his car toward his mother's home. "I haven't done s*** to you, you haven't pulled me over, flick your lights or nothing. Goodbye.”

Alex walked away from the police officer. Foutch told him to stop moving. Alex kept repeating that he did nothing wrong, and that he was going inside.

Then things escalate. As Alex reached inside his passenger seat to get the food, Foutch walked up and tried to detain him.

“Don’t touch me, please don’t touch me. Why are you touching me!?" Alex said.

"Because you're not obeying my orders," Foutch replied as he grabbed Alex's arms.

As Foutch wrestled him to the ground, Alex's two young children came outside with their grandmother.

“My kids are out here are you kidding me dude,” Alex said as he was being handcuffed.

While he was arrested and placed in the back of Foutch's car, Alex kept saying he did nothing wrong and angrily accused Foutch of profiling him. Alex's mother and his two children cried as they saw him being taken away.

Two Wexford County Police cruisers watched from afar as Alex threw a Juneteenth celebration in Cadillac.
Credit Max Johnston / Interlochen Public Radio

Cadillac PD

Alex was eventually charged with disorderly conduct and obstructing a police officer, but not driving under the influence. Foutch later wrote in his incident report he did not smell alcohol on Alex’s breath.

"During my close contact with Marshall, I did not smell the odor of an acloholic beverage on his breath. I was unable to even ask to have Marshall peform [sobriety tests] to determine if he was under the influence of a controlled substance, due to his lack of compliance," he wrote.

Cadillac PD says this arrest was handled properly. They say their officer was responding to another call when he saw Alex run several stop signs.

When the officer pulled up behind him and asked Alex to stop moving, Director of Public Safety Adam Ottjepka says Alex was being lawfully detained.

Ottjepka says they wouldn’t change anything about the arrest, except for one thing.

“I wish Alex Marshall would have complied with the lawful orders of the officer," Ottjepka said.

Those two charges against Alex were later dropped by the county prosecutor.

A representative from their office said they had to prioritize other more serious cases during the pandemic, and that it had nothing to do with Foutch's actions or the merit of the arrest.

"We have a huge backlog of cases waiting for trial," assistant Wexford County Prosecuting Attorney Corey Wiggins said. "I just had to start to triage the cases."

"I really wanted to retaliate"

Alex's mother Dilla Scott says the night of his arrest was one of the worst of her life. Dilla held her grandchildren, Alex's two daughters, for hours while they cried.

"That night I felt I really wanted to retaliate," Dilla said with a deep sigh. "I couldn't sleep."

So Dilla did what she does every night: she prayed.

She says faith is her survival and that God speaks to her. Dilla says the lord has guided her all her life. Decades earlier, Dilla says God told her to move to Michigan.

Later, in response to her prayers, she says God told her to start a life in Cadillac. So she did.

But that night Dilla says God said something to her that she had never heard before.

 

Credit Max Johnston / Interlochen Public Radio

The City of Cadillac

Dilla moved the family to northern Michigan about 30 years ago. They initially settled in Idlewild in Lake County to be near family.

At one time Idlewild was called “The Black Eden of Michigan.” In the early-to-mid 20th century it was an economic and creative haven for Black people in the midwest.

But by the time the family moved there in the 1990s Idlewild had changed. Residents and entrepreneurs left for bigger markets. Economic opportunities dried up. A place that would attract 25,000 visitors on any given weekend now had a population of a few hundred.

There, Dilla says, she worried about her kids falling in with the wrong crowd.

"Idlewild means: the men are idle and the women are wild," she said. "You could go right around the corner and there are those people who are disruptive to their own community, to themselves and to others."

So Dilla packed up the family. They moved around for a few years but eventually found Cadillac, where Dilla remembers being impressed.

She said the lakeside community was beautiful and it had a thriving downtown. She thought it would be a great place for her family to settle. She thought it'd be a great place for a fresh start.

But she says there was one problem: Cadillac’s reputation on race.

In 2005, a group of neo-Nazi’s were given a certificate from the city for cleaning up a public park, according to a report from The Associated Press.

Just last year, the city paid a $90,000 settlement to a Black teenager who said he was profiled based on his race by a police officer.

Dilla had heard stories like these for years.

"Some were misinterpreted and some were true, but I didn't want to be bothered," Dilla said. "I wanted to take my children and skip on down the road, but God wasn't having it. I learned a long time ago to be obedient to him."

But the family soon experienced this racism firsthand.

"It's exhausing"

Dilla's son Alex was jumped by white classmates in grade school, and nearly went to a juvenile detention center for defending himself.

Her daughter Angel recalls being called the N-word as a child when she would walk to the bus stop.

Dilla says she still experiences racism almost everyday. She admits it’s exhausting, but the lord kept telling her to stay in Cadillac.

"I'm watching my children in pain," Dilla said. "It seems so unfair but Jesus tells me to stay. There was times when I even questioned him. He said, 'it's okay to question me, but do as I say.'"

"He blessed me with strength for us to keep going."

Dilla always told her kids to respond to that racism with a forgiving heart.

"That's very important. You forgive people for the wrong that they're doing," she said. "Don't hold that anger in, let it go. Just throw it over your back and keep walking."

For Alex, Dilla's youngest child, that message of forgiveness stuck.

 

Alex Marshall at a Juneteenth celebration he hosted in Cadillac.
Credit Max Johnston / Interlochen Public Radio

"I guess I'm the one they say that’s too forgiving," he said.

Dilla says even from a young age, Alex didn’t seem to want to leave Cadillac.

"I don't think I would have as much love if I didn’t experience as much hate as I did.”

But that strategy didn’t work for Angel, Dilla’s middle child and only daughter.

 

Angel at a Juneteenth celebration in Cadillac.
Credit Max Johnston / Interlochen Public Radio

“She could tell me that over and over again, I wasn’t forgiving at all," Angel said. "I believe in killing people with kindness to a certain extent, but in order to understand how I feel, you gotta feel my pain. Just like you hurt me, I’m gonna wanna hurt you too.”

"I'm watching my children in pain ... but [God] blessed me with strength for us to keep going." -Dilla Scott

Angel says experiencing racism gave her thick skin. Because of what she endured in Cadillac, Angel says she closed herself off to the world. She doesn’t let people in.

Should we stay or should we go? 

Angel was sick of Cadillac and the racism she experienced there from day one. So sick of it that she moved out of the house when she was 18 and brought Alex with her.

Even though it broke her mother’s heart, Angel was thrilled to leave. She moved about an hour away to Mount Pleasant.

But Alex kept coming back to Cadillac.

“You didn’t even stay a full six months, you were in Mount Pleasant and you kept coming back. He was back here everyday," Angel says to Alex while she laughs.

Alex is conflicted on whether or not to stay in Cadillac. He’s considered leaving, but says the town is getting safer and his family may be playing a role.

For instance, after Alex was jumped by classmates in grade school, the staff had to take diversity and inclusion training.

And years later, Alex and Angel say classmates who harassed them have apologized. Black friends and neighbors confide in them when they feel targeted or isolated.

“I feel like God got me here for a reason. I’ve moved multiple times but he keeps bringing me back," Alex said. "Maybe I’m sitting here to help, bring that positive energy or bring that love back to the community.”

Alex is also known for the parties and events he throws around town and the sermons he delivers over Facebook Live.

After George Floyd was killed in the custody of Minneapolis police, Alex organized a peaceful protest in Cadillac in June. A few hundred people of different races and ethnicities showed up in solidarity.

 

Credit Alex Marshall's Facebook

There’s even a photo of Alex kneeling and locking arms with a Cadillac Police Officer that went viral.

The people that showed their support gave the family hope that Cadillac could change. Angel thinks their presence there has made that possible.

But, for Angel, that’s not enough to keep them there.

"I know [Cadillac] is not gonna change in a day, I know that, but it can change without me being here," Angel said. "I've made my mark."

"The change is in motion now, no one can stop it," Dilla added.

A new message

Dilla’s perspective on Cadillac changed when Alex was arrested right in front of her. She says she no longer trusts the police. She no longer trusts some of her neighbors.

Dilla says, in many ways, she no longer trusts Cadillac.

“[The arrest] took away a lot of my comfort, it took away a lot of it," she said. "I don’t feel safe when I go places anymore.”

And so that night of Alex’s arrest, after putting her crying grandchildren to bed, Dilla prayed.

She asked again about what to do. Whether she and her family should stay.

For years, for decades, the answer had always been “yes, stay.”

But that night, Dilla says the Lord spoke to her again with a new message.

“I started asking the Lord, please guide me out. Please Lord: get me out of here," Dilla said. "The Lord told me ‘I will at my time.’"

"I know that when God tells me to go, I’m going. He won’t have to tell me twice.”

The future

The disorderly conduct and resisting arrest charges against Alex from that January arrest have been dismissed.

Angel is ready to leave. She’s already moved about an hour away from Cadillac, but says she wants to go even farther.

“I could be in Texas and in a year I end up in South Carolina. I’m just that type of person. [Alex and Dilla] are going to follow me wherever I go," Angel said.

"Excuse me, she’s lying I am not following her,” Alex says laughing.

Alex may not want to follow but he also wants to leave soon. He’s not sure where he’ll go or when. He just wants to see what else is out there for him.

But he may not go far, because Cadillac still has a pull on him.

“I really want to open a business here," Alex said. "In five years, I plan on being the mayor of Cadillac. I really do.”