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Criminal Justice & Legal System

Protests against excessive police force spread to Michigan

demonstrators holding signs walking down Washtenaw Avenue in Ann arbor MI
Jodi Westrick
Michigan Radio
Protests have spread across the country following police officers' excessive use of force against African Americans in Minneapolis and Southeast Michigan.

Protests continue in the state and nation following explosive uses of police force against African Americans. Recent documented incidents took place in Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed after a police officer pushed his knee into Floyd’s neck for several minutes, and in Southeast Michigan, where a Washtenaw County deputy repeatedly punched Sha’Teina Grady El in the head.

Two Michigan professors discussed on Stateside some of the context behind the protests and the continued violence against black Americans.

“It seems like, ‘Here we go again’ And that, I think, is a sentiment not just of people in Michigan, but across the country,” said Alford A. Young, Jr., a professor of sociology at the University of Michigan and the associate director of the university’s Center for Social Solutions. “It seems like what we’ve seen so often in so many other parts of the United States.”

“I think that these most recent cases … in which white officers are seen using excessive force against people of color—it is an outgrowth of the centuries of racism and discrimination and lack of respect for black life,” said Tracey Brame, professor and associate dean of Western Michigan University Cooley Law School in Grand Rapids.

Young said the issue of police violence against people of color is complicated by contradictions.

people protesting
Credit Jodi Westrick / Michigan Radio
Sha'Teina Grady El (in the gray sweatshirt) and her husband Daniyal Grady El walk with marchers on Washtenaw Avenue.

“On the one hand, people, black people too, want to see the police, want to see law enforcement as servants of the public interest,” Young said. “Yet, people feel—particularly, black people feel—threatened by the police and law enforcement, when they come in the communities, assault people, punch people.”

Brame, who was previously a public defender in Detroit and Washington, D.C., agreed, adding that police officers need “to have a certain amount of discretion and perspective in order to do their jobs” and the ability to respond if they feel that they’re in danger.

“The problem,” she said, “is the context in which people feel as though they are in danger. It takes a lot less for police officers to feel endangered by a black suspect than by other people.”

She said that while the legal system has certain protections in place to respond to discrimination against people of color, and officers from particular cases can be prosecuted, the law has limits.

“The law can’t touch, unfortunately, that fundamental problem of the lack of respect that our country still has for people of color,” Brame said. “The only way, I think, that we get to that point is if we have, as a country, we have kind of a raw realization and a raw reconciliation with our past.”

Protesters march down Washtenaw Avenue in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on Friday, May 29. It was the fourth day of protests.
Credit Jodi Westrick / Michigan Radio
Protesters march down Washtenaw Avenue in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on Friday, May 29. It was the fourth day of protests.

Brame said protests will likely continue unless that deeper social change  and reconciliation take place. 

“It just becomes this cycle, and it will continue to be that way, unless somewhere along the way we can establish a sustained commitment to … not always being reactionary when this happens, but to be proactive, and actually improving the state of relations between people in the country and the state of being of African Americans,” she said.

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