Amanda Chrysler says her family prepared her to deal with racism before moving to the city in her teens. Now she and other residents are working toward change.
LIVONIA, MI — A digital billboard on the border between Redford and Livonia is garnering attention from across the state and beyond. Its message reads:
“Driving while Black? Racial profiling ahead. Welcome to Livonia.”
The billboard was not sanctioned by the city. Instead, concerned residents crowdfunded to raise money to post the message.
“Before I even moved here in eighth grade, my family told me the city had a problem with racism,” Amanda Chrysler told The ’Gander. “When the Black Lives Matter protests took off, a lot of residents in a city Facebook group started saying some unconfirmable things.”
Researching racial profiling in the area proved difficult for Chrysler, who has lived in the Detroit suburb since her early teens. Social media interactions introduced her to a term that she says changed the trajectory of her research: sundown towns.
Sundown towns are U.S. cities that were unsafe for people deemed undesirable by the city’s residents. This usually meant the exclusion of Blacks, but could also mean the town discriminated against Jewish and Chinese people. When the sun set in these cities, violence would rain down on anyone the white majority considered to be an outsider. In many cases, city ordinances were in place to make it illegal for Black people to be outside after dark if unaccompanied by a white person.
Livonia has history as sundown town, according to the research of Dr. James Loewen.
Chrysler said the group had trouble finding proof of racial bias in recent Livonia PD history, but the sundown town lead was much easier to follow. They used the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to request demographic data on traffic stops in the city but were initially ignored.
The Livonia Police Department “wanted thousands of dollars to fulfill the FOIA request,” said Delisha Upshaw, another member of the Facebook group responsible for the billboard. “There was no way we could raise that.”
Upshaw, who is also a Livonia resident, used her marketing background to brainstorm with fellow group members on the best course of action to get the attention of Livonia’s governmental leadership.
“Sometimes people just need a sign,” Upshaw said. “So we decided to give them one.”
Since the billboard has gone live, it has been met with praise and threats from the community. Livonia Mayor Maureen Miller Brosnan said in a statement Monday that the city “will not tolerate racism.”
“This billboard is counterproductive to these and other efforts we are taking to ensure Livonia is a welcoming place for all, a goal that this group and I share,” Brosnan said.
Police Chief Curtis Caid said the department does not target enforcement actions based on gender, race, religion, or ethnicity.
“Racial profiling is a serious allegation and is not tolerated,” he told the Detroit News. “Livonia is a welcoming community to all, regardless of one’s race. This billboard sends the exact opposite message of our values at the Livonia Police Department and of those in our community.”
By Tuesday, the police department fulfilled the group’s FOIA request for information on the race and gender of people stopped for traffic violations between July 1 and December 31, 2019. The data shows the overwhelming majority of traffic stops involved Black male drivers, though Black residents make up only 4% of the city’s total population.
According to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, Livonia’s white population was 90% in 2010; and was 86% white by 2018.
The group’s message has made national news, with outlets like USA Today picking up the story. Upshaw says the conversation is “big and ugly” like the billboard, but is necessary.
“Protest is only one part of changing things, but people in Livonia are ready for change,” said Upshaw.