Here’s how a group of just 24 protesters are influencing Adrian’s population of 20,000 to protect its most vulnerable residents.
ADRIAN, MI—A city council in a rural Michigan town has banned activities associated with the city’s unhoused population, including public blankets and eating. In turn, it’s inspired a small but powerful movement to fight back and protect the most vulnerable residents.
Citizens of Adrian attended a city commission meeting in droves to speak against the ordinance, from social justice nuns to local volunteers, but that wasn’t the only way the people of Adrian opposed the ordinance. They protested.
GET THE FULL STORY: Michigan Town Seeks to Criminalize Homelessness, Sparking Constitutional Battle
“How can something this big, this consequential, go completely unnoticed until a couple people posted it on Facebook?” said Adrian state legislature candidate William Garcia. “Then activists make it blow up.”
It started with only a few Lenawee County residents with signs, and never grew beyond a small movement on the city’s streets. But in a place like Adrian, even that small movement was impactful.
“Our little baby’s first political movement — the city commission flinched. They budged,” Garcia told The ‘Gander.
Even a small protest in a town of 20,000 can have an impact. While the city commission eventually unanimously passed the ordinance, protesters were successful in delaying the vote, buying critical time to involve national advocacy groups and prepare a petition to refer the decision to the March election.
And that small victory was also galvanizing and inspiring to the protesters.
The Challenges of Rural Organizing
There are some advantages and disadvantages to fostering a movement in rural Michigan, Garcia explained.
The image of the rural voter, as explained by Facing South, is a President Donald Trump-supporting person with little education and heaps of economic anxiety. Also, that preconceived notion often includes the idea that the rural voter is white and discomforted by the subject of race. This, combined with the shock organizing groups felt after the 2016 election, is why Garcia says the infrastructure for inspiring political activism just didn’t exist in Adrian prior to his campaign for the state legislature.
And the image of small towns as “lily white” Trump country, as Garcia put it, is fairly inaccurate. In addition to protesting the city’s aggressive stance toward homeless Michiganders, Adrian citizens have organized to promote police reform in the wake of a summer marked by discussions of police violence.
A few hours north of Adrian, on Michigan’s border with Canada, is the international crossing town of Port Huron. With only a slightly higher population than Adrian and serving as the heart of St. Clair County, which is also largely representative of rural and small-town Michigan, a group led by Alphonso Amos focuses passionately on those protests of police violence and attempts to address the systemic impacts of racism.
Amos has had to combat with the misconceptions about small-town organizing, but has also had to combat with the people who cause those misconceptions.
“We do tend to receive push back especially when planning a protest or march,” Amos said. “We are often met with opposition from Trump supporters, Blue Lives Matter supporters and those who believe [we’re] a Marxist organization.”
Amos explained that in Port Huron, where everyone knows everyone else, there are also concerns that political activism could endanger someone’s job if their employer holds different views. But Amos has worked with those concerned people to connect them with lawyers who can help in the event they’re fired for political activism.
“Many of our members and allies are often afraid of their employer being on the opposite side of their viewpoints and with being in a smaller city where everyone seems to know everyone a lot of folks who would like to get engaged don’t out of the fear of possibly losing their jobs or being outcast from their social circles,” he explained.
Despite the challenges, Amos has seen even greater success in Port Huron than Garcia has in Adrian.
What Rural Michiganders Achieved
Amos’ political advocacy is more established in Port Huron, and that’s given him the resources to make some major accomplishments. Port Huron and neighboring Marysville both declared racism a public health crisis, and local area schools have committed to fighting racism as well. But the city’s new committee responding to racial issues is one of their chief accomplishments.
“Because of our call for a citizens review board for local law enforcement the Port Huron Police Chief created a Community Resource Champions (CRC) committee,” he told The ‘Gander. “The CRC voluntary coalition of community members from our neighborhoods, churches, business community, and law enforcement leaders from the Port Huron Police Department that represents the Port Huron community. The purpose of gathering this group of community leaders is to purposefully engage in serious ongoing dialogue in an effort intended to inform and address the issues that often intersect the citizens and the Port Huron Police, and to project transparency to the community of which we all serve.”
Meanwhile in Adrian, Garcia is building the kind of movement that can eventually grow into what Amos has. For him, laying the groundwork for those kinds of successes tomorrow is the achievement of today.
“However this thing goes, we can start developing infrastructure that can start solving these problems,” Garcia said.
And that infrastructure can do a lot, he said. Compared to Detroit where hundreds of people have demonstrated for over a hundred days, Adrian was able to get political institutions to react, at least a little, with 24 protesters.
“Being a progressive in this area, you feel like you’re on an island, which is funny because you’re not,” Garcia said. “It’s enough to move the needle.”
The key in both Adrian and Port Huron, as cases like one in the Journal of Rural Studies suggest, is building a coalition. In the case of Port Huron, that means networking with similar organizations against common challenges, while in Adrian that means creating the space for those multiple organizations to come into existence to begin with.
The Journal of Rural Studies suggests that a strategy to create that coalition would be to create a sense of place, and a political identity tied to the community as well as maintaining the focus on common causes between those varying groups.
Garcia’s work fighting the Adrian city commission has already established a sound foundation creating a regional political identity in Lenawee County.
“I’m not an organizer, I’m trying,” Garcia said. “I’m learning. I’m learning a lot.”