What started as a small group of families coming together turned into a community-wide movement to end racial discrimination for good.
In May, the viral video of George Floyd’s murder sparked international outrage and demands for an end to police brutality against Black people.
Demonstrations sprang up in every major US city from Los Angeles to New York City to Detroit. While the actions themselves were important, it’s the outspoken voices calling for change that have turned the current moment into a movement.
The anti-racism task force, Northern Michigan E3, is a part of that movement, and it’s on a mission to educate, elevate, and engage with its community.
READ MORE: The Power of Protest in Rural Michigan
Step 1: Get Fed Up
Courtney Wiggins, Breana Demaray, and Tyasha Harrison all live in northern Michigan. While the three grew up quite differently, each woman has faced racism and microaggressions in their small town.
When Floyd’s murder set off a wave of protests against police brutality, a small group of Traverse City residents and neighboring townships gathered in solidarity.
“We had a protest the last weekend in May,” Wiggins said. “And we had about 200 people that showed up for that protest.”
Wiggins, Demaray, and Harrison say that, as women of color, they had shared similar frustrations with ongoing discrimination faced by people of color. There was a quiet understanding that other northern Michigan Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) could relate to the misunderstanding or mistreatment that can come when BIPOC live among white majorities.
“I got involved [with the organization] because it was no secret that there was an issue in our community,” Demaray, 29, said. “It was more so the quiet racism, and then it became blatantly in my face. So, that really encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone and reach out and see exactly what was happening in our community to make sure that we’re doing what we can to make sure that racism is eradicated.”
When she was an elementary school-aged girl, Demary and her sister were accused of being rude to white girls while shopping in a local bookstore with their mother—but they were innocent. The man was white and called them “niggers” as he accused them of mistreating his daughters. Demaray and her sister were made to apologize to the white family.
Traverse City is a popular tourist destination, but the town’s population is just under 16,000. Over 91% of the residents are white.
When the Northern Michigan E3 held its second peaceful demonstration on June 6, more than 2,000 people attended.
Step 2: Collaborate. With Everyone.
The group was pleasantly surprised at the second march’s turnout.
“The community really is responding in a positive way,” Wiggins, 38, said. “They’ve been incredibly supportive.”
The group presented a list of 10 demands that they wanted from law enforcement and their community. And the community says it wants to help.
Traverse City business owners, community leaders, and tourism companies have reached out to the group to offer support and to ask for training to ensure ignorance does not unnecessarily escalate interactions between people, like in so many cases of violence against BIPOC.
“It’s called understanding racial justice and there have been a lot of community members that have decided that they want to take this [class],” Wiggins said.”We’re really excited to see that happening here in our community.”
Step 3: Keep Moving
In the months since the June 6 march, news coverage of systemic racism has died down. Images of local police kneelings next to demonstrators are archived on most social media pages, as more news floods the proverbial timelines of Michiganders.
The movement is not for the media, however, it is for the people. And the people are still going, with more people finding ways they can help the community emerge from the dark past of racism and division.
Ashley Ko moved around the globe with her military family, but says she considers Traverse City as her home. In July, the Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) graduate presented the school board with a petition to update the educational curriculum to include more people of color in instruction, exposing children to different types of people at a young age to discourage ignorance and fear. More than 2,600 people signed.
“I started reflecting on my own experiences and saw where I could maybe play a role and take action,” Ko told The ‘Gander.
Ko, 22, says the new TCAPS superintendent has been supportive of the idea, but that there has been no public acknowledgement of plans to update the curriculum.
But the TCAPS librarians decided to move on the idea immediately. In collaboration with Ko, they’ve launched the Brilliant Books Book Fair in an effort to showcase diverse authors’ work that can be typically overlooked in K-12 schools.
“They’re looking to expand their anti-racist and diverse texts in the library, so 25% of any purchase made through the website will be donated to the libraries,” Ko said.
Harrison participated in the Traverse City marches and is a member of the Northern Michigan E3, but has lived northeast in Benzie County with her husband for the past eight years.
“I’m originally from Georgia, part of the South,” Harrison told The ‘Gander. “There is a lot more in-your-face [racism] and you know who doesn’t like you because usually they’re flying a Confederate flag with cowboy boots, slurring racial slurs.”
Aggressions similar to those Harrison described occur in Michigan, but not nearly as often or overt.
Alex Marshall, 24, of Cadillac was assaulted by a local police officer in front of his children in January. In the wake of national civil unrest, the young man has hope he can help unify his community.
“I did the first Black Lives Matter protest here in Cadillac on June 6,” Marshall said. “I’m not really into politics, I’m just into what’s wrong and what’s right. I love God and He’s given me a voice for His people.”
Marshall says he refuses to let hate darken his heart or his intentions, despite his own brutal encounter with police at the beginning of the year.
“We’re all the same,” he said. ”Our finances may be different or our education, but we’re all still human.”
Marshall is guided by his faith in God and says that he believes in the power of light over darkness. He plans to continue to fight for all people and says he hopes to enter the local political field soon with a mayoral run.
The community organizers of northern Michigan are energized by the possibility of change, and they have no plans to stop the work.
“We want our community and the surrounding northern Michigan communities to adopt ideas of anti-racism,” Wiggins said.
Northern Michigan is already on its way.