Floyd death inspires diverse crowd in call to action in Detroit

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — Natalie Stokes has lived much of her life feeling like she's at a disadvantage. 

The 35-year-old has acquired multiple certifications working as a carpenter for the past two decades, but as an African American woman, she said she's been passed up for promotions and other opportunities afforded those who are less qualified and white.

For Stokes, the Memorial Day death of George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis whose pleas were ignored by a white cop who kneeled on his neck, was the last straw. So she's spent the last seven days in downtown Detroit, facing tear gas and walking countless miles with thousands of others in hopes of spurring change in the country. 

"I'm tired. I'm tired of the disadvantages, of the oppression of our people, black people, that the system is putting upon us. The George Floyd murder was the last straw," said Stokes, who was joined Thursday by her husband, Anthony. "We're going to keep coming until we get change."

The Stokeses join a diverse crowd of anti-brutality protesters of all races and ages, from young children to teens to lifelong Detroiters, suburban residents and visitors from out of state, all of whom have assembled for a week straight to march for hours from the city's downtown to the southwest and east sides. 

Each night, the group has assembled outside Detroit Public Safety Headquarters to rally with speeches from local activist groups before grabbing a slice of pizza, bottled water or their signs and flags. Some travel on foot, others by bicycle or scooter, with leashed dogs or pushing baby strollers. 

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Stokes, a lifelong Detroit resident, said she's stuck with a core group each night, even after Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan imposed an 8 p.m. curfew on Sunday. The curfew followed two days of tense protesting in the city that prompted police to deploy tear gas, use rubber bullets and make dozens of arrests.

She hasn't been cited but has witnessed some rough interactions between officers and demonstrators. The curfew, she said, is another violation of her constitutional rights. 

"Do they ever give the KKK a curfew, or the white supremacists a curfew? No, they don't," she said. "We haven't rioted, we haven't done nothing like that. It'll be a long time before I ever trust DPD again."

The last seven nights in the city have run the gamut of emotions. 

Friday night's protest turned suddenly from peaceful to violent, with protesters tossing rocks at Detroit police near the city's riverfront. The tension escalated to a standoff in the city's Cadillac Square with officers in riot gear, deploying multiple rounds of tear gas, taking protesters to the ground and loading them into police vans to be transported to jail. 

Other nights, some violent demonstrators targeted officers with railroad spikes, fireworks, bricks and boulders. Several sustained injuries, one requiring surgery, Police Chief James Craig has said.

Other nights, crowds marched without growing rowdy, earning honks and from passing drivers and neighbors, calling out on megaphones for justice and being led and trailed by Detroit police.

On Thursday, the death of Floyd inspired three generations of one African American family to join Thursday's march.

Jordan Tucker of Detroit stands with other demonstrators near the Detroit Public Safety Headquarters in Detroit on Thursday.

Juanita Washington, 45, of Romulus stood on the corner of Michigan and Third at the side of her mother and daughter, 14. It was her daughter's urging to stand up that brought them out. 

"She saw the news and how the man got killed and she said, 'Mom, we have to do something.' So, we came out here to protest," said Washington, who works with traumatic brain injury patients. "She wants to be part of the change."

Madison Washington, who this fall will attend the Detroit School of Arts for dance and theater, said she saw the video of Floyd's death circulating on TikTok and it brought her to tears. 

She'd seen racism first-hand, but this time told her mom "we need to actually do something about it."

"I always grew up knowing to fight for what's right, to fight for what you believe in. My mom and my dad ... put that in my head," she said. "I want to make a change. I want to help."

Madison's grandmother, Deborah Washington, recalled when she was growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, riots brought out the National Guard and she couldn't even come off of her porch.

"That's something I'll never forget," said Washington, 68, a retiree who worked in early childhood education. "They say it's getting better, but I don't think it's getting any better."

Mark Roper and his wife Kshantineyah Roper attend a protest next to the Detroit Police Safety Headquarters in Detroit, June 4, 2020.

She wants Madison to grow up in a world without racism where all are treated equally.

"This is a start. This is happening all over the country," she said of the protests. "Maybe we'll get something out of this."

Madison, who aspires to be a lawyer, said she has friends in New Jersey, Tennessee, and England who have taken part in protests in the wake of Floyd's death. She said she's hoping more young people will stand up for what's right. 

"I want fairness for all," Juanita Washington said. "Not just white, not just black, not just brown. Everyone should be equal."

Gerald Purify is a first-grade teacher and said he's waging a battle for the young black boys he teaches in Highland Park. Purify, who is black, doesn't want them to turn 30 and still be facing the same struggles he's living through today. 

Gerald Purify attends a protest next to the Detroit Police Safety Headquarters in Detroit, June 4, 2020.

"I am here fighting for my kids," he said. "I'm outraged. It's so sad to see that after so many years, we're still going through the same oppression."

Purify, an Eastern Michigan graduate, said he grew up on Detroit's east side and went to Detroit's public schools, including Cass Technical High School. The 27-year-old said he's focused attention on working with Detroit youth and said for some, race has been less talked about and less cared about.

"I really want equality for African Americans. Once black lives matter, all lives can matter," he said. "This is what it's going to take to see the change."

Pittsburgh native Jennifer Swanson, who is white, has been active in black lives matter campaigns while in college and shared in the outrage following the events in Minneapolis.

She joined the crowd Thursday with her roommate and boyfriend after a neighbor on Detroit's east side reported being picked up by police earlier in the week while leaving a protest.

Jennifer Swanson attends a protest next to the Detroit Police Safety Headquarters in Detroit, June 4, 2020.

"We felt it was important to be here in solidarity so stuff like that doesn't happen," said Swanson, who studied philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh before graduating in 2016, and moved to Detroit, where she now teaches at a charter school.

She's advocating for less use of weapons and more training for police, and for more funding for social work and mental health services "that would prevent some issues before they happen."

"Demilitarization of the police is important. It's kind of surprising how many weapons police have and how many people use them. In so many situations, I don't think it's called for," she said. "I hope my students grow up to have a better society where issues like this aren't happening."