Protester meets mayor, but others question legitimacy as leader

Neal Rubin and Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — Leaders for protesters who’ve gathered on Detroit streets for 12 days met Tuesday with city officials to present demands for easing social injustice in the city, only to be told later that they don’t speak for the protesters who gathered for the night’s march.

Tristan Taylor, who has become the most public face of the local protests that followed the death on May 25 in Minneapolis of George Floyd, and Nakia Wallace, who formed a group called Detroit Will Breathe, spent 90 minutes Tuesday in a meeting with Mayor Mike Duggan and Detroit police Chief James Craig. Others on hand included deputy mayor Conrad Mallett Jr. and several department heads.

But later, just before the launch of the 12th day of protests in Detroit, longtime Detroit activists Joanna Underwood and Meeko Williams aired an assortment of grievances against Taylor, hours after he had presented his own list of 11 demands to Duggan.

"You cannot say you're a spokesman for a global movement," Underwood told Taylor as a few hundred people began to assemble on a hot, muggy late afternoon. "You're not going to get in front of these white people and act like you're the leader."

As Taylor stood nearby and television cameras rolled, Williams told him his demands "were laughed at by the residents of the city."

Meeko Williams waves a mini baseball bat as he criticized organizer Tristan Taylor and people protesting as he believes the fight for equality has been going on for hundreds of years. Photos taken in Detroit on June 9, 2020.

"I denounce this meeting," said Williams, the founder of a water rights group called Hydrate Detroit. "I denounce this event. And I denounce the organizers behind it."

Taylor said to Underwood as they shared a microphone at 4:15 p.m.: "Do you want to have a conversation, or do you want to have a conversation?"

Some 50 minutes later, after a series of other speakers, Underwood still did not want to have a conversation.

"You know who the leader is?" she asked, gesturing toward the mixed-race, mixed-age audience that included a priest saying the rosary. "Everybody out here."

Rev. Grace Howard of Detroit hold her sign during a protest at Detroit Public Safety Headquarters on Tuesday, June 9, 2020.

"This is a 400-year struggle for my people," she told Taylor, who also is African American. "We've been on the ground for six years."

Taylor and the people at the rallies he has organized, she said, have only been in the fight for 10 days.

Her remarks drew a few cheers, a few jeers and mostly surprised silence.

"I'm the last person to tell anyone not to use their voice," Taylor said. "The movement will take care of itself."

Ahead of the meeting with Taylor and Williams, Duggan noted that he and Craig “have a lot of ideas” and “we hope it’ll be constructive.”

"Words, right?" Taylor said afterward. "They're really easy to produce."

Duggan had deferred comment on the meeting to Detroit Will Breathe.

Taylor said his principal takeaway was that "they literally live in a different world."

As an example, he said, in a discussion about the Police Department's use of military-style equipment, he objected to "tanks being on the street."

The mayor, Taylor said, responded that "we don't have tanks. Those are special operations units."

Other topics on the Detroit Will Breathe list included ending the use of facial recognition software; dropping criminal charges and citations issued to protesters; and ending eviction orders and water shutoffs.

Police offers involved in brutality need to be prosecuted and fired, it said; Detroit should be declared a sanctuary city; and the plug should be pulled on Project Green Light, which promises enhanced police patrols to participating businesses. While the city says Green Light has lowered the crime rate, some merchants have said non-participants are unduly ignored.

Corky Warren of Detroit raises his fist in unity as protesters march along Michigan Avenue on Tuesday, June 9, 2020.

No commitments were made, Taylor said, but the mayor invited him to sit on several committees.

"I will join any committee that is public," Taylor told the crowd, "and the public gets to decide who's on the committee, by the way."

Likewise, he said, "I'm going to insist that whatever (further) conversation we have, has to happen in public."

Meantime, he said, protesters will march: "Our power comes from our ability to maintain our presence on the streets."

A smaller-than-usual turnout Tuesday included one man in a white Ku Klux Klan headpiece made from poster board — Detroiter Orrice Magee.

Police vehicles brought up the rear of the march, as always, but seemed to be further ahead of the parade than usual.

With temperatures in Detroit nearing 90 degrees, bottled water was abundant. Some came from within the throng, and some from cars parked along the route whose painted windows promised "Free snacks, water, supplies."

Medics wore red crosses on their shirts and bags, and legal advisers wore green hats. Marchers who appeared weary were asked if they needed help. Protesters who began to lead chants frequently found themselves offered battery-powered megaphones.

Sara Bragg of Detroit and Stephanie Pilarski of Royal Oak were not there to hear them.

They had marched silently and powerfully across the Belle Isle bridge Friday with nearly 400 other people.

Tuesday, they left before the first drumbeat, dismayed by the harangues of Underwood and Williams.

"We want to be positive," said Bragg, 35.

"From our perspective," said Pilarski, 27, "it felt weird."

They showed up, Bragg said, because of the overarching premise — black lives matter.

Credit, she suggested, does not.

Detroit News Staff Writer Cal Abbo contributed

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn