Protesters impede buses at Detroit terminal in effort to hinder summer school

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit — Dozens gathered early Thursday morning outside a Detroit Public Schools Community District bus terminal as buses were starting the day taking students to summer school.

Protesters had parked their vehicles to prevent buses from leaving, and physically blocked tow trucks sent to remove the vehicles. Police moved in to write tickets and handcuffed some with zip ties and led them away.

“No dead children! Close schools now!” marchers said to the beat of drums as they walked in a circle on the southwest corner of Westwood and Glendale, north of Interstate 96 and west of the Southfield Freeway. 

Police write tickets Thursday for vehicles parked to impede buses from leaving a terminal to transport students to summer school. Protesters are seeking to stop in-person classes amid the coronavirus outbreak.

They kept in motion, an organizer said, to avoid standing around and making it easier to be arrested.

The crowd started forming at 5:30 a.m. Early on, Commander Arnold Williams of the Detroit Police Department warned protesters against blocking the road. A second warning soon came.

Police cars lined the block on Westwood, and for the first 90 minutes mostly watched the protest from afar.

Then, police got out of their vehicles, zip ties in hand. It was nearing 7 a.m., and the buses would be leaving soon.

But before reaching the protesters, the buses would have another obstacle: vehicles lined up to block the road.

Just after 7 a.m., as police ticketed the vehicles parked in the path of buses, protesters blocked a tow truck trying to pass and tow the parked vehicles. Eventually, the tow trucks made it to the vehicles and began the process of removing them.

As 8 a.m. approached, the police commander said no more arrests were planned.

“That’s because they already arrested all of our leaders,” one of the protesters said.

Buses leave just before 8 a.m. Thursday for their summer school routes after being delayed by protests.

And then the group made its next plans, about who was heading to the Detroit Detention Center to post bail.

Before 7 a.m., protesters were encouraging bus drivers to stop. “Don’t be a scab,” said Christina Turner, 33, through a bullhorn, as cars drove toward the bus depot. 

Turner called the district’s return to in-person instruction “genocide,” considering the city's Black population.

“If we don’t stand up and do something, it’s going to get worse,” Turner said.

Police arrested 13 men and seven women for disorderly conduct, said Corporal Dan Donakowski, a spokesman for Detroit Police Department. Police also towed four vehicles.

The protest was organized by BAMN, By Any Means Necessary. Organizer Kate Stenvig of BAMN was among participants who argued that schools weren’t reopening to educate children, but to facilitate the return of workers to their workplaces.

Schools shouldn’t return, nor should work, until there is a vaccine, Stenvig said.

A group that includes BAMN has sued seeking to stop summer school. A federal judge this week ordered the district to test students within five days for COVID-19.

Protesters gather Thursday outside a Detroit schools bus terminal to protest in-person summer school classes for Detroit Public Schools Community District students.

Summer school started for district students on July 13. Summer classes are scheduled for four hours Monday through Thursday. The summer semester will end Aug. 6. The district has said that summer learning is on a voluntary basis for students and teachers.

The school district has said its reopening plan for summer school is aligned with guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recommendations from the governor's Return to Learn Council's Roadmap and national teachers union guidance.

Protesters arrested Thursday by Detroit police wait around the corner from the rally to be transported.

“COVID in our schools? Hell no! (Mayor Mike) Duggan and (Superintendent Nikolai) Vitti have got to go!” protesters chanted.

Despite it all, "school will take place today," district spokeswoman Chrystal Wilson said. The district has about 4,000 students enrolled, she said, and about 620 of them take in-person instruction at one of the district's 25 summer schools: five high schools, two schools for "exceptional" students and 18 K-8 schools.

Vitti, the district's superintendent, said Thursday via Twitter that the district is trying to strike a balance.

The district could not immediately say how many students rely on the bus.