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With little social distancing, Whitmer marches with protesters

Highland Park — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who's voiced concerns about other demonstrations potentially spreading COVID-19 in recent weeks, participated Thursday in a civil rights march in Highland Park with hundreds of people who did not follow social distancing rules.

Whitmer drew criticism after she stood shoulder to shoulder with some march participants, who included Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan. From the front line to last, the marchers started at Highland Park city hall and were a rolling quarter-mile of humanity traveling southbound on Woodward, with the skyline of downtown Detroit in the distance ahead, as a caravan of Detroit and Highland Park police vehicles escorted them while a helicopter buzzed overhead.

"Social distancing is critical to stop the spread of COVID-19 — unless you have a great photo op," state Rep. Lynn Afenoudlis, R-Grand Rapids Township, tweeted.

Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown denied the governor had violated her own executive order issued Monday that says people should remain six feet apart if participating in public gatherings.

Gov.Gretchen Whitmer, center, prays with clergy including Bishop Charles Ellis of Greater Grace Church, right, on the corner of Woodward and Warren during a rally in honor of George Floyd, Thursday, June 4, 2020.

"The governor took precautions for engaging in an outdoor activity, including wearing a mask even though it is not required outdoors under the order," Brown said.

Contrary to the administration's own guidance posted online, Brown said the unity march didn't violate her latest order because it states, "Nothing in this order shall be taken to abridge protections guaranteed by the state or federal constitution."

"That includes the right to peaceful protest," she said.

However, a page of frequently asked questions about the order on the governor's website specifically says, "Persons may engage in expressive activities protected by the First Amendment within the State of Michigan but must adhere to social distancing measures recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including remaining at least six feet from people from outside the person’s household."

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer elbow bumps with Marlo Franklin of SEIU before the start of a rally in Highland Park in honor of George Floyd on Thursday, June 4, 2020.

While many of the hundreds of participants on Thursday wore masks, including the governor, the six-feet distancing policy wasn't followed.

At the march that went through Highland Park and Detroit, Whitmer urged participants not to lose heart in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and the death of George Floyd, and to work for change.

“Elections matter," Whitmer said during the march. "We cannot be defeated. We must move forward together. When we do that, we cannot be defeated.”

Floyd's death, which occurred after a Minneapolis police officer held his knee on the man's neck for more than eight minutes, has sparked protests across the country, including the past seven days in Detroit. 

Joining Whitmer was Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II, who told The Detroit News that police brutality is “one of the most important issues of our generation.”

“We're talking about the fact that we need to reframe and restructure the relationship between law enforcement and the community, particularly between law enforcement in the black community. What we're saying is that not only do black lives matter but black futures matter and black potential matters,” Gilchrist said.

Duggan echoed the call for unity, noting what he described as an unprecedented coming-together of Detroit’s top business leaders, against racism, in Detroit City Council chambers.

“These are extraordinary times,” the mayor said.

Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones said she came up to Detroit from Birmingham, Alabama, another flashpoint in the black struggle for civil rights, as Detroit was in the midst of the 1967 riot.

“We are coming together. We are uniting, and we are showing that it's not time for racism,” Jones said. “It’s not time for police brutality. It's time for change.”

Jones said she is co-sponsoring a resolution, expected to be taken up next Tuesday by city council, encouraging Michigan to pass a law requiring implicit bias training for police. Whitmer had asked for the legislation Wednesday, and on Thursday the Senate approved the bill unanimously.

Jones pleaded for more peaceful rallies like Thursday morning's gatherings.

“Unfortunately, we have seen protests that have not been peaceful protests,” she said. “Most of those people were not from the city of Detroit. So I say to them: If you do not want a peaceful protest, go back to your own backyard and protest, because here we are protesting peacefully.”

Bishop Charles Ellis III, pastor of Greater Grace Temple, said the march would be replicated in several Michigan cities, including Saginaw and Kalamazoo, and hailed it as a return to the days when “the black church created the nonviolent civil rights movement in America.”

Highland Park police, Detroit police, state police and the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office all had a presence, representing law enforcement. Members of the Jewish and Chaldean communities also planned to partake in the protest, Ellis said.

Marchers young and old said they wanted to see changes in race relations and to have the needs of minorities addressed.

"You have to deal with the root cause of racism that has existed for hundreds of years in the country," said Ron Johnson, 60, of Detroit. "Education, access to health care, jobs, opportunities. Those problems exist more in urban and poor areas.”

Oten Wyatt IV, 16, of Detroit said he joined the march to be part of a movement for change. 

"Put justice in place no matter who they are,” Wyatt said. “A human is a human and they all deserve justice, no matter who they are and no matter their place in society.”

Guidance from Gov. Gretchen  Whitmer's office says people should adhere to social distancing measures during First Amendment-protected activities.

On Monday, Whitmer said she had a "high level" of concern about the protests, specifically participants not wearing masks, potentially spreading COVID-19.

In past weeks, the governor repeatedly criticized protests against her stay-at-home orders for potentially spreading the virus. During an appearance on "The View" on May 13 — 22 days ago — Whitmer said the protests at the time made it "much more precarious" for the state to continue reopening its economy.

"The fact of the matter is these protests, in a perverse way, make it likelier that we are going to have to stay in a stay-home posture," Whitmer said then. "The whole point of them, supposedly, is that they don’t want to be doing that.”

cmauger@detroitnews.com