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Whitmer speaks at Highland Park march: 'We must move forward together'

Highland Park — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer urged participants at a civil rights march Thursday 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 that began at Highland Park's city hall. "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 six nights in Detroit, with some of the demonstrations marked by clashes with police, property damage and arrests..

Joining Whitmer was Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II, who told The 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.

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II, middle left, and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer attend a march against police brutality in Highland Park on June 4.

Also attending was Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan.

“These are extraordinary times,” Duggan said, noting what he described as an unprecedented coming-together of Detroit’s top business leaders, against racism, in Detroit City Council chambers.

Brenda Jones, Detroit City Council president, had to double back to Highland Park city hall. As she marched, she looked down and realized one of her glass lenses had popped out.

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 a Tuesday, 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 said it was important to offer a protest of a different character on Thursday, one marked by unity.

“Unfortunately, we have seen protests that have not been peaceful protests,” Jones 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.”

Governor Gretchen Whitmer, left, and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, second from right, march with others, Thursday, June 4, 2020.

From front line to last, the marchers were a rolling quarter-mile of humanity traveling southbound Woodward, with the skyline of downtown Detroit in the distance ahead. A caravan of Detroit and Highland Park police vehicles escorted marchers. A helicopter buzzed overhead.

As the march passed, people in parking lots and sidewalks stopped, took notice, and some documented it on their cell phones.

Bishop Charles Ellis III, pastor of Greater Grace Temple, said the 11 a.m. action 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.”

More:Prosecutors charge 3 more officers in George Floyd’s death

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

“If we could do this by ourselves, we would’ve done it by now,” Ellis said in the minutes before Whitmer’s arrival.

“This is a peaceful protest,” Ellis reminded the assemblage. “There will no swearing or name-calling.”

He told The News that people are understandably angry — the challenge is to feel the emotion without expressing it in degradation and violence.

“I don’t know how we turned into ‘thugs, looters, and rioters,’ but that’s not the history,” 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. Detroit is a predominantly African American city, we have a lot of issues from a social economic standpoint that contributes to that. Until we address the root cause, we will only put a Band-Aid on the issue.”

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

"It’s going to take the whole nation by storm," he said. "Put justice in place no matter who they are. A human is a human and they all deserve justice, no matter who they are and no matter their place in society.”

The Minneapolis Police Department has fired all four officers involved in Floyd's arrest. Derek Chauvin, the man whose knee was seen on Floyd's neck in video of the arrest, faces a second-degree murder charge, while the three other officers — Thomas Lane, J. Kueng and Tou Thao – are charged with with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.

Whitmer on Wednesday called for police departments in Michigan to enact "duty to intervene" policies requiring that police stop their colleagues from using excessive force.

"Here in Michigan, we are taking action and working together to address the inequities black Michiganders face every day," Whitmer said. "That’s why I'm calling on Michigan police departments to strengthen their training and policies to save lives and keep people safe. I am also ready to partner with the Michigan Legislature and law enforcement officials to pass police reform bills into law."