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ANNtourage: Any progress on Ypsi police relations?

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Local residents pack Ypsilanti High School auditorium July 11 to express frustration with police at an open meeting of the city’s Ypsilanti's Police-Community Relations/Black Lives Matter Task Force. | Benjamin Weatherston

Local residents pack Ypsilanti High School auditorium July 11 to express frustration with police at an open meeting of the city’s Ypsilanti’s Police-Community Relations/Black Lives Matter Task Force. | Benjamin Weatherston

On July 11, hundreds of local residents packed Ypsilanti High School auditorium to express their frustration with police at an open meeting of the city’s Black Lives Matter Task Force. ANNtourage brought a few citizens to witness the proceedings. Tensions were high shortly after the police shooting deaths of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La., and Philando Castile in St. Paul, Minn., and the meeting went on for hours as people spoke out.

I asked two of the ANNtourage participants — Yodit Mesfin Johnson, chief operating officer at Nonprofit Enterprise at Work in Ann Arbor, and Bee Roll, who owns Beezy’s Cafe in downtown Ypsi — to comment on the state of the community since the event. They both said that, although the event was a good first step, much work remains.

Johnson spoke on the emotional nature of the lengthy event: “What is often the experience of oppressed people is that when somebody will listen they want to be heard. I do appreciate that creating a space for people to be heard is the first step in healing and I believe that that was the intention of the town hall meeting, but we have to do more than just talking.”

Johnson continued: “We have to act. And it is those of us with privilege, with power, with access, with opportunities that have to be the ones that lead that work.”

“I think it doesn’t get done in a big auditorium, it gets done in really small pockets. And hopefully those efforts come together for a greater good.” She then continued by speaking about the complexity of the issues and how in order to progress, there is more work to be done. “I’m seeing things happening with ICPJ. I’m involved in work with coordinated funders in Washtenaw County. Of course the county itself produces a report that talks about race and income inequality.”

Roll spoke about the importance of building trust. “You have relevant examples of African Americans in this community being unfairly targeted….” she said, “And I think the root of a lot of this (frustration) is the distrust of the system and if we don’t build community trust even within our communities and look out for each other we can’t expect our elected officials or our police to.”

One of the most prominent grievances was the death of Aura Rosser, a 40-year old black woman, at the hands of an Ann Arbor police officer. “It broke my heart that in the 30 years since the Ann Arbor police department had to fatally wound someone that it was a black woman who died,” Johnson said.

“If your question is: Was the reaction with Aura sufficient? The answer is no, but you need only be black and live in Washtenaw County to know that for all intents and purposes most of us are invisible here,” she said.

Although the task force may not be as engaged in the community, there are still movements happening that are happening to move the city forward. Roll was involved with D’Real Graham’s write-in campaign for county prosecutor. Graham is the co-founder of Radical Washtenaw, which is a group of activists and artists that was formed in response to the police killing of Aura Rosser.

Roll said that we should “not just discuss what we can do on the Black Lives Matter Task Force, but what we can can actually do through the county prosecutor’s office and what we can do as vocal citizens being engaged in our neighborhood with the people who are taking on leadership roles to make changes.” (Incumbent County Prosecutor Brian L. Mackie ran unopposed, apart from the write-in campaign, and won on Nov. 8.)

Since July 11, the task force has held two meetings, in August and September, but the July meeting was the most interaction between the task force and the community. Although the task force is working to create progress and it is a huge step that the city recognizes the need for a task force, there should be more consistent collaboration between police officers and community members and organizations in order to truly progress.

Rabab Jafri

Rabab Jafri is an intern with The Ann magazine. She follows up on statements and questions raised by ANNtourage participants. She's a student at the University of Michigan.

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