Demanding Michigan State University take the necessary next steps in criminal justice reform and racial equity in the community, activists Farhan Sheikh-Omar, Edmund Rushton and Chuck Grisby organized a “March Against Fear” on Wednesday calling upon the university to make a change.
Protesters marched from the East Lansing Police Department (ELPD) to the Cowles House, the historic home of the university president.
“The time is now,” Sheikh-Omar said. “There are many Black students that go here — or have gone here — that have a lot of stories to share, and it blows my mind that we're just now talking about this issue now. ... But MSU is finally (in the) spotlight."
In the past year, MSU has been under fire for a string of racist incidents occurring on campus. In October 2019, an MSU student living in Brody Neighborhood reported a toilet paper noose taped to her door. That same month, a survey out of the College of Communication Arts and Sciences included prompts containing racist, transphobic, xenophobic and homophobic slurs.
This January, the Wharton Center of Performing Arts gift shop at MSU featured prominent African American figures displayed on a tree-like rack. It is events like these that led organizers to decide to hold the university as accountable as they hold the police.
Krystal Rose Davis-Dunn posted images of the dolls on her Facebook page, and the post went viral almost immediately. During the March Against Fear, Davis-Dunn encouraged the protesters to vote in November and engage more in the City Council and MSU Board of Trustees meetings.
“This time we're in — it's not a moment, it's a movement,” Davis-Dunn said. “And we're tired of being afraid. We're tired of feeling invisible or being silent. We're tired of our history being forgotten because it's not just Black history, it's American history, and we need to know it.”
Organizers of the march formed a Facebook page under the name “What Will it Take?” The page is designed to keep residents updated with upcoming events and encourage them to use their voice. A post from Tuesday displays a list of demands the march calls upon the university to consider.
Among these, the March Against Fear called for the demilitarization and restructuring of the MSU Police on campus, the deconstruction of the complaint process within MSU and the Office of Institutional Equity and the education of the MSU community on the long history of racial politics in the area.
“We’re going to MSU," social relations and policy senior Rushton said. "We’re showing them that they are not out of the spotlight. We’ve seen a lot of cases, anybody who has lived here ... could know that something is going on here and that there is evil bustling beneath the surface of the East Lansing community — of the MSU community — and it needs to be rooted out.”
The concept of demilitarizing the police, according to the post, includes the abolition of armored vehicles, assault rifles, tanks and any other equipment that may be deemed more militant than what is to be expected of college campus police. Organizers called upon MSUPD to hire social workers to their staff to answer disputes where an officer is not needed.
“What happened in Minneapolis almost happened here in East Lansing, that is what we’re trying to prevent from happening,” Sheikh-Omar said. “A lot of people say they're tired of hearing about racism. I'm tired of experiencing racism.”
In December 2019, ELPD officer Andrew Stephenson knelt on 62-year-old Anthony Loggins' neck and arrested him after he failed to signal while turning out of a Meijer parking lot.
Stephenson's use of force in December, along with a separate incident in February at 7-Eleven drew complaints, protests, the police chief's retirement, and momentum for the city to create a study committee for an oversight board to review any future complaints.
A Michigan State Police investigation exonerated Stephenson in May, but the police agency has since filed a warrant request, asking prosecutors to review Loggins' case again after his charges were dropped.
Defense attorney Mike Nichols, representing Stephenson, said he doesn't think Stephenson will be charged and would like a swift decision.
With much of the conversations surrounding police reform, Rushton said putting all of this on the police lets so many others off the hook.
“I don't just want East Lansing or Michigan State University to be the city or university that's catching up with everyone else and be proud that we’re catching up," Rushton said. "We should be taking the lead. We should want everybody else to follow us."
Melissa Derosia, a participant in the march, said the militarization of the police both across the country and in East Lansing is her biggest concern. The use of tanks, camouflage and weapons, she said, do more harm than enhance public safety.
“I would like to see an investment in public safety rather than the … focus on arrest and maintaining a sort of control over the community,” Derosia said.
Kiyoto Tanemura, another march participant, said the immediate change needs to be the defunding of the police. During the march, Tanemura held a sign calling for this idea of defunding, stating from that point the city can begin reallocating and reevaluating its values and how all residents of East Lansing should be treated.
“As we heard today, if we only focus on the police department ... we're not checking the institutional racism that exists at MSU,” Tanemura said.
MSU alumnus Tori Conway shared his experience with the crowd. The 2011 graduate said he is struggling to find a job and housing in Lansing or East Lansing to this day.
“I’m happy to see everybody here standing up (and) speaking out, using their voices to let MSU know racism will not live on this campus,” Conway said. “It will not. We're tired. We're done seeing it. We don't want it here. Racism is not welcome on this campus. It should not be.”