After arriving as a Kenyan refugee 15 years ago, Farhan Sheikh-Omar grew into adulthood in Lansing, finding himself protesting against police brutality and for racial equity in the city.
Activism allowed Sheikh-Omar to instill change from the inside out and prompted his decision to run for mayor of Lansing in the Nov. 2 election.
Sheikh-Omar will be running against Lansing Mayor Andy Schor, former Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, City Councilwoman Patricia Spitzley and Larry Hutchison Jr.
“I got tired of talking to the wall, and I wanted to be the change I want,” Sheikh-Omar said. “I want to represent the defenseless. I want to represent those that are not being represented. And there's a lot of people in this city that are being ignored and underrepresented.”
Sheikh-Omar has run two failed campaigns in his past, running for the House of Representatives — District 68 in 2018 and first Ward City Council in 2019 — but his most recent experiences lie outside of official positions.
Last February, he led protests following Uwimana Gasito's excessive force allegation against officer Andrew Stephenson that prompted an internal investigation within the East Lansing Police Department. He also carried on protests through the summer months following George Floyd's murder in Minneapolis in May 2020.
“This summer, after my friend got beat up by the East Lansing police, I was heavily involved with making sure that the East Lansing Police Department was structurally reformed,” Sheikh-Omar said. “We got a lot accomplished. We made sure that the police officer who was responsible for 41% of all public complaints was no longer patrolling the streets.”
In the internal investigation of the incident, ELPD came to the determination that there was "insufficient evidence" to prove or disprove the excessive force allegations, but East Lansing is planning to establish a Police Oversight Committee to address police complaint reports as they come in.
The investigation has since been moved to multiple prosecutors’ offices. Michigan State Police submitted a warrant request in June to Ingham County’s prosecutors asking for a review of Stephenson’s actions. The Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office was originally assigned the case, but the investigation moved to the Washtenaw County Chief Assistant Prosecutor Steven Hiller office. Hiller concluded in September 2020 that Stephenson’s use of force was justified, according to the Lansing State Journal.
As Sheikh-Omar sees it, Lansing is currently facing three crises: racism, the COVID-19 pandemic and a lack of leadership.
As for COVID-19, Sheikh-Omar said that both neighbors and neighborhoods are still dying. He encouraged the distribution of the vaccine but also wants to uplift businesses by providing more grants to help them survive.
One of the main issues that Sheikh-Omar said is wrong within the current administration is the lack of transparency and accountability.
"When there is no accountability, there is no progress,” he said.
His solution was to make his campaign self and community funded.
Sheikh-Omar wanted his path to be the opposite of Schor's 2017 mayoral campaign, where more than half of Schor’s donations were from outside Lansing.
“I’m not going to be accepting any money from any big donor or lobbying groups,” he said. “I believe it's important that when I get elected, or whoever gets elected is strictly doing the people's work. I'm willing to put my time and my money, my own money, to get my message out to make sure that we elect somebody who's not status quo.”
He said that public safety begins with police reform, which means Lansing must change the way it expects the police to respond.
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“We cannot ask our police officers to deal with public health issues like substance abuse, homelessness and mental illness,” Sheikh-Omar said.
According to the city website, Lansing Police Department is the first department in the state of Michigan to hire a social worker onto its staff. The social worker "functions as a bridge between the Police and the City’s many agencies who work to serve the homeless, mentally ill, and addicted citizens," the website said.
Sheikh-Omar said that expanding the number of social services that respond to incidents is a form of police reform. Currently, Lansing only has one social worker on its police staff.
Ultimately, Sheikh-Omar said he is a concerned citizen who understands where he stands in experience compared to the other candidates but won't let it deter him. He believes this is his chance to disrupt ‘the cycle’ he has seen since he arrived in Lansing.
“We act surprised when we see the same cycle, the same results,” Sheikh-Omar said. "You know, we're dealing with the same things: bad infrastructure, bad schools, racist cops, houses being too expensive. We're dealing with homelessness. All of those things are things that we were dealing with when I was a kid. ... It just tells you what you need to know about these politicians. They put party before people, they put reelection before people, they put money before people and that's not how I operate. I put people first, and that's what I'm all about.”
As for now, Sheikh-Omar said he looks toward the future.
“Lansing needs a fresh start,” he said. “I believe the person who should get that fresh start should be someone who is well connected to the community, who knows what the community needs and who actually listens and fights for the community.”
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