People Power Overcomes Fear

By Kim Hunter

Two weeks ago, a Detroit City Council meeting was jammed with people up in arms about a draconian proposal from Detroit Police Chief James Craig. They moved the Council to reject the idea. Craig wanted to impose a curfew of 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. for four days over the entire city. The ostensible reason was to ensure safety during the River Days, pre-Fourth of July celebrations, and during the always-crowded riverfront fireworks in particular.

Civil liberties issues aside, it seems unlikely at best that a police force already stretched to capacity could possibly enforce a 12-hour curfew including three hours of daylight over the city’s 142 square miles. No one, least of all the chief of police, should be calling for measures that could increase police response times, especially when those measures are based on fear and not fact. Even Baltimore didn’t impose such a severe curfew after violence in the wake of the police killing of Freddie Gray. When asked to supply data to back up the need for the curfew, Craig could produce none.

Fear Factor

I can’t help but believe that the call for the curfew was based primarily on racist fears of young African American males, not just men but boys as well. The fact that Chief Craig is black, as were the few supporters he had for the curfew, doesn’t preclude the issue of racial bigotry as a factor.

African Americans, like Latinos, women, members of the LGBT community or any other disenfranchised group, can and do absorb good and bad societal influences. Studies from the 1940s, such as the famous Clark Doll Experiment, through 2010 show that even African American children absorb biases for lighter-skinned people and against darker-skinned people. That bias can, and often does, hold into adulthood.

It’s also important to note how African American boys are mistaken as being older, and, therefore, more dangerous than they are. This may have been a factor in the incredibly tragic case of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old African American child shot dead by Cleveland cop Timothy Loehmann less than minute after Loehmann arrived on the scene.

Detroiters to the Rescue

Fortunately, the Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit NAACP, came up with a people powered solution: to call for a group of volunteers to walk throughout the crowd to help with safety issues and to serve as a helpful presence. The model for this is the successful Angel’s Night Volunteer program that has greatly reduced the pre-Halloween arson problem that put Detroit in the headlines years ago.

The benefits of the River Days volunteer group are similar if not better. The story shifts from a fearful, top-down response that was likely unconstitutional, to a community based interaction.

Of course, the results were great. Chief Craig was moved to thank the volunteers for an especially safe River Days. The fact that the event was even safer than usual was great. But the way Detroiters took hold of the situation is just as important. They did so not with a fear-based approach but one that was inclusive and set a great example for both youth and those who needlessly fear them.