By Howard T. Spence
The year 2017 has just come to a close. We all look back to remember 2017 as a year characterized by both intense community activism and also by acts of violence and hatred that were unprecedented in recent memory. As we look ahead into the year 2018, we can anticipate that intense community activism, acts of resistance, and efforts to deliver our communities from violence and hatred will continue.
A renewed sense of political concern among American, as well as, the occurrence of numerous incidents – some of which were very ugly – drove this movement towards community activism and resistance. The rallies, protests, calls for community action that we saw both nationally and locally in 2017 focused our attention on political and social issues which still linger unresolved in our communities. Among the issues which continued to grab our attention and result in community activism in 2017 were racism, hatred, religious differences, and economic anxiety. More and more Americans seemingly became concerned that they and their loved ones were being “left behind.” Many of our neighbors protested that they and their loved ones were being disadvantaged or mistreated by others who were “in control” of our country.
Even in times when many are prospering and advancing, large numbers of members of our communities see themselves as remaining in poverty and possibly even losing ground in the fight for equality. Community anxiety and anger also seem to be related to growing health concerns as a national health crisis emerged. A deadly and debilitating opioid addiction epidemic, the life expectancy of some groups in our community decreasing, and anger that our elected politicians are unable or unwilling to take actions to provide adequate, affordable health care for us all have also led to increased community action, protests and demands.
The year 2017 also seemed to be a year that was captured and understood in the numerous angry rhetorics and chants heard throughout our country. Thousands locally – and yes, even millions nationally – took to the streets screaming slogans like “Make America Great Again,” “Lock ‘em up,” “Black Lives Matter,” and “Take a knee!”
During the past year, a startling increase in the intensity and showing instances of hatred and insensitivity towards our neighbors happened. A milestone in the increase of this hatred and related acts of bullying and violence occurred during the demonstrations and protests that occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia, during August of 2017. Events occurring in Charlottesville painfully pulled the scabs off wounds inflicted on our country and our communities by racism, history, and cultural divides over a very extended period of American history.
While acts of hatred and violence, as well as, the resurgence of alt-right, neo-Nazi, and white supremacy doctrines have been significantly escalating recently, one encouraging sign is the fact that all across our country everyday citizens and residents are fighting back - demanding the eradication of hatred and violence in our communities. A large part of the community activism we saw locally in 2017 was an activism focused on improving human relations and addressing poverty in our communities.
One of the ways that the residents in Greater Lansing fought back in 2017 was with reaffirmations of basic principles of equality, equal opportunity, diversity and inclusion in our communities. Many of our communities have followed the direction of their residents and visitors and stepped forward to reaffirm themselves to be inclusive and welcoming communities. Some of those who have become involved in local community activism have taken a different view of things and advocated for “building walls,” looking inward and excluding “strangers,” and also limiting the rights and entitlements of others who are “not like we are.” The year 2017 saw rallies and protests in the Greater Lansing area related to immigrants in our communities from both perspectives – reaffirming our diversity and inclusion, and fearful, angry reactions towards people from other countries who are here either legally or illegally.
Very shortly after the Charlottesville incidents occurred, the Eaton County Board of Commissioners adopted a resolution and proclamation that Eaton County, Michigan is a “No Hate Zone - a community that supports diversity, inclusion, and tolerance.” More recently Michigan State Senator Curtis Hertel, Jr. introduced a resolution in the Michigan State Senate, which was adopted that also reaffirmed basic principles of acceptance, tolerance, and inclusion for the whole State of Michigan.
People of all racial and ethnic backgrounds in the Greater Lansing area also individually spoke out in support of our communities being guided by “religious principles” of love, diversity, inclusion, and tolerance. Many people have participated in rallies in our community voicing support for these basic “American” principles. Much more have participated in symposiums, community workshops, community activism meetings, and displays of public resistance and protest directed towards rallying Americans around the conclusion that although we are very diverse, America is one people, united and stronger together.
In August 2017, there was a rally at the Michigan State Capitol building by residents that including some elected officials. They were rallying to decry racism, neo-Nazi-ism, and alt-right hatred directed toward members of our community – hatred designed to turn Americans against other Americans.
This turn nationally in 2017 towards increased violence and lack of tolerance by some groups in our communities underscores a growing divisive trend that has been building in America for quite some time, but which seems to have accelerated in recent months since the 2016 presidential election.
On September 6, 2017, the Michigan Department of Civil Rights (MDCR) and the Michigan Alliance Against Hate Crimes co-sponsored the “10th Annual Michigan Response to Hate Conference” at the Michigan State University Kellogg Center in East Lansing. That statewide conference helped direct people toward strategies to combat hatred and divisive actions within our communities. The keynote speaker at that symposium was Catherine E. Lhamon, Chairperson of the United States Commission on Civil Rights. At that MDCR conference, Ms. Lhamon documented and discussed the state of “hate” in America. She pointed out the clear statistical evidence that acts of violence and hatred in our communities – including here in Michigan and locally – were escalating in number and severity. Michigan was one of the states in our country showing the most significant rise in hatred and hate-related crimes during the recent past. Many of the rallies and actions of resistance in our communities in 2017 were acts of protest in response to acts of violence against vulnerable individuals.
Numerous other small workshops and gatherings continue to be occurring in the Greater Lansing area on almost a weekly basis as local Lansing area residents are beginning to come together to state that “enough is enough” publicly. It is becoming increasingly more evident that we need to work together to make our communities safe, welcoming, diverse, and inclusive.
Sometimes historically religious leaders have been slow to support acts of community activism and cries for social justice for reasons related to their perspectives on what religion is or should be. But much of the activism we have seen in communities both across our country and locally recently has originated in religious community acts of activism. That was true in the mid-twentieth century civil rights and poverty war actions, and it certainly has been true in the Lansing area recently in 2017. A recent rebirth of participation by clergy and religious leaders in social justice issues has contributed to a part of the “rebirth” of community activism in 2017.
Concerns about social justice, community activism, violence and needless death and fear in our communities cross over to be voiced by people from a broad swath of our residents of very different demographic situations and political and religious persuasions.
Unfortunately, some in groups who are advocating for change and safety in our community for themselves and their loved ones do not always understand or perceive that people of other groups are advocating for similar rights and protections for themselves and their loved ones. Those in the two similarly situated groups may ironically end up protesting or criticizing each other. This disconnect showed up in 2017 locally in the Greater Lansing area relating to the concern or issue about police-community relations. Some members of one group advocating for “Justice for Devin” in the Greater Lansing area did not bring themselves to understand the concerns and to support a group of minority community activists advocating for similar protections from law enforcement officers for their young kids. Devin Guilford was a young white kid killed in a police traffic stop. While both groups were made up of community activists advocating for better and safer community policing, those holding up signs urging “Justice for Devin” seemed to have a difficulty relating to community activists holding up signs with the similar message, “Black Lives Matter.”
This disconnect and tension between those advocating for continuing the status quo and those advocating for “rocking the boat,” and community activism and resistance also showed up in the “Take a Knee” peaceful protests and acts of resistance which continue to roil our nation and send activists and protesters into the streets. During the fall of 2017, the administration of Lansing Catholic Central High School disciplined and suspended four young men of color who played football on the Lansing Catholic Central team for “taking a knee” at a high school football game. The Lansing City Council in December 2017 rewarded those same young men with a Lansing City Resolution lauding and commending them for their courage to express their support for social justice through protest by “taking a knee.”
The community activism response to violence and hatred locally is not just in response to acts of political unease. More and more people in our communities are rallying and meeting to plan strategies to heal our community and save our families and children from domestic violence and crime. The New Citizens Press (TNCP) continues to actively support and encourage victims of crime and abuse through its longstanding “Stop the Violence” initiative that TNCP has championed for years.
Community activists who were determined to make sure that the public was aware of the social injustice impacting victims of crime also took to the streets in 2017 to advocate for safer streets, less violence, and support for crime victims.
The future of our communities and country depends on people joining together to fight back against hatred, racism, intolerance, and violence. While 2017 was a year of great acts of community activism and resistance, 2018 seems likely to continue that trend that has brought so many out of the comfort of their homes to attend rallies, workshops, community discussions, and even prayer meetings. There are many neighbors who are joining with others to fight to stop the violence and hatred that threatens to tear them apart.
Howard T. Spence, the author of this article, is an Eaton County Commissioner representing residents of Delta Township, Michigan. The information and policy positions stated in this article are those of Commissioner Spence personally and do not necessarily represent the position of any other Eaton County Commissioner, Eaton County government, or of this newspaper or publisher.
January 7, 2018 - January 20, 2018