Detroit — Emotional. Peaceful. Metaphoric. Necessary.
Those were the words used by some of the nearly 400 marchers who made history Friday in Detroit by peacefully walking across the MacArthur Bridge to Belle Isle, marking a solemn start to the city’s eighth straight day of demonstrations over the death of George Floyd during a police incident.
In a contrast with the chaos of rubber bullets, canisters of tear gas and arrests that marked past demonstrations in Detroit, marchers on Friday streamed across the span over the Detroit River, starting in Gabriel Richard Park as police watched, some handing out water to participants.
Asked by organizers to walk in silence “to promote true peace,” many in the crowd linked arms, other raised signs of protest and pleas, and others like Pageant Atterberry experienced unexpected feelings with each step.
“I didn’t realize the emotions that would come, even parking my car here,” Atterberry said as she marched across the bridge, her 6-year-old son in tow. “Just the reality of this all. I have a black son. I am a black woman. You see things on Instagram, on TV. And it doesn’t hit us.”
“But to be a part of this, it actually feels like now I am contributing,” Atterberry said. “I am basically telling the world you don’t have to feel afraid of this little guy when he gets to be big.”
The crowd was a mix of young and old, black and white and celebrity and obscure. Some pushed strollers, others walked pets. All were peaceful.
After the march, some participants joined a protest walk that stretched from Detroit Police headquarters to New Center. As on the previous two nights, police did not intervene as participants remained on the streets past the city’s temporary 8 p.m. curfew.
About 9:45 p.m., led by police cruisers, the demonstrators reached police headquarters downtown, cheering and vowing to continue protesting in coming days. At 10 p.m., the crowd fell silent for a moment in honor of Floyd and Breonna Taylor, who was shot to death in her home by Louisville, Kentucky, police in March, then began dispersing.
The mood was at turns festive and defiant at the nighttime procession, in comparison with the more subdued tone of the Belle Isle marchers earlier in the day.
Erin Merriweather, 25, walked across the bridge with a group of friends, taking in the peacefulness of the Detroit River beneath her, the calm in the crowd and the occasional breeze that cut the stifling heat of the day.
“It was serene to walk across the river. It was a nice way to reflect,” Merriweather said. “You don’t have to worry about traffic, tear gas, rubber bullets. It was a safe environment. Even the police was walking with us.”
Merriweather said the walk did feel like a moment in history. The march itself lasted just under one hour, with no reports of violence or police incidents.
“This was peaceful. It shows we are not out here to do harm and today showed how we all got together in a peaceful protest and how effective that could be,” Merriweather said.
Ken Coleman, a Detroit historian, said the procession evokes visions of the civil rights march over the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965, when police attacked participants in an incident that came to be known as “Bloody Sunday.”
“The Edmund Pettus bridge in connection with African Americans and police brutality seems to resonate with marchers,” Coleman said. “I think it does create for a dramatic setting, going over a bridge from its start to its end does provide some symbol of moving forward or overcoming and something that has a start point and completion point,” Coleman said.
“We have been talking about the significance of a setting where there is a super African American majority. My personal sense is that setting, Detroit and the Belle Isle bridge, really symbolizes pushback against the feeling that African Americans have been the recipients of unfair treatment.”
Several public figures were among those in attendance, ranging from U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence to Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson. Multiple members of the Detroit Lions also showed up and former running back Joique Bell spoke briefly before the march started.
Bell took in the crowd and started to tear up before he pulled his son alongside him.
“Right here, this is why,” said Bell, pointing to his son. “This is our future. I’m scared and I’m angry. I had a conversation with my son about what’s going on in this country, what we see on TV. How do I protect my son? How do we protect our future? I hear George Floyd calling out for his mother, and the only thing I can think about is my son calling out for his father.”
Marcher Caroline Williams said joining hundreds of marchers Friday afternoon “brings you down to Earth.” She carried a sign that called for justice for Floyd and included the words “I can’t breathe.”
“It’s so great to see people of every color here. I am here for every person in my life and every African American who faces racism,” said Williams, who is white.
Williams, a Redford Township resident who just graduated from high school, said Friday was her first time participating in a rally and she will be out on Saturday in Detroit for another one.
“It’s important. We can’t just show up once and call it a day,” she said. “We have to keep coming back as long as it’s an issue.”
Jamon Jordan, a historian and tour leader with Black Scroll Network History and Tours, which provides walking and bus tours of the city and its landmarks, said the MacArthur Bridge and Belle Isle are highly important to African American history in Detroit for three reasons.
First, Jordan said, Belle Isle was a place for African Americans to escape to Canada and was a stop on the Underground Railroad.
Second, in June 1943, three days of Detroit race riots started on the MacArthur Bridge, Jordan said, resulting in 34 deaths across the city, Jordan said, including eight black civilians killed by white civilians and 17 African Americans killed by members of the Detroit police department.
“It’s significant they are going there in June 2020,” Jordan said. “In 1943, it was a true race riot and people killing each other. This is significant because this protest was also about police brutality. The police exacted a higher level of violence on African Americans than whites.”
Third, Jordan said, was the 1967 rebellion when jails became so overfilled with black people that police opened a temporary detention center on Belle Isle.
“About 1,000 people were detained, and overwhelmingly African American. That was over a police incident. Police are highly connected to what is going on here,” Jordan said.
Jordan said while the march may usher in visions of “Bloody Sunday,” Friday’s event has another symbolism.
“The city sits on a border with a major riverway. That is the original site for the original settlement for Native Americans, French, British, for African Americans to escape to freedom,” Jordan said. “For Detroiters, the river symbolizes much more than 1965. It’s more much deep than the Alabama.”
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