How to be an ally in Michigan protests against injustice, police brutality

Early protests in Detroit were held downtown and predominantly represented Michigan’s white residents. (Photo by Amaraa Harris)

After a week of protests in Detroit and even longer across the nation, marches continue in solidarity of George Floyd’s death amid outcries against police brutality and white supremacist systems.

But narratives continue to shift as public opinion varies widely on the proper way to protest and who should be involved. Local activists say participating in protests, conducting careful listening and advocating for public policy change is the best way to be an ally to blacks now.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines ally, a noun, as “one that is associated with another as a helper: a person or group that provides assistance and support in an ongoing effort, activity, or struggle.”

Early protests in Detroit were held downtown and predominantly represented Michigan’s white residents. As the days of protests wore on, more people of color, Millennial, Gen X and Gen Z populations not just joined, but took charge, like 16-year-old Stefan Perez. The locations shifted from downtown to Detroit’s east and northwest neighborhoods as Mayor Mike Duggan instituted an 8 p.m. citywide curfew. While most demonstrations have been peaceful, arrests, like that of local organizer Tristan Taylor, and minor property damage have followed.

JoAnna Underwood, who was elected to the Detroit Charter Commission in 2018, said she and Meeko Williams were organizers of Detroit’s first protest regarding George Floyd on May 29. Both activists have worked on the ground on some of the greatest social justice issues challenging Detroiters today, from mass school closures to water shutoffs and now police brutality.

The first thing an ally can do is show up, Underwood said.


Underwood and Williams said they shared information about Detroit protests within the city first, then with their statewide network.

“What happened, to our surprise, is white people showed up,” Underwood said. “I’ve been doing this a long time and I have never seen Caucasian people this angry about black life.”

Underwood, 37, said in the past week she’s participated in protests in Detroit, Minnesota, Indiana and Ohio. She calls herself a political activist, seeking and working toward long-term policy change.  

“The whole point of protesting is not to let people yell and scream, it’s to disrupt business as usual so it will lead to public policy change,” Underwood said.

She encourages allies to think about policy changes that would ultimately defund police systems. That includes dismantling the police union and using the police pension to pay for negligence lawsuits instead of taxpayer dollars.

Carolyn Baker, a longtime Detroit activist, said an ally should learn about the historical context of a system when trying to institute policy change. Baker, 40, said for an ally to hold a system accountable, you have to know why and how it exists. 

“Be careful listening to the news and the propaganda that is put out there,” she said. “Get a sense of what people really feel.”

Baker comes from a family of Detroit activists. Her father, General Gordon Baker Jr., was the founder of Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. Her mother, Marian Kramer, is a civil rights, poverty, and labor organizer. The family founded the General Baker Institute, an educational nonprofit in Detroit, after Baker’s father died in 2014.

Detroit protesters

A crowd of demonstrators protests police brutality in Detroit last week. (Photo courtesy of Stephen McGee)

Baker said staying aware and listening are other aspects of being a good ally. She’s attended three protests in Detroit so far that have ranged from hundreds of supporters to thousands. Baker said any ally should learn to identify who is in the crowd.  

“You’re going to have people out there for the cause and people just showing up because they don’t know what’s going on,” Baker said. “You’ll have anarchist behavior that will burn everything up with no solution to rebuild and people will be there to distract you from your agenda … no matter what type of demonstration you have you’re going to have all of them there.”

Williams, 35, is known for his work with local organizations like Hydrate Detroit. He says an ally needs to be respectful.

“The first thing you need to do is respect the city of Detroit, respect Black people, Black culture, and Black struggle,” Williams said. “And also, respect the achievement that has been made here.”

Williams also said an ally should use their individual platform, or network, to share information. Even using social media campaigns like #BlackOutTuesday can help share a collective voice around issues right now with wide audiences.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Kevin Grand
Thu, 06/04/2020 - 11:23am

"She encourages allies to think about policy changes that would ultimately defund police systems. That includes dismantling the police union and using the police pension to pay for negligence lawsuits instead of taxpayer dollars."

So essentially, you want to move to a point where a city like Detroit has NO police department to speak of?

And you intend to maintain civil

Sun, 06/07/2020 - 9:35am

I recommend reading The End of Policing by Alex S. Vitale

Kevin Grand
Sun, 06/07/2020 - 11:45am

Same question remains: How do you intend to maintain civil order?

The author, Mr. Vitale himself, even acknowledges that one of the end goals of his thesis is to transfer money from public safety into social programs under the guise of community empowerment and "social justice".

If that was a viable solution, the TRILLIONS which have been spent since the Great Society days would have shown results long ago.

Obviously, they have not.

Hank Quayle
Thu, 06/04/2020 - 2:07pm

The answer to how to be an ally in protests against injustice and police brutality is to support more Republican politicians in general, but in particular support more conservative and libertarian candidates. Injustice and 'police brutality' are most common in cities and states that have more Democratic politicians in charge, particularly those Democrats who are progressives or socialists. Socialism and fascism are often accompanied by police brutality and injustice, whereas libertarianism and conservative policies encourage more justice and less brutality.

Look at the facts- George Floyd was laid off amid Minnesota’s coronavirus stay-at-home order, which shuttered bars and restaurants- an order that was issued by a liberal Democratic Governor. He worked mainly as a bouncer at a restaurant, and when these draconian rules came down that shut down restaurants but let abortion clinics, pot stores, Target, and Walmart remain open. After he lost his job (because of liberal Democrat policies), he then allegedly tried to pass a counterfeit $20 bill to buy groceries- he was desperate for money. Remember how all those liberals and Democrats mocked people for needing money- well, this is what happens when you deny people the right to work- they get desperate.

Every single member of the Minneapolis city council is a far-left Democrat- not a Democrat that you remember from your youth, but the kind of radical socialist or fascists that have taken over the party today. They run the police department, putting in place the policies that govern it and hiring the top ranks of it. Actually, this isn't correct- the police department is ultimately run by the mayor of Minneapolis, who is another far-left wing liberal Democrat.

Minneapolis has been ill-served by it's leaders- liberal state congressman and senators, liberal federal congressman and senators, liberal governor and AG.

It's clear that voting liberal Democrat contributed to this mess and led to police brutality and injustice.

Valarie Tell
Wed, 06/10/2020 - 10:09am

Hank, you've made some good points here. It does seem as if the worst racism is in areas that are run by Democrats- maybe that's a legacy of the hundreds of years when the Democrat party was the party of slavery and discrimination. Areas which have embraced Democratic policies the most are the areas that seem to be suffering the most crime, the most poverty, and the most racism- states that have these problems and cities that have these problems are almost always totally controlled by Democrats. And not the Democrats of the 1990s- it's the the progressives and fascists who control the Democratic Party today. One can only hope that reasonable Democrats start to fight back and change their party- sadly that may mean crushing defeats for their current crop of candidates, but the counter attack must start taking place.

Math Sux
Fri, 06/05/2020 - 7:03am it matters? Three generations of urban youth lost to gangs, drugs, family dysfunction, educational and nutritional inequality and NOW it is an issue?

It is political theater...if you weren't concerned before, it is too late today.

A Veteran who i...
Fri, 06/05/2020 - 11:37am

This woman is destroying Michigan. The Democrats are trying to destroy America. We were locked down, are locked down b/c of Corona Virus. She is backing the protesters. Yet not a mention of Coronavirus. She fully intends on making sure she screws us over with another resurgence of this virus. She is murdering our elderly so the don't vote Republican. What more does anyone need to know? They don't care about us, they care about power. If you can't see that? Get ready to defend yourself and your property. The only reason she isn't opening the schools is because she knows that is the protester population. They will sacrifice our businesses and everything to get rid of Trump. If we have a chance to vote? We need to make it count. Our country is on fire. If you can't see that?? God help us. Support the protests? Are you insane?

Todd Priest
Fri, 06/05/2020 - 11:59am

Why are so many people falling for this lie? Tell me this. How many blacks died at the hands of police last year? How many whites? How many cops were killed last year? Out of the 10 million arrests, how many? Having trouble finding out? Just search Washington Post articles. This is a manufactured crisis.

Bobby Joe
Fri, 06/05/2020 - 2:17pm

The answer to all of these questions is easily able to be found. The Washington Post pulled together a lot of data and published data on these issues. One of the key findings was that 9 unarmed African-American's were killed in unlawful arrests, and 19 white's were.

jane thomas
Sun, 06/07/2020 - 9:59am

The first six posts on this site are depressingly racist. They have distorted the facts and pushed the worst of U.S. racism ideology. They are excellent examples of why the U.S. is a third-world country with a history of violence, slavery, genocide and abuse of power. They are examples of the reasons we have such an unequal and unjust society now.

Fie on all people who believe the constant BS coming from racists.

Mary Sue
Tue, 06/09/2020 - 12:19am

Jane is one of the many people in our society who calls 'racist' those who express viewpoints and reason and facts which she disagrees with. She is calling these people 'racist' not to characterize their views but rather in an attempt to make these people appear to be subhumans so that she can advance arguments that take away their property, liberties, and lives. But degrading others- as Jane does in calling them 'racist'- she hopes to degrade their humanity- and that's wrong. All people- of all colors and no colors- deserve to be treated equally and decently and have their property, liberties, and lives protected equally- even you, Jane.