Raising a fist towards a cloudless sky, Charlotte Johnson looks out at the crowd gathered for a Juneteenth protest in downtown Muskegon’s Hackley Park Friday afternoon: Change, she tells the group erupting into cheers, is here.
“Keep marching; keep protesting,” Johnson, a longtime civic leader and community activist from Muskegon, says as people lift their own fists in solidarity. “Keep registering voters; keep yelling, ‘no justice, no peace,’ ‘Black lives matter,’ ‘say her name: Breonna Taylor, and ‘say his name: George Floyd.’ Keep the pressure up, because it’s working.”
“The powers that be are just waiting for it to go back to normal—but let the powers that be know that Muskegon ain’t sleeping through this revolution,” Johnson continues as the crowd—a diverse group of about 100 people—shout “Yes! Yes! Yes!” as they clasp hands with one another, their cheers mingling with tears.
It is this call, one rooted in the upheaval of the systemic racism poisoning the nation, that reverberates throughout Friday’s event. Serving as a rallying cry for change in Muskegon, and throughout the country, the Hackley Park gathering commemorates Juneteenth—a day that marks the end of hundreds of years of slavery in the United States. With many people wearing shirts made by the Muskegon Heights-based clothing brand Culturally Vigilant and emblazoned with “Black AF” and “Juneteenth June 19, 1865,” protesters traverse expansive ground, figuratively and literally, during the gathering that draws a crowd filled with community activists, poets, nonprofit leaders, elected officials, and city administrators, among many others.
“We are not going to stop here; there’s more to be done, but this is just the gateway, just the beginning,” says Leonna Watson, one of the founding members of RESTORE Muskegon, a new community group that organized Friday’s gathering. “As we come up with different ideas, we’re going to need the community to support us so this can be successful—so in Muskegon we can be put on the map as being among the first to make promising changes. We’re not waiting on city commissioners, governors, none of that; we’re taking this into our own hands.”
As those attending Friday’s event explain while marching around Hackley Park, the gathering is not solely about celebrating the end of slavery on June 19, 1865—it’s about recognizing how slavery, white supremacy and institutionalized racism continue to impact our country. It is, protesters note, about how we, finally, put an end to police brutality, housing discrimination, voter suppression, and economic exclusion and marginalization, among other forms of systemic racism.
Protesters too call for more specific changes here at home, including: outfitting all Muskegon police officers with body cameras, the creation of an independent community organization that can audit Muskegon’s police budget, shifting some funding from Muskegon police to community programs, and incorporating racial studies in local schools’ K-12 core curriculum.
Organized by RESTORE (which stands for reteach, educate, start, talk, organize, rebuild, and empower) Muskegon, which was formed after the recent protest against police brutality to spur ongoing action and advocacy around racial justice, Muskegon’s Juneteenth gathering is, like many other Juneteenth events across the country today, simultaneously filled with deep sorrow, deep joy and deep persistence. Today, in the shadow of the recent killings of Black Americans like Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, the descendants of Africans kidnapped from their homes and forced into slavery in the United States put their mouths to mics across the country and, in honor of all of the people who did not get to see this day—who lived their entire lives in slavery—raise their voices for a national reckoning.
“White people, we need you to believe Black lives matter,” Watson says. “I’m with you that all lives matter, but this is what we African queens and African kings have been trying to tell you all our lives: until Black lives matter, all lives don’t matter.”
To address racism, racial prejudice, and racial discrimination in Muskegon (and the country), difficult conversations and actions need to take place, organizers and protest attendees emphasize. Change does not happen solely because someone uses a black square for a Facebook profile photo or an Instagram post with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, Friday’s attendees note. It is, those at the Muskegon event explain, about putting in the time and effort to understand the role systemic racism plays in our community and country and figuring out how to eradicate it, or, at the very least, how to hold people accountable for their racism.
For example, Josie James, a member of the NAACP’s Muskegon chapter, says local officials need to get behind significant change and greater transparency at the Muskegon police department. As part of this call for change, James says the local NAACP will gather petition signatures regarding banning abusive police procedures this summer, as well as call for a greater role for community members in auditing the police budget and gaining information about police behavior.
“We want to know, when we report something about an officer, how they’re disciplined,” says James, who helped Friday’s attendees register to vote and reminded individuals to fill out the 2020 Census.
“We need review of the police department by an independent community organization,” she continues and adds that she sits on the Citizens Police Review Board in Muskegon, which James says currently “has no power.”
Additionally, all Muskegon police need to be outfitted with body cameras, Johnson says. Currently, City of Muskegon police have seven body cameras. Police Chief Jeffrey Lewis said he would like the department to have more body cameras, recently noting that it would cost between $350,000 and $500,000 to purchase body cameras for all officers. Johnson also emphasizes the importance of community input with regards to police contracts.
“It is necessary for each of you to support strong, meaningful police reform, body cams, and oversight, and demand accountability through legislative policy change,” Johnson says. “I know you support it, but support it by writing your commissioners, state representatives, [Police] Chief Lewis, and [Muskegon County Prosecutor] D.J. Hilson, and mobilize support within the community so these reforms become the new normal.”
Tamar Porter, a Muskegon-based artist known as “Mr. 1204,” says Muskegon police too must be held accountable for past wrongs, and he’s calling for a reinvestigation into the killing of Julius Johnson, a 23-year-old Muskegon man who was shot and killed in 2009 by Muskegon Police Officer Charles Anderson. Last year, the City of Muskegon suspended Anderson from the Muskegon Police force after Klu Klux Klan memorabilia was found in the officer’s home. Per an agreement Anderson signed with the city, the officer will retire with a pension and health insurance on Dec. 31, 2020.
“I can’t come up here and talk about George Floyd without talking about Julius Johnson,” Porter tells the crowd at Hackley Park. “He didn’t get justice; nobody protested for him…We’ve got to reopen the case.”
As Muskegon, and the entire country, faces its systemic racism, it is important to recognize that change is, indeed, happening, says Muskegon activist Patsy Petty.
“I didn’t think I would live to see a moment like this; this is history,” Petty says.
While growing up in Arkansas, where she lived prior to moving to Muskegon, Petty repeatedly faced white supremacy and racism.
“When I was in the South as a kid, there would be fountains that said ‘whites only,’” she says. “My grandma had scars from when the Klan bombed her house. I thank the good Lord I’m living for this moment.”
After moving to Muskegon, it wasn’t long before Petty got involved in community activism—and she has spent the past 50 years involved in the political landscape. On Friday, while passing out applications for absentee ballots, she remembers a lifetime of fighting for racial equity—including marching with the NAACP for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“When I see this movement now, my heart is so warmed,” Petty says. “The things I’ve been fighting for all my life are coming into existence.”
Juneteenth celebrations will continue from 12:30pm-5pm on Saturday, June 20 at Smith-Ryerson Park (650 Wood St. in Muskegon). Hosted by Black Wall Street Muskegon, the “Community Juneteenth Celebration” will include food, games, music, and more. For additional information, please click here.
For more photos of Friday’s event, see below.