Statewide convention brings hundreds of community leaders together with elected officials
Michigan United held its annual statewide convention Saturday in Southwest Detroit. The theatre across from St. Francis D’Assisi church was filled to the rafters with immigrants, faith leaders and union members from the UAW, SEIU, Teamsters and the Michigan Nurses Association. There was also a strong contingent from the Detroit Action Commonwealth, low-income and homeless people fighting for their right to live with dignity. “No one else is working to build a statewide multi-racial organization like ours.” said Freddy Polanco, SEIU organizer and Michigan United board member. “No one else is taking on the toughest issues of poverty, racism, and inequality head on. I am so proud to be part of this team.”
They all came together to remember the fights they’ve been through together, like when they stood up to armed, white nationalists who wanted to send refugee children back into the violence they were fleeing. They also celebrated the resulting victories from the past year, like the President’s decision to stop breaking up families by deporting innocent immigrants, getting boarder patrol officers to wear body cameras and restoring the authority of the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners.
Alexis Wiley, Chief of Staff for Detroit Mayor, Mike Duggan was on hand at the City Council meeting where they voted unanimously to pass the resolution to restore the board in December to express the Mayor’s support for the move. She also stood in for the Mayor at the convention where she was able to publicly state Duggan’s position on municipal ID’s. The identifications would help those with documentation problems, like the homeless and immigrants, to access critical social services. Wiley said “No one in this city should be forced to live in the margins.”
Another battle Michigan United is currently engaged in is the fight to end mass incarceration and keep youth out of the pipeline that leads from school into prison. “The present prison system destroys families, communities and futures. Mass incarceration is maybe the clearest example of unequal justice in our country.” said Rev. Louis Forsythe II of Pleasant Grove Missionary Baptist Church. “People of color, African-Americans and Latinos, receive the short end of thestick on almost every level. The police treat us differently, more aggressively, and profile us more often because of the color of our skin. We get longer sentences than whites for similar crimes. Instead of investing in Job training, opportunities, education and strong communities, our government has built prisons and enacted longer sentences.”
Recently, a bipartisan group of Michigan lawmakers introduced a package of bills to do just that. Most notably, it would prevent 17 year olds from automatically being sentenced as adults. Three of the bill’s sponsors, Martin Howrylack, Leslie Love and Harvey Santana were on stage at the convention.
“There’s an attorney general in this state who says ‘To hell with that package’.” Said Santana. “But I do believe there are people in this state that are going to stand up and say ‘You had better listen to what those folks in Lansing are saying because this ain’t right.’ and those people are you!”
Currently, Michigan is one of just nine states that considers 17 year olds adults for sentencing purposes although they are not considered adults for any other legal reason. At the courts discretion, they can treat ids of any age as grown ups.
“They can not serve in the military, they can not even vote, “Said Howrylak. “and yet, as young as 11 years old, for some reason this country, this state has decided that these kids should be treated like hard criminals and adults. What kind of Justice is that?”
“It’s beyond time we change the way we sentence and punish youth”. Said Love. “We should give them opportunities to become something in life instead of sentencing them at 17 and making them serve adult time in adult prisons.”
Kendall Campbell of “Fair Chance 4 All” in Kalamazoo described how his organization worked with Michigan United to begin undoing the damage created by mass incarceration in his community by getting the City of Kalamazoo to require all businesses that receive tax breaks and incentives to commit to non-discriminatory hiring practices for people with criminal backgrounds. To do this, they worked with Humans Beyond Boxes, a local storytelling collective of people with criminal backgrounds to tell the stories of families facing incarceration. They also met with Kalamazoo Mayor, Bobby Hopewell to encourage him to endorse their idea.
Michigan United also held a voter forum in conjunction with the League of Women Voters which gave candidates could publicly take a position on the issue. Majyck D, a popular Kalamazoo radio personality served as moderator. “I have seen too many families torn apart by our incarceration system. “ said Majyck D. “I have seen too many children in my community robbed of their childhood, and treated like they are less than Human. Our government shouldn’t be locking up our children and giving up on their futures.”