The racial divide in Detroit is a big topic of conversation lately. Whether it’s gentrification of downtown and midtown, access to water, diversity in the workplace, new vs. old Detroit, or incidents like the beating of Steven Utash, the conversation has cropped up in a lot of different ways as Detroit tries to rebound economically.
But what does the situation look like on the ground? That’s something we’re very interested in as a publication.
At about 4:30 p.m. on Saturday we got word that Al Sharpton’s National Action Network would be at a protest in front of the Atwater Brewery at 5:30 p.m. The protest was related to an eviction dispute involving the owner of the Tangerine Room Supper Club, Darnell Small, and owner of the building and Atwater Brewery, Mark Reith.
At 5:30 p.m., the corner was up to what seemed to be usual business. Atwater patrons sipped beers on the sidewalk, a food truck had posted up by the back entrance and a game of corn hole carried on inside. We bumped into Small outside of the Tangerine Room and he said that yes in fact, people would be showing up anytime to begin the protest.
At about 6:30 p.m., a group of about 15 African American protesters with the group National Action Network, began to rally “Hi Ho, Hi Ho, Atwater has got to go.” Aside from the Channel 7 news van, it seemed as if we were the only other media outlet present.
Here’s where things got strange.
Our attempts to take pictures and get quotes were met with angry resistance from the protestors, who would not comment on the purpose or significance of the demonstration. Two members of the group disrupted our ability to take quality pictures by recording us with their smartphones and holding them up to our lens, and standing in the way as we moved to get a better angle. Obstruction of journalism, if you will.
It was confusing to say the least; there we were to tell the story, their story, and we were met with direct resistance and shouting as if we were in fact, the enemy. What was a great opportunity for a conversation became a confrontation.
As the protest moved inside of the Atwater Brewery, we pulled aside Mr. Small.
We talked to him for a bit about the particulars of his situation, after all, that was the story we came for. Are black business owners being targeted and pushed out of the city? Or is it other reasons?
Sadly, there was very little information to gather. The dispute between Small and Reith seems legally complex, and unfortunate. According to Small, Atwater has still not granted Darnell access to his space and has withheld his key from him for four weeks. We asked to see legal documents supporting their case, and they said there’d be more on Tuesday. If that’s true and they’re defying a court order, that’s not right and it is a situation that deserves attention. It also seems like this could of been solved a long time ago and in a much simpler manner.
The Reverend Al Sharpton was not present. I wonder if he would have approved of the media being shut down, as a member of the the media himself.
It appeared that the National Action Network had gotten wind of the event and was exploiting it for their own agenda, which could explain the inability to comment on the situation. Check out the clip we’ve embedded below of me asking for more information. It became clear that they were there to make an example of the situation and draw attention to what is perceived as a much bigger problem citywide.
When we pushed for answers about why the protestors behaved as such, we were told basically that it was because we weren’t the right color. We were told the protesters didn’t know who the players were.
We ask, who cares? Isn’t a protest, by definition, a public act calling for attention? As a publication we were there to do the news. To seek and to understand the truth about the situation, and share that with the community. It was clear there wasn’t much understanding to be had in this situation.
The other cameraman we talked to wasn’t sure if the whole thing was even newsworthy.
So we left, unsure of what more there was to do, uncomfortable about our reception, and confused about the tactics employed by the protestors. We were reminded of the hot national topic of videotaping the police and the push for mandatory body cameras.
The Detroit Police a Department did a yeoman’s job moving the protestors out of Atwater Brewery and back into the street where it wound down, with patrons still sipping their beers and the food truck still humming.
The tall man the in the red jumpsuit was still filming us, and others in the group yelled satisfactorily as we walked away. To their dissatisfaction, we can guarantee we will be back on this beat.
The next morning we received an apology from the spokesperson for Darnell Small, who was very clear that he was “in no way the kind of man who wants anyone mistreated – especially members of the media community who are trying to tell his story.” Some of the National Action Network folks, according to him, thought we were working for Atwater.
We accept the apology put forth by Darnell Small.
In the heat of the moment, things can spiral out of control very fast. We must only look to the national news as of late to know this. It was fortunate that this was a minor incident, but it’s clear that racial tension runs high for some groups within the community.
We do believe part of the solution to Detroit’s racial divide is discussion and awareness, and we will continue to cover events in order to foster the important conversation about racial inclusion and fairness as our city moves forward. We have an opportunity to do it differently, and do it better, here in Detroit.
When I unzipped my jacket later, I realized I was wearing my shirt which reads “The City of Detroit: Pretending $hit’s All Good Since 1701.”
Hopefully, one day, Detroit won’t have to pretend anymore.