Leader Staff Writer
Rush hour motorists driving along the M-24 detour on N. Oxford Rd. witnessed a line of protesters Friday, along the sidewalk in front of the high school football field parking lot.
The demonstrators joined similar protests in hundreds of cities and towns across the country in recent weeks, protesting racial injustice and police brutality after a video of a Minneapolis police officer killing an unarmed black man named George Floyd went viral.
Despite being officially cancelled by the organizer, altogether about 100 protesters showed up, with some coming and going between 4 and 6 p.m.
Although the slogan was frequently used, the protest was not formally associated with the activist organization Black Lives Matter.
The event, a “prayer vigil and peaceful protest for George Floyd/against racial injustice,” had been planned by Firmly Rooted Ministries Pastor Tom Donnelly. He had first planned the event for outside the Legacy Center at 925 N Lapeer Rd. (where the Firmly Rooted congregation now meets) Wednesday, June 3.
According to Donnelly, the owner of the Legacy Center had “external pressure” to cancel. Donnelly, who is also the Oxford School Board President, then rescheduled the event to its new location for Friday, June 3, with the approval of Superintendent Tim Throne.
Hours before it was supposed to start, Donnelly cancelled the event again in an announcement on the Firmly Rooted Facebook page.
Donnelly had learned that Oxford Township intended to bill Firmly Rooted or the school district for overtime required by the Sheriff’s Department.
“At that point I had to stop,” Donnelly explained. “I could not put my church in that position.”
Some commented that they were still going anyway. Donnelly went as a private citizen exercising his First Amendment rights.
The protest was well-received among passing motorists, with many – especially big rigs – honking, slowing down or giving thumbs-up.
Besides the honking, the protest was quiet and peaceful. Donnelly brought a megaphone, but only used it to address the protesters before and after.
“If you came here agitated because this thing was cancelled, look around,” Donnelly gestured at the crowd before the protest started, “and don’t be agitated anymore. Let it go.”
There was praying, but there was no shouting, no chanting, no cursing. Nor was there looting, arson, property damage or even litter. Donnelly picked up trash afterward, leaving the area cleaner than he found it.
When he had to reschedule, Donnelly intentionally planned for an area that was both public and visible, but far away from any stores or businesses in case things got out of hand.
There was no police presence. No one from the sheriff’s office drove by to check it out.
“I would like us to respect the law,” Donnelly requested of the protesters, “which means we’re six feet apart from each other. . . I don’t want anybody saying, ‘you radicals did this or that or the other.’ We’re going to give those people in our community who are fearing no reason to fear.”
Donnelly introduced Greg Myers, a black man who lives in Oxford and knows Donnelly through his role on the school board.
“You all just don’t know how much this means to me, to my family, for you all to come out here,” said Myers, who came with his wife and five kids. “I just feel that this showing is more important to me than any showing, any protest that’s happened all over this country and all over this world because it’s happening right where I live.”
Pastor Matt Schuler of Holy Cross Oxford Lutheran Church offered an invocation.
“Heavenly Father,” he prayed, “this day we acknowledge the life of our brother in Christ and our brother in humanity, George Floyd, who is the most recent in a long line of deaths and injustice. . . In justice, Able’s blood cried out to God from the ground, so also George’s blood cries out to you. May we white people be slow to speak and quick to listen to our black brothers and sisters. May we distinguish those who cry out for justice and peace and those who are only seeking to destroy.”
Caden St. John, who is going into eleventh grade, held a sign that said, “Black lives have always & always will matter!”
He said, “I just want to support this movement and Black Lives Matter. The injustice in the police force overall is unreasonable and I want to do my part in protesting it.”
Steve, a resident of Leonard who preferred not to share his last name, proudly waved an American flag.
“I’m protesting against racism, protesting against violence of any kind,” he said. “The looters and all the violence and vandalism – destruction is wrong. But everyone should also be treated equally. I don’t know if that cop leaning on that guy’s neck was racist or not, but that shouldn’t happen to anybody ever, period.”
Samantha Adams came with her six-year-old daughter, Jasmyne, who held a sign she made herself that said “I matter!”
“I think it’s really good to stand up for the ones that you love,” Jasmyne said, “And, it’s been kind of hard for me at times.”
She is half-black, Samantha said. “We’re here so she understands it is okay to be herself. She is a special human being and she matters, just like every other person, she matters.”
Samantha grew up in Detroit, but moved to Oxford her sophomore year in high school. The transition from a diverse area to a majority-white town was difficult. “I was told, I was forewarned I would have a hard time here. And I saw hard times but there were also people who loved on me.”
Most protesters were from Oxford or the surrounding area. Every outside protester this reporter spoke with had some connection to Oxford, having grown up here or having family or friends here.
Mike Stump, an Oxford High School graduate who now lives in Clarkston, drove to the protest because he knows Donnelly and a lot of people in the community.
“Just trying to support the Black Lives Matter movement and peace and unity for the community,” he said. “Just trying to get everybody together, stop the hate.”
Michael Myers, a relative of Greg Myers, lives in Pontiac. “I’m here for the cause. For black, white, brown, pink, blue, for whatever,” he said.
After protesting in Detroit and Pontiac, Myers said Oxford’s protest was totally different. “This is a peaceful protest, this is what it’s about.”
Amy McCartney of Rochester Hills, held a sign that said “Neutral is not an option.” She came to support her friends, the Myers family.
“I really think I’ve been neutral for a long time,” she said. “I don’t think I took the time to understand (or) to listen. I think watching George Floyd die changed everything. I don’t think seeing that and then not doing something, to me, is the same as being on the wrong side of this.”
A few folks said they came specifically because it was cancelled.
“In my own town, there are people in leadership that are trying to shut down people peacefully saying they care about other people. And that’s just wrong,” Benjamin Donnelly said.
“They told us not to come here today, so we’re here,” Eva Yagley said.
Many were not part of the Firmly Rooted congregation. Other community faith leaders attended, including Pastor Jesse Holt of Lake Point Community Church and Pastor Jennifer Jue of Oxford United Methodist Church.
There were also teachers from the high school.
“It’s our last day of school and we just walked out and joined,” said Leslie Okasinski, an eleventh grade language arts teacher.
“I have some students who are black and I want them to know that I stand for justice for them and that their lives matter no less than mine or anyone else’s. That’s why I’m out here,” she said.
Oxford Village Councilwoman Allison Kemp held a sign that said, “End White Silence.”
“I wanted to show my support for the cause and show that allies matter,” Kemp said. “I’m proud to see so many people show up to support a peaceful protest. I’m glad to see so many passionate people in our community.”
Oxford Village President Joe Frost brought a “Love Oxford” yard sign.
“I’m a firm believer in the First Amendment,” Frost said. “People have a right to protest. People have a right to due process in this country. And what we’re seeing in the last few weeks is due process breaking down, that police officers across our country have become judge, jury and executioner. I support our police department, I support sound practices and I support due process. Mr. Floyd and others in our nation’s history have not received that due process.”
Decision to Cancel
Pastor Donnelly was upset that the Township did not contact him directly. He had to reach out to them to find out what was going on. This didn’t leave him much time to make a decision.
“I don’t know what they were going to do, send me a bill afterwards and not even let me know it was coming?”
Wanting to “do it the right way” from the beginning, Donnelly had been in contact with the Sheriff’s Office, which he says was “supportive the whole way, without a doubt.”
He talked with them eight or nine times in four or five days. “So, this is not something that we were going into blindly or irresponsibly.”
The Sheriff’s Office never mentioned a bill, he says.
He assumed it was “a civic thing” paid for by the Township. “I don’t know what other towns are doing, but I can’t believe they’re charging somebody to pay for the overtime.” Donnelly referred to nearby towns that have also been having protests, such as Lake Orion and Rochester.
“There is something wrong with our leadership when a pastor who is trying to do something right gets manipulated and shut down.”
Oxford Township released this statement:
With regard to Firmly Rooted’s public announcement that it had cancelled its June 5 event at Oxford High School entitled, “Peacemakers Arise! Oxford for Floyd: End Racial Injustice,” the Charter Township of Oxford wishes to make it very clear that we did not cancel this event, force its cancellation or tell Firmly Rooted that it could not hold its event.
On June 4, Oxford Township Supervisor Bill Dunn informed Oxford Schools Superintendent Tim Throne that based on a recommendation from the Oakland County Sheriff’s Oxford Township substation command staff, an additional police presence would be required for this event as a strictly precautionary measure.
Supervisor Dunn informed Supt. Throne that either the school district or Firmly Rooted or both would be billed for the additional police presence, which is standard procedure for any and all scheduled or planned events held in Oxford Township that require a level of law enforcement that’s outside or above normal, everyday staffing levels.
Supervisor Dunn reached out to Supt. Throne because the district had approved use of the Oxford High School parking lot in conjunction with Firmly Rooted’s scheduled event.
In the past, the township has consistently billed other government entities, private organizations, businesses and private individuals whenever they have held a scheduled or planned event that required an additional police presence or they requested additional law enforcement services.
The Oxford Township Parks and Recreation Department is billed for the additional police presence required for the Seymour Celebration. Whenever Tough Mudder held its events at the Koenig Sand and Gravel property, that organization was billed for additional police presence. Whenever the Midwest LAX Bash (a lacrosse tournament) was held at Seymour Lake Township Park, the organizers were billed for the additional police presence. The Lakes of Indianwood subdivision has a mini-contract with the sheriff’s office by which it pays for extra patrols.
The decision to bill Firmly Rooted and/or the school district for additional police at the scheduled June 5 event was nothing out of the ordinary nor was it designed to be punitive. The decision was about fairness and consistency. The township simply cannot discriminate or show favoritism by charging for the additional police presence at one planned event and not charging for it at another.
Here are Supervisor Dunn’s response.
1. When Lt. Patterson and Sgt. Lenz told me about Firmly Rotted plans to hold their event at the high school, their recommendation to me was to have additional officers on duty for the event as a purely precautionary measure.
Even though Firmly Rooted’s intention was to hold a peaceful prayer vigil and protest, the substation’s command staff was concerned about the possibility of some people attending to cause trouble or maybe even harm the event’s participants. The command staff was also concerned about the possibility of a very large crowd showing up for the event due to it being advertised on social media.
Lt. Patterson and Sgt. Lenz recommended assigning five additional officers for this event. Working on overtime, the total cost for these five officers would have been approximately $1,400.
They made this recommendation based on their extensive training, experience and expertise. These are two of the finest officers that I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with and when they make a recommendation, I take it very seriously because they’re the law enforcement professionals, not me. I trust their judgment because they have never given me any reason not to.
Fortunately, the evet was peaceful and I’m very thankful for that. But we could not just assume everything was going to be fine and make no preparations. Looking back, it’s very easy for some people to say, ‘See, nothing happened. You didn’t need extra police.’ But if something had happened and our officers didn’t have adequate manpower to handle it, people could have gotten hurt, then the township would have been blamed and criticized for doing nothing to prepare. I’d rather err on the side of caution when it comes to protecting the public and keeping the peace.
2. In hindsight, I should have reached out to Pastor Donnelly about billing for the extra police, but I honestly felt that by calling Superintendent Throne on June 4, I had accomplished that because of Mr. Throne’s close working relationship with Pastor Donnelly and the school district’s connection to this event. Pastor Donnelly is the president of the school board and the district had given him permission to use the high school’s parking lot as a part of Firmly Rooted’s event. I believed notifying Mr. Throne was a proper channel in this case. There was absolutely no intention on my part or the township’s part to conceal the police billing from Pastor Donnelly. On June 4, Pastor Donnelly called township Trustee Jack Curtis regarding the township’s intention to bill for the additional police presence. Trustee Curtis told Pastor Donnelly that he’s not the township supervisor and therefore, not the correct person to address this matter. Trusteed Curtis directed Pastor Donnelly to call the supervisor to discuss the issue. Pastor Donnelly never called me.
3. The township’s intention to bill Firmly Rooted or the school district (since they were allowing the use of their property for it) or both for the additional police presence was by no means an attempt to force the cancellation of this event or prevent people from expressing themselves. The township was simply doing what it has always done whenever extra police are required for a planned, special event. We bill the people responsible for the event. We’ve always done that in the past and I saw no reason not to continue that practice in this case. We have to be fair to everyone. We can’t say, ‘Ok, we’re going to bill you for your event, but we’re not going to bill these people over here for their event.” You have to be consistent and fair. That was my goal and the township’s intention here – to be consistent and fair. Nothing else. If we didn’t do that, we’d have people asking, ‘How come you didn’t bill them, but you billed me?’ The township can’t be in the business of playing favorites.