Ypsi Immigration Interview: Jeff “Shappy” Seasholtz

As we’ve been posting a lot of exit interviews lately, I though that we’d mix things up a bit and post an interview with someone who, like me, consciously chose to return to Ypsilanti. Here’s my immigration interview with poet, writer and performer Jeff “Shappy” Seasholtz.


MARK: I first saw you, if I’m not mistaken, in about 1991. I was drunk, cutting through someone’s backyard in Ann Arbor, when I encountered you. If I remember correctly, you were illuminated by a spotlight. Or maybe there were a bunch of people pointing flashlights at you. I don’t believe they were police officers, but I suppose it’s possible. You were singing a song about the Brady Bunch. I’d thought it was a dream until, one day, many years later, I mentioned this event to Linette, and described the man that I’d seen, and she responded by saying, “Oh, I think that must have been my friend, Jeff.”

JEFF: Wow! That must have been at a hippie party at a co-op house I went to with a bunch of Ypsi friends! That was the first time I had ever encountered a co-op and it was quite a culture shock! I was hanging out with a weird crew back then, a mix of hippies and punks. Somebody’s band must have been playing, so we went to support. Back then it didn’t take much encouragement to get up on stage and doing something. I used to host Open Mic Night at Cross Street Station, so all the Ypsi musicians knew me. I also played for beer money at the Ann Arbor Art Fair, just making up songs about people as they walked by.

11846651_404488579737061_8750481936463860579_nMARK: Art Fair just ended. Any chance you were back at it, writing songs about people?

JEFF: Alas, I sold my guitar at a garage sale in Austin a while back. I’m sure it’s been played more since I sold it than during the entirety of my ownership.

MARK: As for my early encounter with you, was I right about the song being about the Brady Bunch? The more I think about it, the more I think it could have been Gilligan’s Island.

JEFF: I had a song accusing the Bradys of being Aryans. It was called “The Nazi Bunch”. I also used to sing the theme to Gilligan’s Island to the tune of Bob Seeger’s “Night Moves”. My favorite part was singing “Bob Denver’s closing in” at the end.

MARK: All of that sounds vaguely familiar. Maybe I didn’t just stumble through. Maybe I stayed for your whole set.

JEFF: I also had songs about how much I loved bras and pot! The pot song was a result of wandering around Hash Bash back in the day.

MARK: How did you come to be friends with Linette and her crew? Were you in the EMU dorms at the same time?

JEFF: I was in the dorms for two years. I don’t think I met Linette and her crew until my 3rd year of college, though. I’m pretty sure we met at Cross Street Station. It could have been an open mic night. Maybe it was one of the numerous after-parties, though.

MARK: Where do EMU students meet one another now that Cross Street Station is gone? Crossroads is right down the street, but I don’t get the sense that there’s the same EMU presence. Maybe kids these days don’t need bars, though. Maybe they’re content just doing meth and playing Pokemon Go in the woods.

JEFF: It would be interesting to see a study on whether or not college kids hang out in bars in Ypsi anymore. Maybe they all go to Ann Arbor. Or maybe they just have parties in their houses these days. Crossroads seems to have a lot of hip-hop shows. I’m fine hanging with the townies at the Tap Room.

MARK: So, you used to live in Ypsi, and now you’re back. Would you call this a “triumphant return”, or is there another phrase that would sum it up better?

JEFF: It’s more of a “What should I do with my life?” decision. I left EMU without graduating back in ‘91, and I just recently figured out that I only need about four courses to finish my major… I still need to establish a minor, though.

MARK: You were, if I’m not mistaken, a nation Forensics champion when you were at EMU, right?

JEFF: Yes. In fact, I was inducted into the Forensics Hall Of Fame in 2009, which means I have a plaque with my name on it in the Quirk Building. It’s crazy. And it’s kept me connected to EMU. When I lived in Austin, Texas, there was a national Forensics competition in San Antonio, and I was asked by EMU to tag along as a judge. And, when I got there, I met the head coach of the University of Texas Forensics team. He asked if I’d coach for them the next season, and I said, “Yes!” The rules and form of competitive speaking (which is what Forensics is all about) had changed quite a bit over the decades I’d been away from it, but it was fun to coach young, talented performers, and give my advice as “former National Champion”. And, I figured, if I came back to Ypsi, I could get back into the Forensics program and coach while finishing my degree in Theater/Communications.


MARK: And has that worked out? Have you reconnected with the Forensics team here at EMU?

JEFF: I got here just as the team was leaving for Nationals, but I plan to help out as a coach this fall.

MARK: So what kind of minor are you thinking about to accompany the Theater degree?

JEFF: I was thinking of taking more art classes. I thought it might motivate me to start working on a graphic novel. I’ve always been a cartoonist at heart and even had a regular strip on the internet for a few years.

MARK: How many years have you been away, and what did you do during that time?

JEFF: I left Ypsi in 1991 and moved to Chicago with a bunch of my EMU Forensics and Theater cronies. Our plan was to start a theater company. Chicago had a big “up and coming” theater scene back then with Steppenwolf, and a lot of “alternative” improv groups were starting out. Our crew put together a show based on the “Living Newspaper”, which was a WPA program that employed actors to act out the events of the day in a theatrical production. Our production was called EVERY SPECK OF DUST THAT FALLS TO EARTH REALLY DOES MAKE THE WHOLE PLANET HEAVIER which was a quote from The Phantom Tollbooth, I believe. We did 3 editions, and then cast members started leaving Chicago. We kept going, however, with a new company called “Spin ½” that did a musical about Quantum Physics that featured Rennie Sparks from The Handsome Family. We also did a show about dreams that had a live band and lots of multimedia stuff involved. Eventually, the group was down to 5 members, and we did one last show of short plays before disbanding. It’s a shame since I had big plans to do a musical called Dave Koresh-Superstar, but it was one of those “too soon” situations. I then discovered poetry slam at the Green Mill and started getting involved with that whole scene. I worked at Chicago Comics and Quimby’s, and then I eventually moved to NYC to open the Bowery Poetry Club. Then I went to Philly for a year, and then Austin for a few years, and then back to Ohio, where I’m originally from. And it was in Ohio that I started thinking about returning to Ypsi. There’s so much more I could say, but I’m trying to keep it short!

MARK: That’s right… I’d forgotten that you used to sell our zine, Crimewave USA, at Quimby’s.

JEFF: Yep, I was so happy when I randomly picked up Crimewave USA and read all of your grumblings about Ypsi and all of Linette’s reasons why it was so awesome. I seem to remember you were amazed at the number of porn shops there were at the time. I don’t think that’s the case anymore.

1459907_10151707902136333_1145784327_nMARK: How has Ypsi changed in the time that you’ve been gone?

JEFF: For one, where did all the porn shops go?

MARK: I’m sure it’s just a coincidence, but they all started struggling financially at around the same time you left town.

JEFF: I only went for the whip-its and Tijuana bibles.

MARK: So, other changes you’ve noticed between ‘91 Ypsi and 2016 Ypsi…

JEFF: Nobody ever used to go downtown when I went to school here. I don’t think I ever drank at the Tap Room. It was mostly abandoned and scary down there, as I recall. Now I’m downtown all of the time! It’s amazing how many cool shops and restaurants have opened down here! The campus has a bunch of new buildings, nobody smokes anymore, and, as we discussed, Cross Street Station is gone. It feels less fratty and run-down than it was when I went here. When I came back, I had a new appreciation for all of the historic buildings and the nice community vibe you feel when you hang out in Depot Town, or just walking through the park.

MARK: And how have you changed? How is the old Jeff Seasholtz different from the new Jeff Seasholtz?

JEFF: Well, I’m way more nostalgic than I was in my college years, but, even then, I hung out with a whole crew of people that were decorating their apartments with cast-off furniture and art from the ‘70s. There was even a gang of guys that lived like they were a gang of Fonzies from the Fifties. Then there were all of the hippies and punks that clashed at the open-mic. It was an interesting mix of pop culturists. I was already a theater nerd who was into comic books, old TV shows and Mad magazine, so I fit right in. That would explain the Brady Bunch and Gilligan folk songs.

MARK: What do you miss the most from the old Ypsilanti?

JEFF: I miss how much I was able to hang out with so many different groups of people and have real conversations about all kinds of things. We couldn’t Google anything back then, a single collective memory of a MASH episode could spark hours of conversation! Everybody was always coming up with some sort of creative project. Even a party required artwork for flyers, decorations and mix tapes. It was also fun to watch the different crowds I hung out with mingle. I’d bring a theater geek to a party and they would be like, “How do you know all of these people?” I never understood people who just hung out with the same people all of the time. Especially, in college when it’s the best time to get to know all manner of folks!

MARK: And what brought you to Ypsi in the first place? Did you come here for college?

JEFF: I received a scholarship for Forensics which, ironically, decreased the better I did at Nationals every year! That and the fact that I wanted to leave Ohio to go to school. I think I was like one of a group of 15 that left Ohio after graduating high school. I’ve been a ramblin’ man ever since.

MARK: Why was it that you so desperately wanted to get out of Ohio?

JEFF: I still love Ohio, in fact, my last big project was called American Buckeye which is all about growing up nerdy in the burbs. That’s what I’d like to turn into a graphic novel someday! Back in high school I figured if you are going to go to college, you should go somewhere unfamiliar and meet new people instead of going to an Ohio college where you know a third of the incoming freshmen. Challenge yourself, young man! Of course, I ended up living with 3 black track team members from Detroit! Talk about culture shock! I ended up writing papers for them for money so it all worked out.

MARK: A few months ago, during the Wurst Challenge, I got horribly ill and had to run home, where I laid on the bathroom floor in a pool of sweat and other fluids until I had enough strenght to drive myself to the hospital. As I was leaving the Wurst Bar, I handed you the mic, and asked that you take over as MC. I felt bad, as you’d already had a few Undercover Investigation Shut-down Ales, but I heard that you did a masterful job…

JEFF: I love having a microphone in front of me or, in this case, in my hands! I’ve been hosting things since my 9th grade talent show! That was one of the fun things about working at the Bowery Poetry Club, I would host like 2-4 shows a week sometimes! I was the main MC for our weekly poetry slam or at least the Open-Mic part, I hosted a burlesque show called Skits-N-Tits and I was always ready to step in for the big Monday Open-Mic if needed! I love live events, and I love reminding people that are participating in a live event. Entertainment seems so passive these days. I think people should be rewarded for attending live events more often through verbal praise and acknowledgement. Plus, it was an action-packed event full of twists and surprises! I’m glad I got to help out for a good cause! Met a lot of cool people as well!

2010_0722_TheInspiredWord_NexusLounge_NYC (48 of 62)MARK: So, what would you like to accomplish while you’re here?

JEFF: Well, I for sure like the funky attitude out here and hope to get involved in the local performance scene out here. I haven’t seen much of it since I’ve only been here three months but I know it’s out there. I came right as school was wrapping up so it’s going to be weird when all of the students come back. I’d like to see a cool bookstore open here that I could book some of my touring poetry and comedy friends at to perform. I hope to get involved with the speech team on some level and once I get enrolled that allows me to audition for plays at EMU again which could be interesting since when I attended school here I played a wide variety of dirty old man parts. Now, I AM a dirty old man! Overall, I dig Ypsi’s energy and I want to partake of it!

MARK: In the time since we started this interview, I understand a few things have changed. Most notably, you had a falling out with your roommate, leaving you without a place to live. What kind of arrangement are you looking for? Maybe someone in the audience can help.

JEFF: I was asked to move out here to watch my old college friend’s dogs while they went to Detroit to help out at their friend’s restaurant. In that time, I have got all of my Michigan paperwork in order, I’ve had a job that turned out not to be a good fit for me and a few interviews for other jobs, but no bites. I did bring some stuff to sell on eBay and am finding good stuff to flip here in the Ypsi/Arbor area so I am making some money, just not REAL money. Despite the fact that the roommate was gone most of time since I’ve been here, I am “in their space” too often even if I am just sitting in my room reading. I’m trying to be as unobtrusive as possible but you can’t please everyone all of time, I guess. All I am looking for is a job where I am not on my feet all day and a place to lay my head at night without feeling like I don’t belong there. It’s a drag when you have over 20 years of bookstore experience only to find there are no bookstores nearby. I just got here so I’m not ready to abandon my Ypsi dreams quite yet!

MARK: So you think you might stick around this time?

JEFF: I could easily see myself making roots here. We’ll just have to see if my luck starts changing soon! Hire me, Ypsi! I’ll treat you right, baby!

And here’s Jeff “Shappy” Seasholtz performing “I Am That Nerd” on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam.

[Still wondering why people are moving to Ypsi? Check out the Ypsilanti Immigration Interview archive.]

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To what extent is Donald Trump a surrogate of Vladimir Putin?


Just before the Republican National Convention, the Republican party released their new platform for 2016. The New York Times called it “the most extreme Republican platform in memory.” Among other things, according to the Times, this new platform outlined positions “making no exceptions for rape or women’s health in cases of abortion; requiring the Bible to be taught in public high schools; selling coal as a ‘clean’ energy source; demanding a return of federal lands to the states; insisting that legislators use religion as a guide in lawmaking; appointing ‘family values’ judges; barring female soldiers from combat; and rejecting the need for stronger gun controls — despite the mass shootings afflicting the nation every week.” This apparently came to pass largely because Donald Trump, who would go on just a few days later to accept the party’s nomination for President, didn’t push back. With one notable exception, Trump and his team, accepted everything that was suggested without debate.

According to Talking Points Memo, “The Trump Camp was totally indifferent to the platform. So party activists were able to write one of the most conservative platforms in history. Not with Trump’s backing but because he simply didn’t care. With one big exception: Trump’s team mobilized the nominee’s traditional mix of cajoling and strong-arming on one point: changing the party platform on assistance to Ukraine against Russian military operations in eastern Ukraine.”

That’s right. They didn’t push back against any of the retrograde domestic policies, but, curiously, they insisted that proposed wording about our need to arm the Ukraine to fight Russian and rebel forces be stricken, “contradicting the view of almost all Republican foreign policy leaders in Washington,” according to the Washington Post.

And this is the first thing that came to mind this morning when I read Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager’s comments concerning the recent Wikileaks release of some 20,000 DNC emails which appear to show that those overseeing the Democratic primary process were biased in favor Clinton. Telling CNN’s Jake Tapper “I don’t think it’s coincidental that these emails were released on the eve of our convention,” Robby Mook went on to say that security experts have indicated that the hack was initiated in Russia. “What’s disturbing to us is that experts are telling us Russian state actors broke into the DNC, stole these emails, and other experts are now saying that the Russians are releasing these emails for the purpose of actually of helping Donald Trump,” Mook said.

And, with that, I went down a rabbit hole leading me to the terrifying conclusion that Trump very well may be running as a proxy for Russian dictator Vladimir Putin.

I mean, I knew the two men had made statements in the past concerning their admiration for one another, but I had no idea just how deep the connections went. Take, for instance, the fact that Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, had worked for many years for Viktor Yanukovych, the Putin-backed former president of Ukraine. Or, how about the fact that a good deal of Trump’s current wealth can be tracked backed to Russia?

Following are three points from Talking Points Memo about the financial connection between Trump and Russian oligarchs with ties to Putin.

1. All the other discussions of Trump’s finances aside, his debt load has grown dramatically over the last year, from $350 million to $630 million. This is in just one year while his liquid assets have also decreased. Trump has been blackballed by all major US banks.

2. Post-bankruptcy Trump has been highly reliant on money from Russia, most of which has over the years become increasingly concentrated among oligarchs and sub-garchs close to Vladimir Putin.

3. One example of this is the Trump Soho development in Manhattan, one of Trump’s largest recent endeavors. The project was the hit with a series of lawsuits in response to some typically Trumpian efforts to defraud investors by making fraudulent claims about the financial health of the project. Emerging out of that litigation however was news about secret financing for the project from Russia and Kazakhstan. Most attention about the project has focused on the presence of a twice imprisoned Russian immigrant with extensive ties to the Russian criminal underworld.

Relevant to the second point, here’s an interesting quote from Trump’s son, Donald Jr., as reported by the Washington Post earlier this year. “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets… We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.” [This, according to the article, was said at a 2008 real estate conference.] And Trump himself said in a 2007 deposition, “Russia is one of the hottest places in the world for investment.”

So, having been turned away by every bank in the United States, where he’s known to be a crook and swindler, Trump apparently cozied up to Russians like Aras Agalarov, who was among those in 2013 to pony up a reported $14 million to bring Trump’s Miss Universe pageant to Moscow. [It’s been reported that Agalarov and Trump have also talked about building a Trump Tower in Moscow.]

In an article posted just recently on The Atlantic’s site titled It’s Official: Hillary Clinton Is Running Against Vladimir Putin, Jeffrey Goldberg put’s it this way. “I am not suggesting that Donald Trump is employed by Putin… I am arguing that Trump’s understanding of America’s role in the world aligns with Russia’s geostrategic interests; that his critique of American democracy is in accord with the Kremlin’s critique of American democracy; and that he shares numerous ideological and dispositional proclivities with Putin—for one thing, an obsession with the sort of ‘strength’ often associated with dictators. Trump is making it clear that, as president, he would allow Russia to advance its hegemonic interests across Europe and the Middle East. His election would immediately trigger a wave of global instability—much worse than anything we are seeing today—because America’s allies understand that Trump would likely dismantle the post-World War II U.S.-created international order. Many of these countries, feeling abandoned, would likely pursue nuclear weapons programs on their own, leading to a nightmare of proliferation.”

And it seems to be getting worse. Just recently, in an interview with Maggie Haberman and David Sanger of The New York Times, Trump suggested that we may have to reduce our military presence in the world. He even went so far as to say that, if he were president, he may not automatically honor the security guarantees we have with other NATO nations. “He even called into question whether, as president, he would automatically extend the security guarantees that give the 28 members of NATO the assurance that the full force of the United States military has their back,” wrote Habermas and Sanger. “For example, asked about Russia’s threatening activities that have unnerved the small Baltic States that are the most recent entrants into NATO, Mr. Trump said that if Russia attacked them, he would decide whether to come to their aid only after reviewing whether those nations ‘have fulfilled their obligations to us’.”

So this goes a little bit deeper than Trump just saying that he admires Putin and the way he “handles” journalists, and Putin making complimentary comments in response… Just how financially beholden is Trump to Putin and his fellow oligarchs? I don’t know. But, given everything outlined above, I’d say that it’s at least possible that there are Russian forces other forces pushing Trump toward the White House. I know it’s unlikely, but, the more I read, and the more I think back about all of the insane things that Trump has said over the past year, the more I wonder if, just maybe, he’s been trying this whole time to throw the election and get out of some agreement he’s had with Putin, only to find his polling numbers jumping every time he calls a woman a “pig” or makes fun of a handicapped reporter. What if, beneath it all, Trump’s a decent man who just can’t get free of the Russian mob?


[I made the image at the top, but this one is from an old article in New York Magazine.]

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The Disinformants, Crime Victims and Nick Zomparelli usher in Totally Awesome Fest 2016 …on episode 45 of the Saturday Six Pack


Every year, in late April, a free, all-ages, multi-venue festival of weirdness called Totally Awesome Fest descends upon the sleepy little midwestern hamlet of Ypsilanti. There’s no escape from it. No one is immune. Like it or not, you will experience beauty and magic. It permeates every element of village life. Walking through town, one might encounter anything, from a magical cart appearing out of nowhere to dispense fee hot dogs, to an inter-species basketball game at a local park. Bands, it seems, are playing in every backyard, and weirdness lurks around every corner. And, for the past few years, some of that weirdness and magic has been broadcast into the universe by way of the Saturday Six Pack. What you are about to hear is this year’s transmission, which, I’m told, has now reached the edge of our solar system.

[If you would like to listen to episode 45 of The Saturday Six Pack, you can either download it from iTunes or scroll the bottom of the page, where you’ll find the Soundcloud file embedded.]

What you are about to hear isn’t like any other episode of the Saturday Six Pack. There is no deep, thoughtful talk about pressing matters of the day. There are no brilliant, probing questions. No, there’s just droning noise and full-throated screaming against a backdrop of clinking beer bottles, and it’s kind of lovely… if you can get around the sound quality.

After a quick conversation with festival founder Patrick Elkins, we jumped right into things with Anthony Gentile, Larry Johnson and Jeremy Jack of the Disinformants. Here’s festival founder Patrick Elkins trying to explain why it is, since this was billed as a multi-continent event, we’ve yet to see any evidence of bands playing outside of Ypsilanti.


And here are the guys in the Disinformants, who did their best to entertain us, even though we didn’t have a PA for vocals. [They begin at the 4:00 minute mark.] But that’s the charm of Totally Awesome Fest, right? [note: That’s also Anthony singing his lungs out in the header at the top of this post.]


At some point, half-way through their set, our old friend Peter Larson called in live from Kenya to perform a song for us live. It sounded as though he was calling from a tin can on the other end of a slack, thousand mile long piece of string, but it was absolutely lovely, and very much in keeping with the fly by the seat of your pants spirit of Totally Awesome Fest. [Pete’s song can be heard at the 14 minute mark.]

And, at about the 30 minute mark, Totally Awesome Fest co-chair Amber Fellows joins us to take about the historic events of the night before, and hint around about incredible things to come. Here’s Amber.


And, then, we had Crime Victims (Ian Fulcher, Eric Wozniak, Cellik Adams) join us at the 36 minute mark to chat for a while, play some “dissociative drone” for us, and urge everyone in the audience to forget societal norms and allow themselves to dream. Here they are, in their first-ever pre-midnight performance. [Colin Moorhouse, I should add, helped Wozniak turn knobs.]


[The band would like me to remind you that they’re available to perform at weddings, Bar Mitzvahs and yoga classes.]

And then we had on multi-instrumentalist Nick Zomparelli and his loop pedals, performing as NODATA. [He begins setup at 1:19, and we chat until 1:35, when the music starts.]


And we ended the show by talking with Manhole’s Stephen Jolley who came on to cancel a wine and cheese smooth jazz party at his house in Brighton.

Thanks, as always, to AM 1700 for hosting the show and station owner Brian Robb for running the board, making sure the bills paid, and insuring that the toilet paper and bleach stays stocked, and staff photographer Kate de Fuccio for documenting the festivities.

If you like this episode, check out our archive of past shows at iTunes. And do please leave a review if you have the time, OK? It’s nice to know that people are listening, and, unless you call in, that’s pretty much the only way we know.

Now, if you haven’t already, please listen for yourself, and experience the magic firsthand.

[Episode 45 of the Saturday Six Pack was recorded live on April 16, 2016, in historic downtown Ypsilanti, Michigan, in the studies of AM1700 Radio.]

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George Harrison’s estate, saying it was “offensive” to play “Here Comes the Sun” at the RNC, suggests they should have played “Beware of Darkness”


I’d rather not get into specifics, but I had kind of a difficult day yesterday. And, knowing this, Clementine and Linette made me a nice dinner that started with a big gin and tonic, some time alone on the couch with George Harrison, and a big bowl of homemade artichoke dip. [During times of stress, I’m known to seek out Harrison’s 1970 triple album All Things Must Pass.] Interestingly, later that night, as I was catching up on the news, Harrison would come back to me in a story about the Republican National Convention. It would seem that, just before Trump’s daughter Ivanka took the stage to declare her father “the people’s champion,” they played Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun”. And, as you might imagine, the musician’s family was not terribly pleased… Following are two tweets sent out by the Harrison estate.

The first references their displeasure with the Trump campaign for using “Here Comes the Sun”.

Screen Shot 2016-07-23 at 9.32.15 PM

And the second suggests a song that might have been better suited for the occasion, Harrison’s “Beware of Darkness,” which I’ve also quoted in the graphic at the top of the post.

Screen Shot 2016-07-23 at 9.32.26 PM

And, here, if you’re unfamiliar with the song, is video of Harrison and his friends performing “Beware of Darkness” at The Concert For Bangladesh [Madison Square Garden, 1971].

From now on, whenever I hear Trump’s name mentioned, I know what I’ll be humming.

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Elected leaders and civil rights organizers join Sheriff Clayton to discuss the policing of communities of color at Unity Town Hall


This evening I attended the Unity Town Hall at Eastern Michigan Union, during which Congresswoman Debbie Dingell, Black Lives Matter Organizer Myles McGuire, Wahstenaw County Sheriff Jerry Clayton, Mark Fancher of the Michigan ACLU’s Racial Justice Project, and Washtenaw County Prosecutor Brian Mackie sat before an audience of about 250, responding to questions about civil rights, policing, and what actions are being taken across our community to ensure that no one dies needlessly at the hands of police in Washtenaw County. Following are six highlights.

1. In response to a question from the audience about how officers are trained to de-escalate situations, Clayton talks about how strategies are evolving. In the past, he says, officers were trained to resolve issues as quickly as possible and move on. Now, he says, they’re beginning to give people more space (which he refers to as “tactical repositioning”), and allowing for things to calm down. He also says that, starting in September, officers will be receiving a special two-day training in how to better interact with individuals who are mentally ill, under the influence of narcotics, or suffering from dementia. Fancher says that Clayton has the right idea, but then adds that what’s taught at the police academy, and in classes such as this, is often cast aside on the street, once new recruits are partnered with veterans who tell them that, in communities of color, they need to be rough and “establish control” if they want to survive. Clayton agrees that this can happen, but says that cultures can be changed when department leadership, from top to bottom, is in line, policies are clearly articulated, and unwanted behaviors are addressed.

2. Someone asks how things can change when police officers refuse to violate the “blue code,” call one another out for their behaviors, and demand accountability. Fancher says that’s the big question in all of this, adding that it should be on the police to clean this up, as they started all of this by killing innocent people. Clayton agrees that there needs to be more accountability from top to bottom. He also stresses that more than 90% of cops are essentially good. Asked how to fix the problem, Fancher says that so-called rogue cops need to be disciplined. “Police leadership cannot be intimidated by police unions,” he says. Furthermore, he says that we need to get to know the rank and file officers, and not just the same representatives of the police force that attend public events. Every local organization, he says, should invite beat cops in to talk. And these officers should be encouraged to change the “insular culture” within their departments. If officers hear things said by fellow officers that are inconsistent with the stated objectives of the department, Fancher says, they should be empowered to say something.

3. A student from Africa stood up and said that he’s lived here for two years, and that he’s scared. He didn’t know about racism before he came here, he said. “How should I live with fear?” he asked the members of the panel. “Help me understand what should I do.” After a short silence, and some discussion on the panel about how we all have to come together, Fancher said, “We’ve got no room for fear.” Black people, he told this young man, have conquered fear for generations. “Our ancestors would roll over in their graves if they heard that we were afraid after all that they went through,” he said, after noting the struggles of African Americans under slavery, and the threat of violence met by protestors during the civil rights era. “We stared down the barrels of guns with Dr. King without fear,” he said. Others on the panel echoed his sentiments.

4. Prosecutor Mackie was called out by several people. One man asked him directly, “How do black lives matter to you? And how do your practices reflect this?” Mackie responded by saying, “You’ve asked me many questions over the years” to the man who posed the question, to which the man responded, “And you haven’t answered any of them.” Mackie then responded that black lives matter to him because he cares about people, and that “black people are people.” He went on to say that he knows he isn’t much liked, but that prosecutors never are. While he clearly rubbed people the wrong way, he said several things over the course of the evening that I found noteworthy. First, he said that we’re at a period in American history when we have “an openly racist” candidate running for President, and that we need to look out for one another. Second, he told people that, while it’s true that a disproportionate number of those prosecuted by his office aren’t white, it’s also true that crime victims are disproportionately not white. He also noted that, “We are in the most violent state in the Midwest,” and added that 72% of murder victims during a recent year were African American. Third, he acknowledged that “things are not fair.” Public education, he said, is being systematically destroyed, and people, especially people of color, are finding that they have increasingly less economic opportunity in this country. And that, he says, “is going to lead to more participation in crime.” Furthermore, he said, not enough people were taking advantage of the educational opportunities that we do have. While we have Headstart and quality preschool available to everyone, he said, our attendance rates are abysmal, especially in kindergarten, which isn’t mandatory. Education should be mandatory, he said. “We need to educate everybody. That’s how we get better.” And, fourth, he acknowledged that we can do a better job both hiring prosecutors of color and getting juries that better reflect the demographics of our community. He says that finding prosecutors of color, however, is not an easy task, and that many who are called for jury duty don’t show up. On this same subject, he also said that the lists from which they select potential jurors are insufficient, and they need to find new ways to identify people, instead of just relying on tax records and utility bills. [Speaking of Mackie, he was asked directly about the killing of Aura Rosser by police in Ann Arbor and whether or not he had said that her killing was justified because she was mentally ill. He denied having said anything of the kind. The woman posing the question, however, insisted that he had. Another person in the audience said that his office had wrongfully accused two men of crimes that they did not commit. Others claimed that he had not responded to their inquiries concerning cases.]

5. With all of the additional duties we’re asking our police officers take on, a woman asks, how are you able to do it all? How can police officers be expected to know mental health, social work, and everything else, all while having their funding cut? (Mackie says that Washtenaw County at one point had over 600 officers, but now has roughly 500.) “The whole system is jacked up,” she says… In response, Clayton talks about increasing coordination with other entities. He notes a program in Seattle that gives officers the flexibility to hand off first-time non-violent drug offenders to case workers who can offer services in lieu of jail, and says he’d like to explore it here. This not only gets them the help they need, he says, but it keeps them out of the criminal justice system. Fancher says this is where the real potential is. While it’s good to get officers out of their cars and playing basketball with neighborhood kids, he says, this is the kind of thing that will lead to real, meaningful progress… getting officers working at the street level with professionals from different fields, creating a support ecosystem that actually works for citizens.

6. And there was talk about what people can do to lessen their chances of being killed by an officer during routine traffic stops. Clayton says at some point this would have been an easy thing for him to answer. Now, though, he says he’s not so sure. Saying, “I’m being honest with you,” he tells us what he’s told his three sons. Listen to the officers, and don’t make any sudden movements, he says. If you do that, he says, “Most times you’ll be ok.” “If I didn’t think that,” he adds, “I wouldn’t be in the profession.” He goes on to say, however, that it’s not 100%. There are bad cops, he says, and it’s difficult to tell them from the good ones. “You can’t guarantee that you’re going to walk away whole,” he says. “I’m just being honest with you,” he adds. A women in the audience says that, if an officer tries to stop her, she intends to drive to a well-lit public space before pulling over. She also says that she’ll likely call 911 and keep them on the line while she’s interacting with the officer. Fancher suggests that people in the audience may also want to download the ACLU’s Mobile Justice app, which you can use to stream video of your police encounter directly to the ACLU.

There was a lot more. There was a guy in the audience who yelled “All Lives Matter,” only to be told by McGuire that he sounded like someone running up to a firefighter trying to put out a house fire and saying, “All houses matter.” There was also the moment when, in a discussion about prison reform, Debbie Dingell said that we might have common cause with some on the right. After saying that she didn’t think she’d ever utter these words, Dingell said, “The Koch brothers can bring about real change.” And there was a short discussion about Citizen Oversight Committees. (Clayton says that his department has a Citizen Advisory Committee now, but that he has concerns about broad citizen oversight. When asked why, he mentions that, in some instances, they’ve led to terrible results that have required federal intervention.) And there were discussions about white guilt, gun control, any number of other things. If you were at the event and would like to add to my notes, please leave a comment. As I said at the outset, I know these notes of mine are insufficient, but I at least wanted to get the ball rolling.

[For those of you who would like to know more about the local conversations that are taking place regarding race and policing, I’d encourage you to also read about last week’s meeting of the Ypsilanti joint task force on police/community relations.]

Posted in Ann Arbor, Civil Liberties, Michigan, Ypsilanti | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments


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