Links to work at the following publications:
Arizona State University’s Downtown Devil
Arizona State University’s The Chic Daily
The Roeper School’s Tuna Talk
Published article from the June 2015 issue
By Brielle Ashford
No Justice. Hate crimes. Black lives matter.
For many, these terms conjure up images of the harsh time in our nation’s history from 50 years ago; or perhaps one might recall the last few summers of turmoil in which names like Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown were plastered on every news station for weeks. But those times have passed, and although some are more recent than others, even Baltimore, Maryland, is over eight hours away from The Roeper School.
Nothing like that happens around here.
Or does it?
For 13-year-old (and former Roeper Stage II student) Phoenix Williams, these issues truly hit home when he was called the N-word repeatedly on a school bus in mid-March by his classmates at Bloomfield Hills Middle School; approximately an eleven-minute drive from the Roeper Upper School campus.
Williams had been harassed by these students extensively before, he says, but one day on the bus back from a school field trip, the 8th grader had had enough. Williams took out his phone and set it to record the vulgarities two of his caucasian classmates were shouting at him; among the worst, one of the boys reportedly asking an acquaintance of Williams’ to call him a “dirty [n-word]” for a piece of candy.
“It was pretty bad; it felt really lonely . . . No one was sticking up for me,” Williams said of that evening on the bus.
The recording was presented to the school administration and little was done in response. Williams, fearful for his safety, stopped attending school.
However, life went on as usual for everyone else involved.
That is until Bloomfield Hills High School junior and former six-year Roeperian Spencer Nabors posted a tweet linking to a breaking news story detailing the instance. Finally, news began to circulate, and Nabors along with sophomore Natalie Perkins, created posters, rallied fellow students and started the hashtag; #PROTESTBLOOMFIELD.
“The protest started pretty much through Twitter,” Perkins said. “We were outraged . . . We started connecting with people from other schools – getting retweets from people – and then we started the hashtag . . . Even people from Florida [were involved],” she explained.
Perkins says Phoenix’s troubles hadn’t been acknowledged at the high school, and although she was disappointed, she was far from surprised. “I mean, we’re used to stuff like that – throwing stuff under the rug – because they don’t want [the perpetrators] to feel bad,” she said.
The protest date was set for Friday, April 17th. Even though Nabors and Perkins had promoted the protest through social media and made appearances on local news stations in the days leading up to the protest, they didn’t expect a particularly large turnout. However, nearly 200 people came out to Bloomfield Hills Middle School throughout the afternoon to protest.
“Usually when you go to a civil rights protest, everyone’s over 50,” protestor and pastor David Bullock, well-known for his appearances on the TV show Preachers of Detroit, said while holding up a bright yellow sign in the midst of the protest reading “Shame on Bloomfield” and “No justice for Phoenix.”
“But here, there are young people, it’s diverse . . . we have the signs, the T-shirts, it’s non-violent . . . this is a candle in the dark,” he said.
And diverse the protesters were. Among them were people of all ages and races from around the metro-Detroit area. Sacred Heart student Monica Dunnigan heard about the event from Twitter and came out to support the cause; as did Bullock. “We hate to believe racism still exists . . . that people are still denigrating African Americans with the N-word,” Bullock said. “We have to have zero tolerance for that kind of ethnic intimidation. We should treat the caucasian students the way they would treat any other students.”
Nabors explained that the instance hit particularly close to home because her family had gone through a similar circumstance with her ten-year-old brother, Pierce, in the Bloomfield Hills school system. “The exact same thing happened to him. He was called racial slurs at school. The administration was told . . . but nothing was done about it,” Nabors said.
Among protesters, a recurring theme was how Williams’ dilemma was by no means an isolated occurrence. Alumni parent Rodona Koger, who heard about the protest on the news, recalled being very familiar with instances like Williams’. “One of my kids graduated [Class of 2013] from Lahser [now known as Bloomfield Hills High School],” Koger said. “I pulled my 8th grader out and put him into Country Day, because of the racism against black males in the Bloomfield Hills public school system.”
Koger cites the issue as something much larger than just an instance or two at a particular school within the system. “[The racial tension] has been going on for a very long time,” she explained. “[The administration] doesn’t handle it . . . When it comes to African American males, they don’t.”
Nabors and Perkins can attest to Koger’s experiences, as the two received strong discouragement from the administration, as well as the student body, in the days leading up to the protest. “The administration was not happy. They tried to talk us out of it,” Nabors explained. Perkins elaborated, “they said it would be dangerous for the middle school . . . They said we could have a town meeting, and we said we’d be willing to have the meeting, but we still needed to have a protest to raise awareness.”
Nabors recalled tensions running high during school hours. “Even a couple of my teachers said in class ‘I don’t understand why people are planning a protest, this issue has been taken way out of hand.’ Obviously, we don’t think this is out of hand at all,” Nabors said. Perkins said the support received from teachers was about half and half. “We’ve talked to some teachers that are very supportive of us. Some wanted to come, but they’re in fear of losing their jobs,” she explained.
Classmate Molly Elliot said that she’s “not surprised” regarding the administration’s lack of support. “There’s supposed to be a zero tolerance policy [for ethnic intimidation], but they’re so busy trying to cover it up to make us look like this perfect little town, that they’re not addressing the issue at hand . . . We have a racial issue in this community.”
Nabors and Perkins also said student’s opinions were mixed.
“I think everybody is aware that the protest is going on [in school]. We received a lot of backlash on Twitter . . . people have been saying [the protest] is stupid and that we’re blowing it way out of proportion,” Nabors explained. ” . . . I would say about half and half [of the student body supports us]. We also have people outside of school supporting us too . . . So our support outweighs the backlash.”
“I can tell that there’s some tension between the school district and the protestors,” Bullock said.
On protest day, the scene attracted a sizable number of onlookers. From cars that chose to silently speed past protest signs reading “HONK for justice!” and students who lurked near the school doors and watched as the protest unfolded – to the handful of police cars perched alongside the street in case something went awry. The tension was nearly tangible.
“It happens,” Bullock said. “There was tension between Dr. King and Bull Connor . . . When you’re on the right side of history – when you’re doing the right work – sometimes there will be tension.”
Soon enough, the street cleared and the protest – deemed a success by attendees – had come to an end. Although, Nabors and Perkins’ movement wasn’t finished once the signs were put away. Promised town meetings were upheld, and in the weeks to follow, the two boys appearing to be the source of Williams’ troubles had petitions filed against them in juvenile court by the Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office, charging them with harassment and ethnic intimidation, respectively.
The school district itself has no intention of furthering the two boys’ punishment, however. A letter was written on April 17th, The Detroit Free Press reported, to a NAACP representative by Robert Lusk, an attorney from the Lusk & Albertson law firm that represents the district. He said that no additional action will be taken against the two boys. “While the district is legally prohibited from releasing additional information about the children or their discipline, the district will state that their punishments were tailored to prevent recurrence of their misconduct, taking into account their ages and disciplinary records,” Lusk wrote.
However, the superintendent Robert Glass has acknowledged the incident at the beginning of one of the board meetings, also reported by the Detroit Free Press. “It’s no secret that the last couple of weeks have been very trying for us,” Glass said. “Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve been deeply saddened, angered, outraged by this incident. It’s been hard to our community and hard on the families involved – particularly the family who was victimized.”
“Unfortunately we know in our country that children are taunted,” Glass continued in the meeting. “But it’s important that when this happens, that we come together to figure out ways where we can stand together and come against it. We have a lot of work ahead of us, but I want you to know we are committed to it … It takes time and commitment, but it’s important that we work together as a community moving forward to find ways to strengthen cultural capacity.”
Although the fight for justice doesn’t stop here, as Williams’ stepfather Rodman Jackson told CBS Detroit. “Today it’s Phoenix – tomorrow it could be Lily or Ted,” he explains. “It’s a national issue – it’s not reduced to just race. It’s religious belief, it’s sexual orientation … it’s Phoenix today, but who knows who it will be tomorrow.”