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In Dearborn, Arab-American activists rally in support of Black Lives Matter

Kate Wells/Michigan Radio

A small group of mostly Arab-American organizers led a march of more than 200 people through the streets of Dearborn Sunday afternoon, in support of the Black Lives Matter rallies held across the country in the past week and a half. Calling for the formation of a citizen’s police oversight committee and other reforms, activist Nasreen Ezzeddine told the crowd, “The reality is, we do not need to look beyond Dearborn’s borders to find cases of police brutality and anti-blackness, left unaccountable.”

“That’s right!” members of the crowd yelled. Others cheered and applauded. 

“It is a story we hear time and time again: that black people feel uncomfortable and unsafe coming into our community,” Ezzeddine said. “In 2016, Kevin Matthews, who suffered from schizophrenia, was shot and killed by police,” she said, referencing an unarmed mentally ill man who was shot nine times by a Dearborn police officer. The officer did not face charges, and Matthews' family sued the cityfor $10 million. 

As protesters marched through the city’s streets, several police cruisers cordoned off traffic while dozens of drivers honked in support. 

Credit Kate Wells/Michigan Radio
One of the marchers at Sunday's rally.

“I think just watching the video, especially as a mom, it was so devastating just to see it, and heartbreaking,” said Nancy Merini, referring to the video of George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis. “And I think also just being Arab American, like, you realize we don’t ally enough with our fellow black citizens. Especially here in Dearborn. We need to do that more, and stop our everyday lives and actually do the work.”

Her nine-year-old daughter, Aaminah, marched beside her, chanting Floyd’s name. 

“I told her that you know what, it’s important to go,” Merini said of her daughter. “And she wants to go. So she’s been watching movies with us, like we just recently watched that movie ‘Just Mercy’ with Jamie Fox. And she just couldn’t believe it. She was like, ‘Innocent people go to jail, just like that?’ And I said ‘Yeah, it happens every day. So if you want to come out and help stop it, come with us.’ So, she’s here!” 

Tenika Griggs brought her two boys, ages 4 and 7, to the march. Griggs, who’s black, lives in Dearborn Heights, and says her family has experienced what she believes is racially biased policing in Dearborn. “We want to be able to drive through here,” Griggs said, over the sound of honking. “We don’t want to have any instances where we’re being pulled over because of our skin color. There have been instances of that happening, particularly with my fiance. But, you know, hopefully this wakes up people.”

Her 7-year-old son, Jay Sloan, explained, with Capri Sun in hand, what his mom had told him about the rally. “Because there’s this thing going on? With white police officers killing black people.”  

Credit Kate Wells/Michigan Radio
Hundreds marched through the streets of Dearborn, as police cordoned off traffic and long lines of drivers honked and cheered in support.

Shayma Ghalab and Thuraya Yahya were among many young Arab-American activists who said this was one of several protests they’d attended lately. “We know all about being oppressed,” Ghalab said.” 

“You know how they say, ‘You post, and then you do the action?’” Yahya said, referring to the push to go beyond social media activism. 

U.S. Reps. Debbie Dingell and Rashida Tlaib also spoke at the rally. And Dearborn City Council member Erin Byrnes said she supported the idea of a citizen oversight committee. 

“I was actually in contact with our police chief, Chief [Ronald] Haddad, earlier today, and have requested info on our department’s current implicit bias training, de-escalation and use of forces policies.... I think banning the use of chokeholds is really essential,” Byrnes said. 

A controversial statue, even in its removal    

Word about the rally got out Friday afternoon, including one of the protesters' stated goals: the removal of the statute of former longtime mayor Orville Hubbard from the front lawn of the Dearborn Historical Museum. 

By Friday evening, it was gone. 

The Orville Hubbard statue, before it was moved to the Dearborn Historical Museum. It was removed Friday by Hubbard's family, according to city officials, as word about Sunday's protest got out.

Hubbard, who served as mayor from 1942 to 1978, was nationally known in his time as standing “for complete segregation, one million percent,” as he put it in an interview, according to the Detroit Historical Society. His statue originally stood by City Hall, before being dismantled in 2015 and eventually moved to stand outside the museum.

According to Byrnes, Hubbard’s family removed the statue. “The family felt that they owned it, and they had the desire to move it to his gravesite in Union City, I believe. And so, again, to the best of my knowledge, that’s where the statue has been moved, and it’s now out of the city limits of Dearborn,” she said. 

Asked if the removal was a response to the pending protests, Byrnes says she believes so. 

“I do think that was a major catalyst,” she said Sunday. “I really do. There’s been a lot of activism, obviously a lot of momentum across the country and in Dearborn the last several weeks. And I do believe in knowing that this rally was coming, that was a major push for the family in terms of the timing. There had been talk about them apparently for several years, but I do believe that this was impetus.”  

But Dearborn Historical Commission chairman Jonathon Stanton says getting rid of the statue this way is more about convenience, rather than truly reckoning with the city’s history. 

“We sort of feel like we got outflanked by the city,” Stanton said Sunday. “Like, by giving it to the Hubbards, we’ve given up control over where the statue is going to be. It’ll still stand for the same thing that it stood for here. It’s better that it’s not in city limits. But it still stands for the fact that Mayor Hubbard was a bigot, and the citizens of the city admired and respected him enough to return him to office over and over again. And it took all of this for it finally to come down.” 

Stanton says the statue was first put in front of the old city hall in 1989, as a result of fundraising efforts by citizens. Then, in 2015, it was put into storage, amidst controversy over Hubbard’s legacy. 

“Sometime later, based on complaints I heard it was complaints from the Hubbard family, behind the scenes, they didn’t like that it was in storage they decided to put it on museum grounds,” Stanton said.  

But giving the statue full historical context “never happened,” he said. They didn’t have the facilities necessary to put the statue indoors as part of a larger exhibit about Dearborn’s racial legacy, Stanton said. 

“We had a hard time getting a plaque next to it. We finally got one that said he was a segregationist.” But that plaque was also removed on Friday, along with the statue. 

“My feeling, like in the words of the great Indiana Jones, is that it belongs in a museum,” Stanton said. “Unfortunately, we don't have the facility to put it indoors in an exhibit that would properly describe it. And it should have been in storage instead of being moved around like a hot potato. That's my own view. And I take responsibility for not pushing harder…. [T]he hope, good faith reason that everybody agreed it should be at a museum, was so it can be contextualized.... And now that finally it got to the point where it was the most convenient thing for not to be here.” 

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Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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