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A year after George Floyd killing, one metro Detroit family reflects on racial profiling

Courtesy of Alexandria Hughes

Ayyub Ama was 14 years old when he was stopped by a police officer for the first time. The officer asked him for identification, and Ama gave him the only one he had: his middle school ID card. When he asked why he’d been stopped, Ama said that he was told that he fit the description of a suspect involved in a crime at a nearby 7-Eleven. When Ama tried to tell the officer that he was walking home directly from school, he said he was told to wait as more and more police cars pulled up. 

Credit Courtesy of Ayyub Ama
Ayyub Ama poses for a portrait.

Now a 23-year-old resident of Redford, Ama recalled shaking out of fear that he would be arrested for a crime he didn't commit. After what felt like more than hour, he was told by one of the police officers that his shirt was a different color than the suspect they were tracking. Even at that young age, he had heard stories of police encounters turning violent. 

The killing of George Floyd one year ago sparked a national outcry at a scale that far surpassed the civil rights demonstrations a half century ago. Millions took to the streets to decry what they believed to be racial bias in law enforcement and near-impunity for police officers. At least 135 unarmed Black men and women have been killed by police since 2015, according to a recent NPR investigation. Nearly a quarter of those deaths took place at traffic stops. 

Related: A year later, events scheduled to remember George Floyd, others killed by police

That grim reality is something Ama’s family has dealt with in their own ways, from protesting police violence in the streets to staying home to avoid becoming a victim of it.

Nichola Davis, Ama’s mother, has been trying to shield her children from police violence since they were young. Ama was 10 years old when his mother told him how to avoid escalation by law enforcement — advice he heeded, even though he made light of it at the time, thinking she was being a “typical overprotective mom” at the time. 

“There are two talks that I have with my kids when puberty starts,” Davis said. “There is the talk about the birds and the bees. And then there's the talk about the police and the fact that you are Black, there will be people that will feel a certain way about you because of the color of your skin.” 

Davis, a Detroit native and mother of six, said she knew police encounters would be inevitable for her kids, so years before they learned the rules of the road, Nichola taught them some rules for police encounters. She told them to drive five miles per hour below the speed limit, to keep their music at a low volume, and their license plate registration up to date. In case they were stopped by police, Davis told her children to stay calm, keep their hands where the officer could see them, and to be patient and polite in order to avert the use of force by an officer. 

Davis said she has found it “soul crushing” to have to bring such harsh realities to bear on her children at such a young age. “It makes you very anxious,” she said. “You have a [high] anxiety level even as they get older. It never, it never leaves you.” 

When the family moved back to the metro Detroit area in 2014, Davis told her children to avoid certain suburbs and intersections where she felt they would have a higher likelihood of getting stopped by police. In 2020, her son Ayyub Ama was pulled over at one of the intersections Davis warned about, and issued a ticket for having an air freshener hanging from his rearview mirror. His sister, Alexandria Hughes, felt the stop would not have occurred if her brother were not a Black man. So she sought answers. 

Of all the children in her family, Hughes has been the most driven to try and change the world, and told her parents as much when they sat her down one day to talk about her plans for college. Hughes had already joined in demonstrations with local Black Lives Matter organizations, and the citation issued to her brother sparked anger and also a resolve to better understand the situation. 

Along with fellow activists involved in a group called Livonia Citizens Caring about Black Lives, Hughes filed a public records request for all traffic citations issued in Livonia, broken down by race. Data from the Livonia Police Department in 2019 showed that Black people were given almost half of all citations — 13,472 out of 30,551 – even though 90 percent of the city’s residents are white accordingto Census information. 

Hughes recalled that a first glance at that data left her in tears. “ I didn't want to look at it anymore because I just picture so many Black people [reflected in those numbers], and how many people that are hurting,” she said, adding that the data seemed to offer credence to her mother’s advice to avoid driving through Livonia. 

After Livonia Citizens Caring about Black Lives put up a billboard warning drivers entering Livonia of "racial profiling ahead" last July, its police department added data on arrests, citations, and complaints to its website as well as more information about its policies and procedures.

The Livonia Human Relations Commission has been working with the police on that website, and has been analyzing the data and recommending reforms, including the recent addition of two social workers for the police force to work in crisis support, according to Livonia Mayor Maureen Miller Brosnan. 

“Since the Human Relations Commission was reconstituted in June of 2020, it has met every month to serve as a space for the community to come together to hold important conversations about equity and inclusion,” Miller Brosnan said in a statement to Michigan Radio. “I look forward to the Commission continuing their work of providing recommendations on an on-going basis to help build on the trust our community has in our police department.”

But Hughes believes that overcoming racial bias in policing will take a total overhaul. She has thrown herself into crunching data, organizing meetings, telling city officials that Black people shouldn’t have to protect themselves from the people who are supposed to protect them.

Credit Courtesy of Alexandria Hughes
Alexandria Hughes (left) poses with her sister, Khadijah Ama.

At first, Hughes’ and Ayyub Ama’s sister Khadijah Ama joined her at demonstrations. She tends to be someone who speaks her mind, but Khadijah Ama said activism started to take an emotional toll. “Seeing so many killings ... for senseless things like jogging and selling cigarettes or just walking down the street, and I have I would say probably last year, [in] 2020, I did get numb to it.”

But even if she isn’t protesting, Khadijah Ama has not been able to push out the thought of a violent police encounter affecting her family. “I think about it all the time, like all the time, because I have so many brothers,” she said. “I try now more to tell them as often as possible, tell them I love them more and more, because I know that trip to the grocery store could end up like one of these situations.” 

For Ayyub, the fear of a police encounter turning violent has changed him from what he described as a “social bird” to a homebody. “I would say it ruined a lot of my friendships and a lot of my relationships as well, because when I try to explain to people, you know, I don't want to go out because, you know, what if this happens, what if this happens? And they say, 'You are being overdramatic, just come out.' I'm like, ‘No,’” he said. “They don't understand because maybe they've never been through something like this.” 

But then, about a year ago, Ayyub saw the video recording of George Floyd being slowly killed by ex-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Ayyub said it “unleashed” something inside of him, bringing together all the different ways his family has responded to what they see as racial bias among police. 

“When I [saw Floyd] on the ground calling for his mom, that just made me realize, I have a mom, and she told me all these things to avoid being in that situation, I have to live for her. I have to live for my sister who's trying to create change. I have to live for all of my brothers and my other sisters,” Ama said. “You have to try to put your energy out there and change people's perception of things."

He said it made him want to tell more people about what he’d been through, and made an “oath” to himself to hear other people share their views on law enforcement. Ayyub Ama said he wishes all the officers who have stopped him without what he considers just cause could see him for who he is: a hardworking pharmacy technician, a loving uncle, a son and a brother.

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Beenish Ahmed is Michigan Public's Criminal Justice reporter. Since 2016, she has been a reporter for WNYC Public Radio in New York and also a freelance journalist. Her stories have appeared on NPR, as well as in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, VICE and The Daily Beast.
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