THURSDAY, June 4 — Lansing Mayor Andy Schor said he felt ambushed on a video conference call last night with leaders of the Lansing chapter of the Black Lives Matter movement after he was urged to slash funding for police and immediately resign from office.
Schor told them that he was “not planning to resign right now.”
Schor appeared as a guest at a community forum to discuss the recent downtown protests against police brutality and to chart an equitable path forward with black leaders and other public officials. But some voiced concern that Schor has only offered empty gestures.
“Some of the things I’ve seen you do over the last couple years seems to be problematic in that it seems to be propaganda a lot of the time,” said firefighter and community activist Mike Lynn Jr. “I’m not trying to call you out. I’m trying to tell you how it’s seen to the people in this city.”
Schor’s second executive order as mayor established the Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council to provide suggestions to address racial disparities within the capital city. After George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis, Schor has only doubled down on that commitment to racial equity.
But on Sunday night, Schor authorized the Lansing Police Department to deploy tear gas on crowds after a heated protest over Floyd’s death led to a car burning, broken windows and other vandalism. A press release later indicated warnings were issued, but several canisters were fired without notice.
And the heavy-handed response struck a chord with local Black Lives Matter organizers.
“I know you feel ambushed right now,” said Angela Waters Austin, co-founder of the Lansing Black Lives Matter chapter. “Imagine how black children felt in the street when you knew what was coming and you left them. You left them and you knew you could’ve protected them.”
Peaceful demonstrators (as well as those causing vandalism) were also caught up in the chemical mist as several squads of heavily armed cops corralled the crowds from downtown. Schor also issued a retroactive curfew for 9 p.m. that night at 9:15 p.m. At least seven people — most of them men in their 20s from Lansing — were subsequently arrested for curfew violations.
“Not only should you resign, you should be brought up on charges,” Waters Austin added.
Schor said he is “not planning to resign right now” and repeatedly told local black leaders that he was willing to have a conversation about how to improve the racial landscape in Lansing. But for Waters Austin and the Black Lives Matter movement, that offer didn’t carry much weight.
Schor told City Pulse last year that his administration made it a priority since he took office to recruit and train diverse police and fire departments. He also highlighted requirements that many city employees undergo a series of racial sensitivity trainings to combat discrimination.
He emphasized those existing city efforts to curtail discrimination again last night. But black leaders argued the recent protests are a clear indication those initiatives have only fallen short.
“The police don’t protect us,” Waters Austin said. “We keep us safe, not you and not the police.”
A press release from Schor’s office last year said city officials would continue to partner with One Love Global and the city’s “Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation” framework to address racial disparities. Waters Austin, also the founder of One Love Global, contended that Schor has done nothing meaningful to move that partnership forward for more than a year.
“I am right now calling for your resignation,” Waters Austin told Schor. “How dare you get on here and act like you care about my people? We said we’d get behind you. We told you we’d show up for you. And look how you showed up for us: You put our children on the firing line.”
Schor has also faced criticism over his treatment of black employees after several of them either quit or were removed from their positions since Schor was elected. Former Fire Chief Randy Talifarro, for example, claimed Schor had "made the workplace “extremely uncomfortable.”
Schor, for his part, said diversity training will continue and the city’s diversity council had upcoming plans to compile a series of recommendations and host a community forum.
“We’re going to serve the black community by making sure that everything we’ve been walking about is part of our agenda moving forward,” Schor said, speaking broadly about more training for local cops. “We’re going to make sure we have the right policies in the police department.”
Lynn — who is suing both Schor and the Lansing Fire Department for racial discrimination — also demanded the mayor move to slash funding to the Police Department and requested that local cops stop enforcing minor infractions that disproportionately impact black residents.
“We’ve realized through COVID-19 that we don’t need to overpolice,” Lynn said. “We can police with less. I’m asking that you divest from the Police Department and place that money into some community organizations to stop the crime from happening instead of just cleaning the job up.”
Mayor Ruth Beier has called for a similar move in East Lansing in the wake of Floyd’s killing. But Schor, so far, has only defended the use of tear gas to disperse protestors, warning that any continued violence in the city would only be met with reciprocal force from local authorities.
“I understand people’s frustrations, but there were some people that took advantage of the situation to do damage, light fires, destroy property and put a lot of people’s safety at risk,” Schor said. “I won’t lay it on protesters. There were only a few attempting to damage the city.”
Calls to divest from the Police Department are also shared by Lansing City Councilman Brandon Betz, who has emerged as one of the city’s more vocal critics of how Schor handled the recent downtown demonstrations. Betz was among those caught in the tear gas on Sunday.
“They shot tear gas off for hours,” Betz posted to Facebook. “They hurt a child and they hurt peaceful protesters. The police could have handled this any other way. Instead, they turned to violence immediately. I ran up and down the street warning people they might be arrested.”
(The police used tear gas twice, for several minutes.)
Schor, for his part, stressed the importance of maintaining public safety and largely dismissed the suggestions. He’s willing to talk about it, he said, but that would require significant changes to an already approved budget proposal that actually hires three more police officers in Lansing.
“What do you want to lessen? I regularly hear there is not enough policing to keep people safe,” Schor explained. “I agree that black lives matter. I agree that African Americans get pulled over more than whites. I’m also concerned about the safety for the residents of the city of Lansing.”
Waters Austin said Schor’s broader arguments toward public safety will undoubtedly fall flat on the local black community — especially when plans call for growing a police force that disproportionately targets people of color for what often amounts to relatively minor infractions.
“You already had a chance to do these things,” Waters Austin told Schor. “We brought money. We brought people. We brought a team that could’ve helped. You could’ve been a champion.”
After the meeting ended, Schor was widely criticized across social media for a perceived failure to adequately connect with the local black community. He was visibly defensive, at times refused to answer questions and never apologized for the handling of Sunday’s demonstration.
“He didn’t want to hear from our community,” Lynn said. “He fails to realize that there’s a black community out there that is upset with the way things are being handled. It was clear he was unprepared, and if he’s not prepared to tackle these issues then we don’t need him in this job.”
Added Betz: “It’s my job right now to listen to the calls of the black community and their calls are very clear. They want divestment in the Police Department. They want divestment there and some reinvestment in our schools, in mental health services, in our parks and neighborhoods.
“If the black community calls for the mayor to resign, I think it may be appropriate,” Betz said.
Meanwhile, local black residents and Ingham County officials are charging forward with next steps — with or without Schor on board. County Health Officer Linda Vail pledged to declare racism as a public health crisis and urged the county’s board of commissioners to do the same.
County Commissioner Derrell Slaughter plans to introduce a resolution to that effect as soon as possible, but officials still recognize that words only go so far. In order for the largely symbolic pledge to generate results, the community will need to stay focused on bridging racial divides.
“A declaration and resolution can only get us so far, but it’s a seed sown in the health and well being in our community,” Waters Austin added. “To those asking where we go from here: It goes where we as a community determine. We’ll show up, fight for one another and we’ll win this.”
Betz is also exploring plans that would trim the city’s police budget by 10% over the next five years and instead divert that funding to community organizations that support black residents. A discussion on the topic is expected to continue at a virtual City Council meeting early next week.
Those interested in providing any input on how to improve the racial climate in Lansing can join the Lansing People’s Assembly, Waters Austin said. An online interest form is available here.