Paul Birdsong didn’t plan to attend last Sunday’s protest in response to the police murder of George Floyd.
A week later, Birdsong, 34, has emerged as a vital and unyielding voice in Lansing, leading hundreds in peaceful daily protests at the state Capitol and facing off with Mayor Andy Schor on the mayor’s doorstep. He draws proudly upon the principles of Malcolm X in the town where he grew up and got his first taste of racist brutality more than 90 years ago.
Birdsong said he went to Sunday’s protest to protect his girlfriend, Sheretta Collins. The protest began peacefully, but it erupted around dusk into chaos. Police confronted protesters with clouds of tear gas. Before long, he got into a fight with a cop.
“He grabbed me first,” Birdsong recalled. “I will punch you if you touch me. So, he grabbed me, and I swung. I’m not Martin Luther King, I’m Malcolm X.”
It’s a distinction Birdsong made pointedly at protests throughout the week.
After witnessing the chaos on Sunday, Birdsong decided to try out his own form of protest. With his hands behind his back, he laid on the ground and shouted “I can’t breathe!” and “Loosen my handcuffs, please!” — the same words George Floyd shouted as he died.
“I just didn’t think that anybody got the point for real,” he explained. “So I came back on Monday and did that instead.”
People saw Birdsong on the ground and joined in, despite the rain and cold. Five others lay down on the ground with him. The numbers have been steadily increasing since. At times the protesters number over 200.
On Thursday, the fourth straight night of protests, Birdsong looked out at a crowd of over 100 people.
“I thought, ‘This makes me feel like I got work to do,’” he said. “And I better be careful to do it the right way. I have to be responsible and careful.”
For guidance, Birdsong turned to one of his political heroes, Malcolm X, and decided, like Malcolm, that progress comes from militance, careful strategizing and a stubborn unwillingness to concede.
Like Malcolm X, Birdsong pulled himself out of a rough life on the streets of Lansing and in prison. When he was younger, he joined the Bloods, a primarily black street gang founded in Los Angeles. He was the self-admitted “runt” of his gang.
“I was a little, skinny kid, but they all followed behind me. By the time I got locked up, I ran where I was at. I wasn’t all super huge,” he explained. “I don’t know why, man, but since I was a kid, people have gravitated towards me and followed me.”
Birdsong described his younger self as mean, violent and hating everything around him. To make it worse, his dad instilled a “fight-fight-fight” attitude in him. Eventually, he racked up four different inmate ID numbers.
“The prison didn’t offer me no counselors or anything,” he said. “I grew up bad, and I changed myself.”
Learning and growing is simple, he declared, as long as you dedicate yourself to it.
“I’m really good at cooking,” he said. “How did I learn? I asked them to turn on the cooking channel in prison. I just listen to people and mimic them.”
A decade out of prison, Birdsong spends much of his time talking with local youth, from personal experience, about the dangers of gang life. He said that the church has also urged him to help out because of his credibility and influence.
When he’s not out in the streets, Birdsong lives in a home near Waverly Road and Mount Hope Avenue. He spends his downtime answering Facebook messages from new connections. He leads a fairly normal life, working a job in “transit logistics” which he declined to define, and watching over his kids on the weekends. Sometimes, he goes out to speak at prisons in the area.
Last week, Birdsong worked diligently with fellow protesters to make sure the Lansing marches were safe and effective. They want their voices heard, but they don’t want to cause violence.
“Malcolm X was never tear-gassed,” Birdsong told protesters Friday. “The cops wouldn’t dare shoot nothing at him. His people were armed to the teeth, and they knew the law. They held the cops accountable.”
To keep protesters safe as they marched to Schor’s house Saturday, Birdsong asked protesters to drive four cars to escort the crowd, two in front and two in back.
If the protesters had to cross an intersection, the cars in front would block it off for them. Then, the cars from the back would drive up to the front of the crowd to take their place. It was a game of vehicular leapfrog that ensured the protesters were never in harm’s way.
Birdsong took another cue from Malcolm X: always keep a legally owned firearm or two around. “Don’t worry. If somebody gets out of their truck, we’re going to have to call an ambulance for them,” he told a group of marchers. “If one of them pulls out a gun and you hear a boom, keep going. We can take care of it.”
Yet Birdsong worked hard to make sure last week’s protests stayed peaceful. When the crowd got too rowdy, he worked to calm them down. If they spoke over Schor, he would call for silence. Birdsong even banned smoking marijuana at the marches. When someone sparked up on the mayor’s lawn, he had them put it out before they could get in a second puff.
Before a march begins, Birdsong makes sure everyone has a bottle of water in their hand. Dehydration having made him seeing stars on the first night, he wanted to make sure that others got enough.
Birdsong is leading a march of liberation, not conquest, but his acts recall the story of Alexander the Great pouring water out of a helmet, refusing to drink until his troops had water first.
Like Alexander’s legions, Birdsong’s supporters have stuck with him. After days of painful marching in a pair of Chuck Taylors, he received a pair of Nike Lebrons from his fellow marchers. The Converse shoes had left him with bruises and blisters.
“Look at these bruises,” he said, showing off the damage to a group of people crowded around him. “This is what happens when you march in Chuck Taylors.”
Throughout the week, protesters have provided pizza, fried chicken, chips and fruit too. With ample supplies, they are able to keep up their stamina on their long walks from the Capitol to Schor’s house and back.
It’s not every day you see hundreds of people munching on Little Caesar’s on the street outside the mayor’s residence, directly across from the Country Club of Lansing. The purposeful protesters seemed almost Photoshopped into the serene, suburban-style surroundings.
At the end of each night, Birdsong made sure to add every newcomer on Facebook, helping to build a network of people who post about the protests, livestream them and share articles about them the next day.
To Birdsong, these are the people who really matter.
“People keep coming because of the passion and the cause. It’s not me,” he said. “I don’t really have anything to do with it. I’m probably just the first one they’ve seen stand by himself in front of a group of cops.”
He is wary of being given too much credit for this movement.
“I was just the first one to lay down,” he said. “When people saw that, they got involved. Then they see more than one person doing it, then other people join in and then other people. It’s gaining momentum.”
His only complaint about his current situation is that he only gets to see his kids on the weekend.
“You know where I’ve been this weekend? Right here,” he said, pointing at the ground. “I miss them, and they miss me.”
In the coming days and weeks, Birdsong and the masses of people who joined him will be waiting for Schor to respond to their demands. Among them are weekly mentorship programs for black kids in each side of the city, the reopening of Lansing’s two Shabazz academies, greater funding for the Black Child and Family Institute, de-escalation and non-bias training sessions for the police that are open for public viewing and more mental health professionals involved in policing — all to be paid for with money from the police and public services budget.
Until those demands are met, as Birdsong has said all week, “We’ll be back here the next day, the next day, the next day and the day after that.”