By Susan Smiley
Earlier this week I sat down with Macomb County Democratic Black Caucus President Joel Rutherford. He shared his views on diversity, the justice system, and the importance of voter education. Rutherford talked about how different municipalities are addressing issues of diversity and focused on Macomb County’s largest city, Warren, where he resides.
Smiley: Last year was a local election year for the City of Warren and many other municipalities. Despite Macomb County and Warren becoming more and more diverse, elected officials have not followed suit. Why do you think that is and what can be done to change that?
Rutherford: The problem with that is we have people that have been in power for decades. It has become generational. There is a lot of talk about diversity and inclusion but when there is time to act and make that happen, that’s what I haven’t seen from elected officials. Not the real action that is required.
There is reluctance, I think, about upsetting the older, white voting population so they stay with kind of the status quo. People will say things to a point, but you always feel like there is a barrier there about not going too far — not being too forceful about it or too outspoken about it. Because they don’t want to upset those voters and have them think that we are radical because we want different people in office.
And it is also about sharing power. Some people look at it as communities of color wanting to take over; no, we just want a seat at the table. Elected officials should be willing to share that power. They have had it for so long, why not share? But instead it is like “No, this is mine and I am going to hold onto it.”
Smiley: Where in Macomb County has there been the most diversity in terms of elected officials?
Rutherford: I have to say Eastpointe because of the mayor’s race and the person appointed to the city council, at least you have two black people there. But I think in Eastpointe, you have a population that is 40% black, so you would have thought this would have happened YEARS ago. But I guess you have to take what you can get. Other than that you would have to go out to New Haven where Chris Dilbert is the president, but again, I think because of the population there, that is what makes the difference.
Mount Clemens seems like it was better. They have one African American on their City Commission now and we will have to wait until the election on August 4th to see if they are going to add another. There were two but Roger Bunton didn’t run for re-election and then Sonny Ford passed away. So they are trying to fill Sonny’s seat with that election.
But the other communities from the county down – county commissioners, state reps — it is all just a void. It is going to change but it is going to take a lot of effort. But that effort is going to have to be made by the white community being willing to accept elected officials that look different from them.
Smiley: Warren City Council has proposed adding a diversity and inclusion commission. Do you support this and if so, how would you like to see these entities work within the city? What kinds of things should they be doing?
Rutherford: It is a good start but it depends who ends up on the commission because the mayor appoints them. How much actual influence will they actually have on city government? My request was that they should be allowed direct access to all department heads without having to go through the mayor — I mean, they can advise the mayor they are doing it but should not have to ask his permission. That is especially important with the human resources department. So if they see a disparity in employment in the city they can try and find ways to institute changes. I’m not talking quotas, I am not talking about that at all. I am talking about fairness. And when I say city employees I am not just talking about police and fire. Let’s open up those offices in city hall. That is where those commissions can really do some good. If they have enough influence and enough independence to go where they need to go, they can say we will not only bring the problem to you, we can make suggestions on how to fix it.
Smiley: You have made the statement that just because your organization is called the Black Caucus, it does not mean that you are anti-white. Can you expand on that statement?
Rutherford: If my house is on fire, it does not mean that your house next door is not important. But let’s deal with the fire here first. It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t get fire protection, but can we first deal with the fire that we have right now.
I think the thing is, politics have driven people into sides and some people refuse to see the fact that there is a real issue there. That issue has been there for hundreds of years. It is not a matter of trying to blame everybody for what happened 400 years ago, but it is saying: what can we do to get some fairness? Because honestly, I don’t see equality in the equation. And maybe that sounds very negative and I don’t mean it to be; I am just trying to be realistic. Everyone seems to think this is just about the police and it is not. It is about many different things. It is about healthcare. Look at what has happened during Covid-19. Why are black folks dying at such a high rate compared to other parts of the population? Because of the lack of health care. Look at the lack of wealth in black communities or even the kind of wealth that you can pass down. The lack of being able to get, really, into the right education to make that kind of economic advance.
So there are all of these things that need to be dealt with.
Black Lives Matter may have started over, tragically, things like the death of George Floyd but let’s face it, what happened with George Floyd has been happening for hundreds of years. But now we have video of it so now people can’t say “I don’t know what you’re talking about” or “That’s not really true.”
If your answer to Black Lives Matter is All Lives Matter, but then when they say Blue Lives Matter and you don’t have an issue with that, well, then really what you have an issue with is “black.” That is what people do not want to face. Everyone is not a racist and we know that, but there have been issues that are racially driven and so let’s do something to correct that. Let’s just make things fair for people.
Smiley: This week President Trump has said he wants to send federal troops into various cities to control violence. Most of the cities he mentioned — Detroit, Baltimore, Chicago, Oakland, Philadelphia — have large black populations. Do you believe the black community is being targeted?
Rutherford: What he is doing is harkening back to George Wallace or Richard Nixon — the law and order president — and look how he turned out.
I’m retired from the military and also from civil service. You take an oath to the U.S. Constitution and not to the president. So it is sad there are people willing to go do that strictly because they have that aggressive tendency. It is the same with the militarization of police. If you give them too many things, they are going to want to use those things.
Smiley: Police brutality has been a long-standing problem in many communities that has recently come into focus because of George Floyd. Many suggestions from defunding the police to more anti-bias training to working with police unions who many say protect the bad players have been discussed. What do you think is the best way to address police brutality?
Rutherford: Body cams are not just to say “ this is what the police did wrong” but to say “this is what actually happened.” So having body cams is a must.
Warren police do not have body cams and when I called Commissioner Dwyer ‘s office about it, he told me they were doing a study about it. That is why at the last city council meeting I suggested that if he wants to learn about them, Dwyer should call Chief Craig in Detroit.
In the state of Michigan, you need more hours of training to be a barber than to be a police officer. Something is wrong with that picture. I’m talking about initial screening, psychological evaluations, and those evaluations should happen annually. Because someone might start out with a certain idea about being in law enforcement but after a year or two or three, that can change. That is why we talk about PTSD and things like that with people who are in combat. So I think that is part of what needs to happen.
But we also cannot expect police officers to solve all of our issues. Why is there so much money spent to have a police officer in a school, but not counselors, social workers and psychologists? Putting a cop there is not an answer. OK, you might be able to SCARE some kids into not doing stuff but why not deal with what their issues are? Deal with the stress or the drug abuse. Put people in there who are professionals and let them handle it. Do not ask police officers to do that kind of work; that is not what they are there for.
Sadly. defunding the police, I wish would have been stated as redirecting their resources. Because in the City of Warren I believe it is almost 40% of the budget that goes to the police. Why? I understand they have to fund their retirements and all that kind of stuff. But we can’t get anyone to mow the grass. Why can’t the parks be taken care of or even the bathrooms opened? How is it that Sterling Heights is able to have theirs open? They are open and I guess they go through and sanitize them on a regular basis throughout the day. Is it just a matter you can’t do it or is it that you don’t want to do it? The police department gets all that they do because people like to look like they are tough on crime. But yet they are never dealing with the root causes of why that crime tends to happen in certain areas.
Smiley: It doesn’t stop and end with the police, though, right? Judges, juries, the whole criminal justice system is due for an overhaul. What needs to happen?
Rutherford: Our Caucus is trying to educate people on the importance of the prosecutor’s office.They have so much power in how they charge people or how they don’t charge people. I mean, look at the recent case with the Amazon driver. The City of Warren wanted to charge him with a felony and the county prosecutor said “no.” Now, I’m disappointed that the prosecutor’s office came back and he is being charged with the two misdemeanors. I think that was kind of a way of making nice with the police when realistically, that should have been a parking ticket, end of story.
There needs to be a citizens review board for the police department. It is not like you are trying to tell the police commissioner how to run the department, but when there are issues or problems, have some way to address them. Because I don’t get the impression that is what the Crime Commission is set up to do. But you need some kind of civilian oversight.
But it is not just the police. It is everything from prosecutors to judges. You are putting people in jail because they can’t post a couple of hundred dollars bond, so they are going to just sit in jail over a non-violent crime. Or they have to get family members to mortgage their house or something just to get the bond money. We should be asking why we have a cash bail system that judges are using especially over non-violent crimes. Suspended driver’s license is one of the biggest.
Judicial influence has so much power. Let’s take Macomb County, even though it is probably the same everywhere. Once they are in and they get that name recognition they stay in there. But are people really looking at what they are doing at all? Unless you are sitting in court on a regular basis, it is hard to know.
Smiley: The Congressional Black Caucus places a lot of importance on police being in the community and part of the community to help diminish racism and build trust between citizens and police. What are some ways this can be done?
Rutherford: I can’t remember when it was the Michigan Supreme Court ruling came down that police officers do not have to live in the community where they work. So you have Detroit police officers living out in northern Macomb County. Now, how really connected are they to the areas that they have to patrol?
The other thing is, they are taking their money out of the City of Detroit but they are spending it out in Macomb. They are buying homes there, shopping there and what good is that doing the City of Detroit? It is the same in Warren. If police officers don’t have to live here how can they really know what is going on in the community. If they live in the community, they are more connected. That is one of those things that I think should be a requirement for people who work for the city, especially for a job like that.
But that is not the law, so that is not going to happen. But police need to interact with the residents. Here in Warren I don’t see cops getting out of their car and talking to people about what is going on. I think they would find out a whole lot more if they would do that instead of just showing up because someone has called 911. That is the kind of community policing that needs to happen to make them more aware of what is actually going on.
There is a saying that you can be over patrolled and under protected. Not just in black communities but any communities of color and where people are poor. Cops will spend a lot of time just to arrest people but I don’t think they are spending the time to really get to know the people who live there.
You have community police officers, but no one knows who they are. When was the last town hall meeting to introduce themselves to the residents? When is the last time they’ve been out there in the communities asking people what is on their minds?
Smiley: You have called for the resignation of Warren’s Police Commissioner William Dwyer; why?
Rutherford: My biggest reason was with the Amazon driver incident when they requested felony charges. That showed me he was more interested in protecting his officers than doing what is right. That showed me where his priorities are. In that kind of leadership position, your priority should not be protecting the officer. That is what the police union is for. You need to look at what the right and just thing is to do.
Smiley: Are you concerned about voter suppression in Macomb County?
Rutherford: Yes. I think three of the polls (in Michigan) with the least amount of voting are in Warren and they are all south of 696. It makes me wonder when I see that….what is going on there that people just are not voting? I always think there is more to it than that people just do not want to vote. I would like to find out the reasons behind it.
One place I know in Mount Clemens they moved the polling place from Jermaine Jackson Community Center which is east of Gratiot to the police station. I don’t know a lot of people of color who are going to want to go and vote at the police station.
Voter education is also very important. An absentee ballot is a great idea but if you do not educate people how to do it, will it be beneficial?
Smiley: Warren is ranked, I believe, 8th in the nation for cities of its size for court-ordered evictions. Explain how race figures into this and how the rental situation in Warren affects people of color.
Rutherford: If you are in the top 10 in the entire country for that, something is drastically wrong. How do you go about fixing that?
You can pull the business license if they are not doing what they are supposed to do as landlords. DO that. Don’t just give them slaps on the wrist or basically do nothing and then act surprised when nothing changes. Is there renter/ landlord mediation available? It should be.
If an owner is not paying their taxes, the renter should be notified because that way, they are not paying money to a landlord that is not paying taxes and then end up being evicted because they have foreclosed on the landlord.
I really wonder what is the standard for rentals? Is there is a real standard that they have for rentals or is it a very vague thing where if an inspector wants to take action they do but if they don’t they don’t? Are rentals inspected annually? I would like to see some kind of mediation that does not have to go to court. If tenants are having problems that are not getting fixed they have a place to go and a way to resolve it and if resolving it means the tenant has to move then OK, that is what they have to do. But have a different outlet other than “Oh, you have to go right now.”
Smiley: I believe statistics say that it is most often minorities, women and young people who rent.
Rutherford: Yes, and those are the groups that are easy to turn your back on.
They are looked on as transients who do not vote and have no political power, even though they do. But if they are not voting, why should elected officials care. And that is a hard attitude to change in people. We can’t stop all of the money that pours into politics, but we can vote. Not voting just silences your voice. If you are not voting it is not going to change things.
I mean, there are other cities that are doing this right. Why not look at what they are doing that is working and do that? The administration and city council has to know we are in the top 10 for court ordered evictions so you would think that would be a priority. But how much have you heard about it? I haven’t heard anything.
Smiley: How can an upgrade to a city’s master plan foster diversity?
Rutherford: First of all, in Warren,I think I would like to see some more town halls about the master plan. I think that residents who were not really connected to politics were just thinking “ho hum, another thing” and not realizing how important it was when the initial town halls were happening. I would like to see them set up virtual town halls in each district or send something out to people asking what are the top three things they would like to see in the city. Make it easy — postage free so you make it easy for people. Collect the data and see what is important. It might show that what is going on in northwest Warren is something very different than what is going on in southeast Warren.
But here is the other part of it, you have to listen and I just do not get the impression that most elected officials — not just in Warren but in the entire county — really listen to what residents have to say. That is the big issue right there. They are the smartest people in the room and “let them eat cake.”
Smiley: I feel like there is always a lot of talk about north versus south in Warren but truthfully, there is an east versus west thing too.
Rutherford: Absolutely. I look at the way the districts are cut and I think why are they not cut east / west instead of north / south? If you really want a fair representation, why wouldn’t you do it that way.
Smiley: What about cutting the city in quarters, one district councilperson from each and three at large?
Rutherford: Only thing is it costs more money to run at large than it does in a district. So is the person who can come to the table with a big pot of money going to be more effective? I’m not sure what the best way is to do it but there has to be better representation than what there is now. I just don’t see how the current setup works well.
Smiley: Warren has been listed as a former “sundown town” The ethnic makeup of the city has changed since those days, but the city still has a reputation for being racist. Can Warren — can Macomb County –ever shake that image?
Rutherford: How do you change that many people’s attitudes? You have union workers voting for someone like Trump. So, you are going to vote against your own best interests? How are you possibly going to change attitudes when it comes to things having to do with people who are different races, cultures and religions? A lot of it is just fear. People base it on things they have heard when they were being brought up. But use your brain! You can look and say to yourself that you can see that is not what is really happening.
Macomb County and Warren did not get here in five or 10 years. It is generational. Because it is generational, to try to change that, you have to get a lot of people to get on board with a different attitude. That is going to take generations to get it where it needs to be. The problem is, like I said before, there is a lot of talk about making changes but not a lot of action.
Smiley: What are your goals as president of the Macomb County Black Caucus in the coming months?
Rutherford: I think voter education is big. I think people go in to vote and it is too much name recognition. People do not take the time to see who they are voting for and what they do or do not stand for. This is so important, you need to put some effort into it. Take time and do research.
In the black community and other areas of color you really need to do that research and know what it is all about. Everyone is going to be your best buddy when they are trying to get elected, but what is going to happen after?
And look at the ballot from the bottom to the top. Take the things that you think are least important, because they may be the things that have the most direct impact on your daily life. Eventually you will get to who is running for senator or president but local officials have the most impact on your day-to-day life. So don’t take that lightly.
But that is going to take time. It is a marathon , not a sprint. So don’t think it is going to happen overnight. Just like in the local elections here in Warren. We had good candidates,but they did not get elected. But they learned some things so now let’s take that knowledge and move forward. That is what I will be doing next year is looking for people who want to run and make them understand they need to network so that people really know who they are.
The Caucus is also going to work on cooperating more with other groups. We all tend to work in our own little universes and we can be a lot more effective if we can just work together. We need to stop focusing on the little bit that we don’t agree on and focus on the wide array of things on which we do agree.