Detroit missed a major opportunity this week when a Michigan National Guard offer to help distribute food in the city was rejected by Mayor Mike Duggan, who voiced concern that their presence on city streets could tear open old wounds from the 1967 riot, a prominent city pastor said Friday.
The Rev. Charles E. Williams II, senior pastor at Historic King Solomon Baptist Church in Detroit and chairman of the Michigan chapter of the National Action Network, said he accepted a state offer of National Guard assistance with food distribution — only to see the plan rejected by the mayor at the 11th hour.
“That memory of tanks rolling down the streets is something we need to reverse,” Williams told the Free Press Friday. “We need new pictures. We need people giving out food.
“People need food. Nobody is going to run from the food because you’ve got a uniform on.”
Duggan rejected the offer, saying the National Guard members were not needed because employees of the Detroit Department of Public Works could do the work if city volunteers were not available, said Tiffany Brown, a spokeswoman for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
The Michigan National Guard is helping with food distribution in Grand Rapids, Flint and Pontiac and is doing other humanitarian work in other cities around the state.
“I think it is a lost opportunity to move Detroit forward,” Williams said, stressing that he is grateful for and highly satisfied with help from city public works employees to distribute food.
“We have so many sacred cows that we have not kicked over in this city, and they’re usually about race,” he said.
At a news conference on Thursday, Duggan said the main issue was protocol.
“The National Guard comes into cities in a deliberative process between the governor and the mayor,” Duggan said. “They don’t come into a city because a church doesn’t have enough volunteers,” and “ministers don’t call in the National Guard,” he said.
At the same time, Duggan acknowledged that the National Guard has already been working in the city during the pandemic, helping the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers convert the TCF Center into a field hospital.
The mayor said he has “enormous respect” for the National Guard.
Having said that, “there are a lot of people in this community who have a memory of the 1960s that is still painful, and it’s still stressful,” Duggan added.
Then-Gov. George Romney ordered the National Guard mobilized to Detroit in July 1967 amid five days of civil unrest and looting that left 43 people dead. Though frequently referred to as a riot, the disturbance is also known to many as the Detroit rebellion or uprising.
A police raid on an illegal after-hours bar was the immediate spark for the civil disturbance, but the riot also marked the release of years of building tension related to abuses by a nearly all-white Detroit police force and racial discrimination in jobs and housing.
Duggan said he first heard about the National Guard helping with food distribution at 5 o’clock Wednesday night, when he got a call from the governor’s office saying Williams needed help distributing food. Duggan said the governor’s office offered to send the National Guard if city forces were not available, and Duggan said he told them the city had it covered.
Williams described a much more drawn-out process that he said was initiated by the state.
He said he has been involved in distributing donated meals to Detroit residents since March 13, with the help of church and other volunteers, including social work students from the University of Michigan. It’s a way of keeping people in their homes and out of the grocery stores during the coronavirus pandemic, while also assisting with the large poverty problem in Detroit, he said.
About two weeks ago, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist raised the possibility of making members of the National Guard available in Detroit during a phone call with several prominent Detroit pastors, Williams said.
Brown, Whitmer’s spokeswoman, confirmed Gilchrist had an April 3 phone call with pastors at which an offer of National Guard help for Detroit was offered and discussed.
Williams said he and the other pastors had some concerns, and wanted assurances the Guard members would not be carrying guns or wearing vests or helmets. They received those assurances, he said.
Not long after that phone call, Williams learned he would be receiving a truckload of 10,000 cold meals for distribution in Detroit through a National Action Network source, and that donated meals would increase to 20,000 next week and even more in the coming weeks.
“We were slammed,” said Williams, who added that many of his regular younger volunteers are working from home and older volunteers face too much risk from coronavirus to do the work.
That made the offer from the National Guard even more attractive because of the numbers of workers it could offer and because of its experience in disaster relief and logistics, their adherence to social distancing guidelines, and their access to and use of personal protective equipment, Williams said.
He requested help from the Guard, and after a series of phone calls, an official told him the National Guard had a waiting list of members wanting to volunteer in Detroit, he said.
Several high-ranking officers from the National Guard visited his church on Wednesday, where they scoped out the work and moved meals from the recently arrived truck to another truck, he said. The officers said they would have a large contingent at the church Thursday morning, ready to help distribute the food through neighborhood walk-up pickups, drive-by pickups and home delivery.
“For me, that was kind of overwhelming,” said Williams, who said he had not been invited to any city meeting or conference call about assisting with the pandemic and was not aware the city Department of Public Works might be available.
Williams said he received a phone call at 8 p.m. Wednesday from a National Guard colonel saying he regretted they would not be able to help after all on Thursday, though he could not say why.
Then he started getting calls from the city, saying workers from the Department of Public Works could do the needed work the next morning.
He was not about to turn away the help, but at that time the city employees had not had any orientation and did not even know what they were supposed to be doing for work that was supposed to start the next morning, Williams said.
Conversely, the National Guard had experience with such work. “This is what they train to do,” he said. “We’re in the middle of a pandemic.”
Williams said he has not been close with Duggan and did not know whether the mayor felt slighted, did not want his project to proceed as planned because of his involvement or was worried about having the National Guard visible in Detroit.
“Remember, the National Guard was not the only culprit in the 1967 riots — it was also the Michigan State Police and the DPD (Detroit Police Department),” he said.
Williams said another big change since 1967 is that so many Detroit residents have gained military experience, including with the National Guard.
Capt. Andrew Layton, a spokesman for the Michigan National Guard, said more than 300 of its members live and work in Detroit. The Guard has helped out in Detroit on numerous occasions prior to the recent work on the TCF Center, including the Major League Baseball All-Star Game at Comerica Park in 2005 and the Super Bowl at Ford Field in 2006.
“The Michigan National Guard is always ready to serve,” and “always proud to be part of the Detroit community,” he said.
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