Last night at the Grand Rapids Public Schools Administrative Offices on Franklin, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission held a public hearing to gather testimony on voter fraud. Over the past two years, there have been persistent reports that circulators gathering the signatures needed to place the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative (MCRI) on the ballot misrepresented the MCRI as a measure designed to “keep” or “protect” affirmative action. At Monday’s hearing, a couple hundred people showed up to either provide sworn testimony stating that they were fraudulently convinced to sign the petition or to support those who were giving testimony. Outside of the hearing, the group By Any Means Necessary (BAMN)—who was instrumental in getting people out for the hearing—held a short rally and then walked into the building with occasional chants of “hey, hey, ho, ho, voter fraud has got to go.” Given the large number of people that showed up, it quickly became apparent that the space was too small. Staffers from the Michigan Civil Rights Commission attempted to tell the crowd that the building’s security said that people without a seat needed to leave, but the crowd ignored the request and one BAMN organizer said that “the people of Grand Rapids were lied to wholesale” and that it is the Commission’s responsibility to accommodate them. Despite earlier statements by one of Commissioners staffers that “you’re all not going to get a chance to speak anyway” when she was asking that some of the people leave, the Commission and building security came to an agreement that allowed the hearing to go forward without requiring the audience to move.
Testimony began with local WJNZ radio host Robert S testifying “on behalf of the community and the Pulse of the City radio show,” with Robert explaining how he worked with BAMN to get people out for the hearing. On Robert S’ Pulse of the City show on May 17, Robert read the names of people from the 49506, 49503, 49504, 49506, and 49507 area codes that he knew would not sign a petition against affirmative action, prompting a massive response from the community that kept Robert S on the air from 2:00pm to 9:00pm reading names and taking calls from members of the community. Robert went on to explain that the majority of his listeners were told either that the petition was to “save” affirmative action or that the petitions were to increase the minimum wage and were not told that the MCRI was designed to eliminate affirmative action programs in the state. He also fielded calls from people who did not read or write yet had their signatures on petitions as well as people who were listed on the petition at addresses where they had not lived at for as many as five years. Later in the night, BAMN organizer Donna Stern explained that the group used a similar tactic on a Muskegon radio show and already that afternoon she had received 43 calls from people whose names were fraudulently added to the petition.
A majority of the twenty-eight people testifying before the commission explained that they were told that the petition was to protect affirmative action. Felicia Adams, a freshman at Grand Rapids Central High School, explained how her mother signed the petition after being told by a circulator that she was “signing to give black kids a better education.” Resident Darrilyn Dyer, a community activist with the Elk’s Lodge, explained that she was approached and told that the petition “is for affirmative action, this is to help,” and while she did not sign it, six elders at the Elk’s Lodge had their names on the petition despite the fact that they never signed it. Another person, when approached to sign a petition about affirmative action, asked if it was related to the affirmative action court case involving the University of Michigan, to which the circulator replied that she “knew her stuff” and that this was something she should sign. Still others were told that the petition was to “raise the minimum wage,” a complete misrepresentation of the measure. Several of the people testifying explained that they did not read it either because they were approached by people in their community that they had a basic level of trust in because of an understanding of how affirmative action has benefited the community or because there were so many people waiting to sign the petition that clipboards were being passed around quickly. One resident, Theo Bates, explained that he read the petition and still signed it because it was ambiguously worded and because he trusted the circulator who told him that it was “to maintain and keep affirmative action stable.” Some also testified that their names appeared on the petition despite the fact that they had not signed petitions in the past few years, and in some cases, the petitions were signed with middle names or in ways that people never signed their names. Throughout the evening, a general trend also emerged where signatures were gathered in predominantly African-American areas of town, with several people explaining how they were approached at the grocery store in Madison Square, at the Sav-a-lot on 28th street, and at the FIA, or other places frequented by African-Americans. One woman testified detailed how she was even approached at Grand Rapids Community College’s annual Martin Luther King Day march, where she was asked if she “would like to protect affirmative action.”
Not only were the circulators active in African-American communities, but the majority of those testifying stated that the circulators they were approached by were African-Americans. Rather than being upset at the individual circulators, citizens understood that the reality of tough economic times forced many circulators into the situation and that for a common rate of $1.50 per signature, circulating the petitions seemed like an especially good job. Moreover, many testified that the circulators that they were approached by had little knowledge of the measure and in some cases truly believed that the petitions were to “save” affirmative action. Resident Sarah A. Smith detailed one such interaction she had with a circulator who approached her stating that he was “here to know if you believe in affirmative action” and that if she did, she should sign the petition. When she asked questions about the measure, the circulator encouraged her to read the script that he was told to use when approaching people, a script that read in part “do you support affirmative action? if so we need to work together to save it by putting it on the ballot.” Another man—Quincy Watson—who was approached by a friend that was circulating several petitions, one of which was the MCRI petition, asked his friend for more information about the petition to which his friend responded that he “read it.” After reading it, Watson understood that it was to eliminate affirmative action and got in an argument with his friend and ended up driving with her out to the office where she got the petitions as she insisted that the person who gave her the petitions would explain that it was in support of affirmative action. However, when Watson questioned the man who was apparently in charge of the petition drive, he was ignored for a considerable length of time until it became clear to the man that Watson was not leaving at which point he gave Watson a lengthy argument about why affirmative action was no longer needed. The Commission’s chair, Mark Bernstein, explained that they “obviously see a trend” of deception in the petition gathering effort, but that they need the names of circulators that used deception as well as the names of the people that paid them in order to move towards a stage where people can begin to be held accountable for their actions.
For many in attendance, the MCRI is yet another example of the racism that they have to deal with on a day-to-day basis. Grand Rapids resident and school board member Harry Campbell said that “Grand Rapids is something else when it comes to racism” and that Grand Rapids is still segregated, with the MCRI being just another way to maintain segregation and turn the city back to the 1950s. Campbell then expressed that members of the African-American community are not going just sit by and let this pass and that they will work both to defeat the MCRI and to make it clear that “black people are here to stay and Grand Rapids better get used to it.” Unfortunately it seems that no mention of racism in Grand Rapids would be complete without mentioning the Grand Rapids Police Department (GRPD), who according to an announcement made during the hearing, was outside ticketing cars illegally parked, prompting many in the audience to say “they know were’re here” and causing others to sigh over what is just another example of the routine police harassment that their community is subject to on a daily basis. It is also worth noting that at an immigrant rights vigil on May 1, 2006 there were reports that the GRPD was logging license plate numbers on cars park in the areas immediately surrounding where the vigil was taking place.
The hearing in Grand Rapids was the fourth, and according to Commission chair Mark Bernstein, likely the last of the Commission’s hearings on the subject following hearings in Lansing, Flint, and Detroit. At all four hearings, the Commission heard testimony from dozens of people and collected numerous affidavits from signers who were fraudulently convinced to sign the petition. Following the public hearings, the Commission will be “rushing to conclude its investigation” and will be issuing a report that compiles the sworn testimony that the Commission received. This report will then be forwarded to the Secretary of State, Attorney General, Board of Canvassers, and the Governor, as well as being filed as a Friend of the Court brief with the Supreme Court requesting that the MCRI be kept off the ballot in November of 2006. However, despite the body’s power to engage in a “restorative” act and to potentially restore people’s faith in the system, Commission chair Mark Bernstein stated that he “wished he had more authority” as the Commission was unable to do anything for the numerous people that requested that their signature be removed from the petition. Organizers with BAMN also emphasized that it is important that politicians and bodies such as the Michigan Civil Rights Commission “don’t just collect evidence” as the people of the state “need action” and that people around the state were “furious” both that this measure was going forward and that the majority of politicians in the state know about the allegations of fraud and have done and said nothing on the issue.