This story appears in the August 2020 print edition of Rolling Stone.
The bells of Hamtramck’s Saint Florian Church ring out for Sunday Mass. The building was enlarged in 1928, and the June sun glances off a spire built 200 feet high so that its Polish-immigrant parishioners would have a symbol of Christ that towered above the smokestacks that blotted the Detroit skyline.
There’s little evidence of Christ’s mercy a block away on Poland Street. Biba Adams cooks up bacon and beignets in her bungalow. She is treating herself because it is her birthday, the first without her mother, grandmother, and aunt. They have all been taken away by the COVID-19 plague that swept through Detroit’s black neighborhoods like a 21st-century angel of death skipping few homes.
Her eyes are red. “I like living here, the church and the bells give me peace,” Adams tells me. She pauses for a moment before speaking quietly. “I cried a million tears before you got here.”
We take seats on her porch and watch parishioners walk quickly toward the church. Adams is wearing a “Detroit Girls Around the World” T-shirt, one of many pro-Detroit T-shirts that I will see during my time in Michigan.
Adams was born and raised on Detroit’s west side, just 10 minutes away. Her grandparents were immigrants of the black diaspora, moving from Louisville, Mississippi, to Detroit in search of factory jobs in 1951. Her mom, Elaine, was a single parent and school counselor who sang backing vocals on Motown demos, and with her sister put out a well-received gospel-funk album as Sweet Communion. The matriarch of the family was Minnie, who sewed seats at Chrysler and bought only Chrysler. There were services three times a week at the New Testament Church of God in Christ. Adams earned a degree from Detroit’s Marygrove College eight miles away.
Adams left the area to work on her career, first in Atlanta and then to Harlem, fulfilling a lifelong dream. But she sensed her mother and grandmother’s health were flagging, so she moved home four years ago. She liked to have Sunday dinner with her mother and grandmother at the house they shared, bringing along her own daughter and her baby granddaughter. In March, there were five generations of family celebrating the little girl’s first birthday, with Adams smack in the middle. She remembers her mom looking tired and rushing people out at the end, but didn’t think much about it.
Then it all disappeared. Later that month, Adams had just started her dream job as a writer for the Detroit Metro Times. The coronavirus was just a flicker on her screen; in an editorial meeting the only mention was what Detroit songs could be sung during the recommended 20-second hand-washing. Then she heard that both her mother and grandmother were feeling poorly, and that her aunt had been experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. She drove over to their house and was frightened by what she found.
“She looked the sickest I’ve ever seen her,” says Adams. “She’d had bronchitis flare-ups, so I tried steam, I tried everything. Nothing helped.”
The next day, March 26th, she persuaded her mother to go to the hospital. They didn’t speak on the ride to the emergency room.
“We were just silent,” says Adams. “In both of our hearts we knew that she could pass away.”
After she got back from the ER, a relative stopped by with horrifying news: Adams’ aunt had just died at home. The next morning, her grandmother was admitted to the hospital.
Adams had a series of faltering phone conversations with her mom before she was put on a ventilator. Then, her grandmother slipped away. A few days later, she received a long-dreaded call. It was time. She drove down to the hospital. Adams put on a mask, gown, and gloves. And she said goodbye. The next day, her mother died at age 70.
Adams hasn’t held a service for her mother yet. “My relatives are so mad at me, but I just can’t do it right now, I just can’t,” says Adams. Instead, she wonders if it had to happen. She thinks if we had a different president, she would still have her family.
“Trump tried to bury it,” says Adams. “Look how he responded when he was asked what could he say to people who were scared. His response was ‘That’s a nasty question.’ It’s not a nasty question, I was fucking scared.”
Adams insists that if the Trump administration hadn’t minimized the risks, she would have taken care of her family differently. “I think I could have saved her if I had known earlier. I would have made her stay home.”
Twisting the knife further were the actions of Michiganders outside of Detroit. Adams watched as white folks gathered at the state capitol, brandishing semi-automatic rifles and demanding Gov. Gretchen Whitmer end the lockdown so they could plant their gardens and visit their vacation homes. The protesters’ great act of civil disobedience was providing illegal haircuts on the capitol steps. It wasn’t clear how much of the right-wing protests was about opening the state and how much it was about damaging Whitmer’s chances of being named Joe Biden’s vice presidential nominee.
“It’s a privilege not to have anyone affected,” says Adams with disgust. “Because if they did, they would be in a panic. They certainly wouldn’t be worrying about their hair.”
African Americans make up only 14 percent of Michigan’s population but account for 40 percent of the state’s COVID deaths. To Adams, that meant the rest of Michigan could check out:
“If it’s a black problem, it’s no problem at all.”
It is shortly after George Floyd’s murder and African American communities smolder under the yoke of police brutality and the pandemic. Trump’s macho Twitter blather has only poured more jet fuel on the pyre, and before I leave, Adams tells me how much the president makes her seethe.
“After the impeachment, I told my friends that it would take an act of God to get Trump out of office.” She pauses for a long time.
“Maybe the pandemic was an act of God.”
Her big eyes well up.
“I just wish I didn’t have to lose my whole family.”
I went to Michigan in the hopes of finding out what happens when a pandemic hits a state that might decide who will be our next president. Most of the places hardest hit by the coronavirus’s first wave were blue states such as New York and New Jersey. They were already voting against Trump. Michigan was where the Venn diagram between tragedy and Trump’s chances best intersected.
James Carville once famously said that between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is Alabama. Leave Detroit, and Michigan is Minnesota with worse roads. Historically, the Wolverine State has fought its own civil war of sorts between the city and the rest of the state. After the 1967 riots, there was mass white flight, and malls popped up in the suburbs so moms wouldn’t have to head into Detroit to buy new school clothes. Whole neighborhoods in Detroit were abandoned, leaving plenty of empty houses to play host to the 1980s crack epidemic. Any mention during my adolescence about heading into Detroit for a concert or a Tigers game was met with furrowed brows by concerned parents.
The rest of the state adopted a condescending and paternalistic approach to Michigan’s black citizens. The most recent examples have been the Republican-controlled state government taking home rule away from the city of Flint and Detroit public schools, supposedly for mismanagement. This led to Flint drinking poisoned water. Detroit? Let’s just say the schools did not get better.
Some of the racial tension you can’t see, but some is in the open. Just after the pandemic hit, Dale Zorn, a white state senator from southeastern Michigan, wore a coronavirus mask made out of the Confederate flag on the Michigan senate floor. He apologized but wasn’t censured. On July 1st, a white woman pulled a handgun on a black mother after they bumped into each other outside a suburban Detroit Chipotle.
In 2016, Trump tapped into white fear and resentment in a state that lost the most jobs in the century’s first decade. Michigan workers hemorrhaged a whopping 17 percent of their jobs, totaling 806,000, almost double that of the next state, Ohio. Many of the lost positions were auto-industry union jobs with good benefits that allowed generations of Michigan blue-collar workers to enjoy great medical care and enough cash left over to buy a cottage up north. Trump’s angry rhetoric managed to win him the state by a mere 10,000 votes out of 4.6 million cast. The story wasn’t just Reagan Democrats returning to the GOP; it was a 12 percent drop in black turnout. Some of it was expected without Barack Obama on the ticket, but the magnitude of the lost votes suggested that black Michiganders were giving up on a government that had been taken away from them in Flint and Detroit, and gave so little in return. Now the same beat-upon community was enduring a pandemic and being asked to haul Joe Biden over the line in November.
Those were the reasons I headed to Michigan. But there is an ulterior motive. I want to check in on my mother, who lives alone just outside of Flint. I drive because it seems safer than flying. I knock on my mom’s door on a 90-degree afternoon and signal that I’ll meet her on the back porch. Like many sweet old moms, she wants her boy to come in and give her a hug, which would have broken the germ-free biosphere she had been living in for three months. My sister had been delivering her groceries and sometimes her grandchildren would wave from the front yard. Her quarantine was for the best. A woman in her town had buried both her husband and son.
She gives me some water. “I don’t know why you have to stay in a hotel, I’ve got the whole house.”
I change the subject to politics. My mom is a Navy wife dealt a shit hand, widowed at 36 with three kids. We moved to Michigan in 1980 to be closer to relatives. Back in 2016, I feared she would be easy pickings for Trump; she was someone who had given so much to the country, but received little back. But she surprised and inspired me. She disliked him and his pompous style. A child of the Old South, she would tolerate none of the casual racism about the Obamas that slipped from the side of the mouths of other white Michiganders.
This year, she at first watched the state unify with a common purpose to fight the virus. But then in April, state Republicans turned against Whitmer, calling her a dictator.
“Everyone was working together, then it’s like someone flipped a switch,” she tells me.
And maybe someone had.
On March 9th, the buzz in Michigan was about the next day’s presidential primary and whether Joe Biden could nail down the Democratic nomination or if Bernie Sanders was capable of making a last stand.
“We had a big rally with us, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and Cory Booker in Detroit on March 9th,” recalls Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, the first African American to hold the office. “Then on primary night we get word at 9:30 we have the first two confirmed cases. The governor did a press conference at 11:30, and then everything changed after that.”
At first, Whitmer and the Republican-controlled Legislature were united as the governor shut down the state and launched a media campaign to reach the African American community, where a rumor had started that blacks were immune from COVID-19. Like many states, Michigan scrambled for protective equipment in a country woefully unprepared for a pandemic. This was understandable to everyone except one man: Donald Trump. After a tension-filled conversation between Whitmer and Trump, the president went public with his dissatisfaction. He said he had a “big problem” with “the woman” governor and labeled her “Gretchen ‘Half’ Whitmer.” From that moment on, she became a target of protesters both at the state capitol and her residence.
“They were standing outside my home, with AR-15s,” Whitmer tells me. “My kids and I were looking out the window, but you know what? I have lost three people to COVID-19, three people that I was close to. I’m making decisions to save people’s lives.”
The onslaught culminated with Operation Gridlock on April 15th, when thousands of protesters descended on the state capitol in Lansing, armed with semi-automatic rifles. Michigan is an open-carry state. There was one man with a Barbie doll resembling Whitmer dangling from a Betsy Ross American flag. Posters read heil whitmer with the governor surrounded by a swastika. Around the same time, a man was arrested for making credible death threats against Whitmer and Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel.
One of the conservative groups promoting the protests was the Michigan Freedom Fund. The MFF is an organization funded by the DeVos family, whose members included Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and her brother Erik Prince, who tirelessly advocates the Trump administration hire his private-army firm for unseemly missions.
“This group is funded in large part by the DeVos family,” Whitmer told reporters. “It’s really inappropriate for a sitting member of the United States president’s Cabinet to be waging political attacks on any governor, but obviously, on me here at home.” (The group denied their involvement besides running a $250 Facebook ad on their home page.)
Nessel, Whitmer’s attorney general, was aghast as she watched the protests. Her thoughts turned to her years defending black clients in Detroit. “I’ve had to sit down with my young African American male clients more than I can count when they explain to me, ‘I don’t understand why I got arrested. I don’t understand why I got shot. I see white guys do this all the time, I’m open-carrying,’ ” Nessel says. “And I had to tell them, ‘Open carry only applies to white people.’ ”
Emboldened by the protests, Trump sent a tweet screaming “LIBERATE MICHIGAN” and then toured a Ford plant in Detroit while refusing to wear a mask, leading Nessel to call him a “petulant child” on CNN.
Now it’s time to assess the damage done. “They say that when America gets a cold, black America gets the flu,” says Abdul El-Sayed with a sad smile. “And that’s when Detroit gets pneumonia.”
El-Sayed, 35, is in an optimal position to make that observation. He is an epidemiologist, the former medical director for the city of Detroit, and finished second to Whitmer in the 2018 Democratic primary. “The framework that epidemiologists use to think about a pandemic is three things: agents, host, and environment,” says El-Sayed. “In Detroit, it is the story of how an environment beats up the host over a long period of time to make them vulnerable.”
COVID-19 is largely a virus that breeds in the lungs. The more vulnerable the respiratory system, the more likely it will prove fatal. Not coincidentally, Detroit citizens breathe some of the most polluted air in the country. “If people were breathing terrible air, they have lung disease, everything from asthma to lung cancer,” says El-Sayed. “And now you have a virus that disproportionately attacks the lungs.”
He makes a persuasive case that it all gets back to Trump’s disastrous view that the virus would simply go away. “The thing about Donald Trump is not just that he’s a nut. It’s that he is mendacious. He’s not just fumbling around for a solution, he’s actively looking for a way to divide Americans.”
Whitmer’s response has been far from perfect. She has never called El-Sayed despite the fact he is an Oxford-educated epidemiologist. Her policy of sending COVID-19-positive patients to nursing homes, where the virus has wreaked havoc, has come under scrutiny. Whitmer denies the charge, insisting that the state never forced nursing homes to accept COVID-19 patients and that those who returned did so under CDC guidelines. Even some supporters say she has done too many national interviews while skipping local reporters.
Still, few doubt her sincerity in trying to fight a pandemic that has claimed 6,200 Michiganders, of whom roughly 2,500 were black. How many more would have been lost if Whitmer had caved to the protesters is unknown.
Whitmer will tell you the deaths are a great tragedy, but we live in a realpolitik world. It’s hard to see a Trump path to re-election without the state. But a strange thing has happened. Despite Michigan protests being blared on Fox News, Whitmer’s approval numbers remain high even as unemployment hovers near 20 percent here; meanwhile, Trump trails Biden by around 10 points. Michigan may be about to teach Donald Trump a lesson most six-year-olds learn: Actions have consequences.
That Sunday, I leave Biba Adams and drive 33 miles to New Hudson in Lenawee County, a Detroit suburb that went for Trump over Hillary Clinton by more than 20 points. I stop at the New Hudson Inn, a bar populated by Harleys and a stand selling corn dogs and cotton candy. Nearby, a telephone pole holds a stapled poster with a picture of Whitmer and a pair of hands in shackles with the words, “Lockdown for All, But Not for Me.”
I’m looking for an unmarked white van driven by a man with a long arrest record. He has become the face of the Michigan resistance. I mean that literally. An AFP photographer captured a goateed man screaming between two cops at the state capitol on April 30th. The photo went viral and became the image of the right-wing protests. The man’s name is Brian Cash; he’s a 52-year-old floor installer.
Cash grew up in New Hudson, the son of the fire chief. His white van pulls up. The bar is too crowded so we head over to a nearby school in his van. Besides protesting Whitmer, Cash’s main political activity has been pushing for pot legalization, as indicated by the bong that rests near the gas pedal.
“Let’s get one thing straight,” says Cash with a smile. “I wasn’t yelling at those cops. It was another guard who had treated a woman rough the day before.” He is wearing blue gym shorts and is covered with dust from a long day of work. “I was asking him if he wanted to try that with me.”
Cash is the quintessential kaleidoscopic Trump voter. He never voted before 2016 and began the year as a Bernie Sanders voter.
“Sanders gets fucked by the DNC. Right?” says Cash. “And Hillary’s a bitch, there’s no way I would vote for her,” says Cash. “I didn’t like Donald Trump. I thought he’s a rich, fucking asshole, arrogant, a womanizer piece of shit. But it’s two shitty choices, right? So I gave him a chance.” Cash’s face opens with wonder. “And I just can’t believe the advances he’s made. I’ve been bitching about us being the world police for 30 years, and Trump takes care of it. And my business takes off, more work than I can handle.”
Now, he’s turned over the running of the floor-installing business to his son as he bounces from rally to rally. (He says he went to a police-brutality demonstration in nearby Ypsilanti and was chased out by 150 protesters when he shouted “Trump 2020.”)
I ask Cash when he turned on Whitmer’s lockdown policy. He laughs.
“Minute fucking one. And if you think this is about haircuts, then you’re lost,” says Cash. “It’s about America. It’s about jobs. You don’t quarantine healthy people. Quarantine is meant to keep the sick away.”
Cash is ready to protect his convictions and risk his health rather than wear a piece of cloth over his mouth.
“We don’t let the governor decide what is open and what is closed, ” Cash says. “And she definitely doesn’t have the power to make me wear a mask.”
Like many Trump supporters, Cash sees a dark hand moving to sabotage his president.
“You had all the people on the streets of China protesting over Hong Kong,” says Cash, stubbing out his cigarette. “Millions and millions of people, and then boom, all [of a] sudden this virus gets released. Everybody’s off the streets in China. Then China let it go throughout the world because Trump’s not letting them get away with screwing us anymore. Right?”
We head back over to the bar. I offer to buy Cash a beer, but he says he doesn’t drink any more, just enjoys now-legalized weed. He parks the van and digs into the dashboard looking for rolling papers. “We can smoke a joint before you head out,” he says.
Then it dawns on me, a man with a violent opposition to social distancing is asking me to put my lips on the same wet piece of paper in the midst of a raging pandemic. Cash asks the patrons if they have papers. Some recognize him from the photo and throw in ad hominem slurs at Whitmer. Alas, no one is holding. Cash is bummed. I am not.
Every day that Michigan’s Lt. Gov. Gilchrist makes the 90-mile drive from his Corktown neighborhood in Detroit to Lansing, he passes through the small city of Howell, the longtime home of the late Robert Miles, a grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. Miles held several KKK rallies on his farm and served time for plotting to bomb school buses to stop school integration in the 1970s.
“Howell historically has some disturbing history when it comes to the role that some people in that community have played in very tense race relations here in the state,” says Gilchrist, who runs a COVID-inspired racial-disparities health task force for Whitmer. It’s a bit of an understatement. “I drive through there every day,” he says. “So yeah, frankly, this is the diversity of the state of Michigan.”
Like the rest of the country, Michigan’s black community was pushed to the brink with George Floyd’s murder. Coupled with the pandemic and the Flint water crisis, it seemed too much for one community to bear. Police brutality has been a way of life in Michigan for decades, and Floyd’s death brought back something that state Sen. Jim Ananich of Flint reminded me of a few days earlier. My family moved to the Flint suburbs in 1980, just before the shooting of a black teenager named Billy Taylor. The 15-year-old had stolen a television set and his punishment was a hail of bullets in the back from an off-duty police officer who was never charged with a crime. Ananich’s father was Flint’s ombudsman at the time and brought home the crime-scene photos.
“It might seem strange to have your father show you those pictures when you’re only 10, but he wanted me to know what people had to live with every day, the thought their child might not come home,” Ananich says. “It’s 40 years later, and they still live with the same fear.”
Somehow, in this moment of nationwide racial turmoil, Flint and Detroit exercised their right to protest vigorously without the violence that plagued other cities. On a broiling June morning, I join Whitmer and Gilchrist as they march from Highland Park to Detroit’s Wayne State University four miles away. Rabbis, ministers, and hundreds of citizens accompany us.
Everyone wears masks, but there is very little social distancing. This will become a new talking point for Michigan right-wingers, citing it as a prime example of Whitmer’s hypocrisy. Ironically, the only moment of unrest occurs when a young white man in a construction worker’s reflective vest stumbles into the rally. He refuses to put on a mask and unsuccessfully tries to turn a “Black Lives Matter” chant into “All Lives Matter.” A few of the march leaders exchange troubled glances, but the man soon peels off.
At Wayne State, Whitmer talks about the community’s exhaustion and asks them to push on. Gilchrist, an imposing six-foot-six man with three children, then speaks.
“Can this be the last time we march against injustice?” asks Gilchrist.
A sweating old black man mumbles, “No, it won’t be the last time.”
Gilchrist pauses for a second.
“I believe it can be. And if you don’t, maybe you shouldn’t be out here.”
Gilchrist has lost 22 friends and relatives to the coronavirus. “This has been absolutely real and personal for me,” he tells me. Later, I ask him between breaks in presiding over the state Senate if he truly believes what he said at the march, that this time might be different from all the protests that have come before. His eyes betray that he is smiling behind his University of Michigan mask.
“That’s my optimism,” he says. “We need to get beyond exhaustion to acceleration.”
On my way back from chatting with Michigan’s first black lieutenant governor, I stop in the rural town of Owosso to see barber Karl Manke. Karl would like to keep things the way they are. Actually, he’d like to set the clock back a bit.
“When I was a kid, you had these stereotype things that you’ve played with each other,” says Manke, a white-haired man chatting for a bit before his barbershop illegally opens. “You were a Polack, you were a kraut, you were a kike, you were a spic, you were a dago. All these terms didn’t mean a damn thing. We just teased each other.” He mournfully shakes his head. “Now everybody’s got so sensitive, you can’t even say those words.”
You might recognize Karl if you are a Fox News hobbyist. He appeared on Hannity, Tucker, and Ingraham after opening his one-man barbershop in April in defiance of Whitmer’s closing of all hair salons. He became a folk hero, a lone man standing up to Big Government.
Whitmer attempted to shut him down, but instead the sheriff came into his shop and said, “I love you.”
Then a Michigan court ruled that the governor was not vested with the power to suspend Manke’s barber license. There was great rejoicing throughout unmasked America. The old man became the cuddly face of COVID-19 protest, a welcome contrast to all those scary guys with AR-15s and Whitmer Barbies on a stick. Well, he was a cuddly contrast until the scary guys with AR-15s showed up to “protect” him from, uh, bureaucrats.
He’s been doing boffo business with a line of customers stretching out the door. A friend had to be enlisted to help keep all the appointments straight. Yesterday, there was a guy from Maine and another from Los Angeles.
“Some of them don’t even need haircuts,” marvels Manke. “They just say, ‘I wanted to show my support.’ ”
The Manke phenomenon is a distillation of the American right’s vilification of Democratic governors and a massively deluded belief that individual citizens have the right to go about their business, pandemic or no pandemic. The impact their actions might have on innocents never occurs to them.
“You’ve got a constitutional right to protest your inability to get a haircut,” says Nessel, the attorney general. “But you don’t have a constitutional right to a haircut, and whoever is telling you otherwise is doing you a great disservice.”
Besides, Manke is not the ancient naif he pretends to be on television. He has self-published nine books, including Age of Shame, which treads sketchy ground as he draws a moral equivalence between a Jewish girl in 1940 Warsaw and a German boy persecuted by the Russians for being German. Manke tells me the book includes a section on compliant Polish Jews getting on the trains that would take them to their deaths.
“I refuse to get into any kind of cattle car, whether it be a real one or one that’s just manufactured,” Manke tells me. “Even as the government is saying ‘It’s going to be wonderful, I will take care of you.’ ” He pauses for a moment and glances at the customers piling up, then continues. “She’s not my mother. She might be a stepmother that hasn’t got my best welfare in mind.”
The one consistent thing I find talking to the Michigan resisters is that they start off sounding almost reasonable, but once they proceed past the sound bite, it moves into cuckoo conspiracy land. In an aside, Manke tells me the reason Russia never invaded during the Cold War was because we Americans are all armed: “They wouldn’t know where the shots were coming from.”
Later, he trods the familiar “Trump is being framed” terrain.
“Trump is pulling back the curtain,” says Manke. “He knows the money trail. Guys like Bill Gates, George Soros, and Zuckerberg.”
Manke has heads to cut. But before I go he wants to make sure that I know something.
“I’ll wear a mask, but only if I have to and it makes someone else feel safer, even though they’re not,” says Manke. “If it makes them feel better, I’ll wear the mask.”
He thrusts out his hand aggressively. I smile and try and go around it, but there it is again. I reluctantly shake it, not wanting to be rude. I ask him if I can use the bathroom. He points down the hall and I trot toward it for a thorough hand-washing. I open the bathroom door and find garbage overflowing from the can and spent paper towels by the toilet. It does not make me feel better.
My last Saturday in Michigan is full of blue sky. But not everyone is out in the sunshine. Whitmer’s policies had paid off and Michigan had the virus under control — at least before a nationwide uptick in early July. Still, Adams was staying inside with her dog, Fendi, and thinking about what she has lost.
“I have seen what this disease can do to people,” she says. “I’ve had fun summers, and I will have them again. I’m OK if this isn’t one of them. I’m staying right here.”
There had been a moment of comfort. Late on her birthday, friends gave her a socially distant party. A fence was decorated with ribbons and someone brought out a guitar. Adams and her friends sang Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon,” a song that she and her mom loved to sing together. Tears were shed as they sang along:
Because I’m still in love with you
I want to see you dance again
Because I’m still in love with you
On this harvest moon
During my two weeks in Michigan, the state seemed to be slipping away from Donald Trump. Polls emerged showing him trailing Joe Biden by about 10 points. Still, the sad fact is that the Democratic Party is overly reliant on black turnout in Michigan and other industrial states, and it is an open question whether the deluge of pandemic and police brutality will inspire blacks to turn out or stay home in despair come November.
Gilchrist is hopeful.
“I think people are motivated,” the lieutenant governor tells me. “Your external motivation can be positive or it can be negative; and I think that the confluence of events, starting with the administration, let’s be really clear about that, that’s been a direct threat to the potential of so many black people in the country. I think the people want to find ways to demonstrate that they are powerful, that they are agents in their own story.”
Abdul El-Sayed supported Sanders for president, but vows he will work for Biden’s election. But he said it’s not a given for others. “Votes have to be earned,” says El-Sayed. “There has to be a message sent of how we are going to make the future better, how it is going to be different.”
Still, it’s not going to be easy. After saying goodbye to my mother, I see the other side, one that suggests motivation among disaffected white voters in Michigan is still surging. It’s Trump’s birthday, and what better way for a president’s fans to celebrate his birth amid a pandemic, police brutality, and catastrophic unemployment than with a regatta? More than 100 boats launch into Lake St. Clair to cheer his 74th birthday. On the waterfront, supporters sell re-elect the motherfucker caps on a dock festooned with giant letters reading “Trump Unity” and tired signs reading “Drain the Swamp” and “Build the Wall.”
Yvonne Beadle of Fairhaven, in her MAGA cap, shakes a triumphant fist at honking cars. She had been laid off from her restaurant job and blames Whitmer: “The governor is all about power, power. The masks, the keeping six feet away, c’mon now.” I ask her how she thought President Trump had handled the pandemic. “He was perfect, better than all of them. He was the first one that stopped anyone going in and out of China.” (Not exactly.)
The first few boats started sliding by, laying on their horns. I ask Beadle what the policy should have been with so many dead and dying in Detroit. She pauses for a moment. “Well, to each its own,” she says. “If you don’t feel safe, don’t go out there. I don’t need someone to come and tell me something who is not living in my house or community.”
I ask her what Trump gets about her that other politicians don’t. She replies with a familiar refrain that mentions nothing the president has actually done for her, but makes clear how he has successfully demonized their shared enemies.
“The Democrats are crazy. Just crazy.” She repeats the word seven times. She thinks what happened to Floyd was terrible. But then she adds, “The protesters and rioters should have all been arrested.”
I jump in my car to get a better view of the boats as they head toward the Ambassador Bridge and the border with Canada. I drive a few miles to Lake St. Clair Metropark, a stunning 770-acre park on the lakeshore that could rival any European park for beauty.
Couples sit in lawn chairs and play cribbage, a Michigan favorite. Farther up a grassy path, I can see the boats coming with their Trump and American flags intertwined. The almost universally white crowd cheers with the exception of one middle-aged man who keeps shouting, “Enjoy it while it lasts.”
A group of Trump fans congregate near a viewing platform. I sit down behind a bench. I listen as a woman with long blond hair talks of fake news and Whitmer’s malevolence. Her son sits next to her as she chats up a man a few feet away. Inevitably, the subject turns to the pandemic and the lockdown. She echoes Yvonne’s position.
“There shouldn’t have been a lockdown,” says the woman. “It just should have been ‘You look after yours, and I’ll look after mine.’ ”
You look after yours, and I’ll look after mine. It is the perfect slogan for Trump 2020. In Michigan, if not united, at least we’re fighting the same fight. For unions, for equal pay. Now, it isn’t a red state versus a blue state, it’s town-to-town warfare. Red suburb versus blue city. And it’s bound to get worse, as Whitmer was forced to announce a mandatory mask policy on July 9th as cases flared up nationwide.
Three black women ride by on bicycles and stop for a minute. They are nearly the only African Americans in the park. They see the flags and Trump boats sailing by and shake their heads. The trio then come to a unanimous conclusion. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”