By Jon King /

Events were held in downtown Howell and Brighton Thursday as part of the “Black Lives Matter” movement to protest against police brutality and racism.

Several hundred demonstrators gathered outside of the historic Livingston County Courthouse in downtown Howell and in downtown Brighton carrying signs in support of the “Black Lives Matter” movement and chanting “Say his name…George Floyd”. The demonstrations coincided with a memorial service held for Floyd, whose death last week at the hands of Minneapolis police has prompted has sparked national and local protests on racial injustice and police brutality.

A group of Brighton High School students organized a march from the high school into downtown Brighton and around 150 people participated, chanting Floyd’s name.

In the City of Howell, events began rather tranquilly as about two dozen members of a gun rights group, Michigan for 2A Sanctuary Counties - Livingston, gathered near the veterans memorial around 10am. One of them was Thomas LaMay of Howell. The Gulf War veteran said he had no problem with people planning to peacefully protest Floyd's death. "I don't mind protests, but please don't riot. There's no reason to riot in Howell. We welcome you all. I don't know what businesses are open and what businesses are closed, but the one that are open will welcome you just as well." As to the reason behind the protests, LaMay, a Gulf War veteran, said he absolutely understood. "I'll walk with you. I believe the George Floyd thing was wrong. That officer should be held accountable and he is arrested. I think he should get life in prison or even death row."

Anna Wysocki of Ann Arbor was one of the protestors who showed up early. She had a sign that said, "DE-MILITARIZATION, MORE CONVERSATION, BLACK LIVES MATTER, LET'S TALK" Wysocki grew up in Howell and says the city's reputation as a racist haven is contrary to her experience, but that doesn't mean there isn't work to do to try and improve. "Those of us who think we are allies and that we are progressive community, those of us who want to defend the image of Howell, we have to not be silent. We have to be pretty loud about it. We have to make sure people know this is a welcoming and safe place and I don't think people know that." Wysocki said she was glad to see the 2A group members not openly carrying any military-style weapons, which she feels could intimidate others who seek to peacefully protest.

Around noon, dozens more protestors arrived carrying signs supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and lined Grand River as passing cars honked in approval, eliciting cheers. By 4pm, there were several hundred protestors holding signs and chanting slogans like "No Justice, No Peace" and "Say His Name - George Floyd". At one point, the crowd yelled in unison "I can't breathe" for nearly nine minutes, a reference to one of the final statements Floyd made while the officer kept his knee on his neck until he died.

Harley Wheeler of Brighton helped to organize the afternoon rally in Howell and told WHMI she wanted to show that the community is safe. Wheeler thanked everyone for coming out, including the 2A movement and local police officers for protecting the town. She said she has never encountered any issues with local authorities and wanted people to know Howell is a safe town.

Another activist who was leading the protestors was Eden Spallone of Howell, who told WHMI that she felt some were more focused on issues other than those surrounding systemic racism and police brutality. "What I've noticed is that a lot of people are making this not so much about Black Lives Matter and more about other problems in our world. The main point of this is Black Lives Matter. We have time for other issues, but right now it is Black Lives Matter and that is what we are here for."

Jennifer Swanson attended the event in downtown Howell with her daughter Emily. Swanson is from the area but currently lives in Ypsilanti and said she was glad to see the turnout. "This is a step in the right direction to be able to hold peaceful protests in this manner considering what Howell has gone through and to clear Howell's name that the black murk that was here years and years ago and tarnished our name." Swanson said she moved to Ypsilanti to gain some diversity so her kids could learn what she never had an opportunity to.

Thursday’s local events appeared to all be conducted peacefully, despite earlier concerns from police and city officials. City officials said everything was cleared as of 8:30pm and it went very well. Some city and county offices as well as local businesses were closed for the day out of what was said to be an “abundance of caution" following online threats of violence. Members of a gun rights group were in attendance at demonstrations in Howell and some community members expressed they were glad the group was not openly displaying any military-style weapons.

Karen Wheeling lives in Canton but used to live in Howell. She was upset that authorities tried to keep away protestors. Wheeling said to her, the point of view she took away was that it doesn’t matter - stay home and keep the streets calm. She said her perception was calm is what matters – “not black lives, not equality, not justice - only the pasty white lives matter, I’m sorry, but that’s it”.

Ahead of the event, Livingston County Sheriff Mike Murphy had requested the public stay away as a safety precaution and to not give people with ill intentions any stage. He clarified the “stay away” comment was based solely on not wanting anybody to get hurt. Murphy said they don’t care if 30,000 people show up as long as it’s peaceful and no one gets hurt and there’s no property damage – stressing people have the right to assemble and there’s no issue there. Murphy said what people don’t understand, and what they can’t often tell them, is they get information through state and federal intelligence agencies informing them that there might be some people with different intentions showing up not willing to go along with the peaceful nature. Murphy said the message was intended to try to prevent anyone from getting hurt – not keep them away because they don’t care, that’s not the point.

There was one arrest made. A 16-year-old male was spotted driving by the protest, waving what appeared to be a gun. He was stopped and taken into custody by the Livingston County Sheriffs Office near the Home Depot in Genoa Township. The weapon turned out to be a pellet gun. The teen was later turned over to his father.

Meanwhile, Interim City Manager Erv Suida released the following statement to WHMI:

"The City of Howell received several threats from social media, and warnings from federal agencies that the potential for violence during peaceful protests was possible. Additionally, specific potential targets of government buildings were made, prompting the closure of some City and County buildings on Thursday.

I am extremely pleased with the conduct of those who rallied in support of BLM and the 2A group who, despite calls to stand down, attended to protect property. Both showed outstanding composure and conducted themselves in very respectful ways. I personally witnessed sharing of water and snacks between the two groups. We are extremely thankful for their actions.

Additionally, the exemplary work conducted by the Howell Police department, County Sheriff department and other supporting agencies that helped show such a large presence of peace was incredible. The positive interaction between both groups was a huge part of the success of these events. I couldn't be more proud of our department and their compassion for this community. Also, our community members showed support for all. I heard people thanking our officers for keeping us safe and horns being honked to support the BLM movement.

I believe the outcome we saw today was a direct result of many groups from different backgrounds and beliefs rallying behind an injustice that happened in Minneapolis.

Maybe instead of calling these “protests”, which insinuates division of opinion, we should call them rallies, especially since we all feel the same way regarding the George Floyd tragedy."

18-year-olds Holly Klasko and Madison Rodriguez of Howell, were among the earlier protestors, carrying signs that said "Black Lives Matter" and "One Race Human Race". Klasko told WHMI that the protests taking place across the country are about a larger issue that has remained unresolved for too long. "Basically I just want the criminal justice system to be fixed because it always has been biased I think, in my opinion. I'm glad this whole thing is happening so it can finally open up more people's eyes to realize that it has been biased for years and this isn't just a new thing."

Top - Protestors fill courthouse lawn in Howell
Middle - Anna Wysocki of Ann Arbor
Bottom - Brighton-area students protesting at the Mill Pond