Ciaeem Slaton is living in Black Ann Arbor.
On Sept. 26, 2017, on his way home from the Neutral Zone, Slaton was arrested by Ann Arbor Police Department (AAPD) Officer Marrow at Blake Transit Center. Waiting to take the bus home, a fight broke out between two young girls. When the police arrived, they asked for the student identification of some of the teenagers waiting for their buses.
At the time, Slaton was a student at Pathways High School. Because it was so early in the school year, he was not yet administered his school ID, therefore unable to present it to the officers. Slaton and his friends were asked to leave. Officer Marrow then pushed Slaton against the wall, eventually pinning him onto the ground with his knee in his back. The entire incident was captured on video.
Slaton was taken to the police station to be questioned alone –– a violation of his rights as he was a minor without a legal parent or guardian. He was issued a trespass warrant, stating that he was unable to be on the premises of the Blake Transit Center or ride any of the city buses for an entire year. Slaton is among other black residents in Ann Arbor that have received this warrant.
Slaton’s family relied upon the AATA heavily: At the time, his mother’s car had just broken down; she had recently given birth; and she was raising five other children. There was no school bussing to and from his area, so Slaton took the city bus to school and after-school activities.
After Slaton’s incident with the police, the community pushed back. On Oct. 4, 2017, protesters met on Fifth Ave. in between the Blake Transit Center and the downtown branch of the district library. Posters dotted the crowd, reading phrases like “Black Lives Matter,” “Justice for Ciaeem” and “Ann Arbor Police: No Excuse for Violence Against Innocent Kids.” Protesters marched towards City Hall where hundreds demonstrated.
The Human Rights Commission (HRC) of Ann Arbor, directors of the Neutral Zone and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) played a key role in trying to gain justice for Slaton. Along with local black activist, Shirley Beckley, they met with the Slaton family at the Blake Transit Center to replay the security footage from the day Slaton was assaulted.
The Collective Against White Supremacy (CAWS), an anti-racism grassroots organization based out of Washtenaw County, also assisted the Slaton family. “CAWS is advocating changes to the police department’s use of force policy on youth and changes to the enforcement policies for ‘trespassing,’ which allow police to profile youth who use public transit,” according to a Black Ink article. The organization also initiated a fundraising campaign to assist the Slaton family with food and housing.
Lori Roddy, the director the Neutral Zone, felt that it was necessary for the center to assist Slaton. Like many other Neutral Zone attendees, Slaton relied on the city bus for transportation. Roddy realized that if the transit center was administering trespass warrants to a lot of the Neutral Zone youth –– especially black youth –– they would have no way to get to the teen center, school or anywhere else they needed to go.
The Neutral Zone responded to Slaton’s incident through regular attendants of its programs. The Board of Directors and other staff members at the Neutral Zone marched with the teennagers on Oct. 4. Afterwards, the staff led a debrief session at the Neutral Zone for those who protested.
A participatory action research project called The Black Youth Participatory Action Research (PAR) Project stemmed from the incident. Participants interviewed black youth on their experiences in Washtenaw County, eventually fostering a community built upon a consensual neglected issue: the black experience in downtown Ann Arbor.
The survey found that out of 293 responses, 25 percent of white respondents would always trust a police officer if they felt unsafe downtown. In addition, 48 percent of white respondents would often trust a police officer downtown. However, 25 percent of black respondents would rarely trust a police officer if they felt unsafe downtown, and 12.5 percent of respondents would never trust the police. Furthermore, 42 percent of respondents felt that the Blake Transit Center was a space where they often feel most unsafe.
The AATA has a contract with the police department on top of the Blake Transit Center’s security guards. Some in the community, including Beckley, feel that the contract is unnecessary. “To me, that’s just double policing,” Beckley said. “I would think that if [Blake Transit] had an issue with Ciaeem or anybody else, they would take them back into the office and talk to them and try to resolve the issue.”
Many activists feel as though the over policing at the transit center led to overuse of force. When Slaton and his family watched the video, they saw a taser on the ground next to his side. Officer Marrow never used his taser, but to the activists groups, the excessive use of physical force was enough to merit change.
In hopes to create a more inclusive Ann Arbor, the PAR Project respondents suggested that the AAPD train their officers to de-escalate situations without using weapons or excessive force, as well as participating in bias and sensitivity training. The respondents want to see more youth in city council positions and a community-led accountability board. Respondents also called for a hotline where teens can report when they felt unsafe in the community.
In addition, from the cases of Ciaeem Slaton and Aura Rosser –– a black woman who was killed at the hands of a different AAPD officer –– came the Independent Community Police Oversight Commission. The Oversight Commission receives complaints of police misconduct, acting as a middle ground between the community and the police. Prior to the commission, those complaints had to be filed directly with the police force. Many of the activists in the area think this is a large step in the right direction but still has room to improve.
The Neutral Zone’s Black Youth PAR Project made a video highlighting statistics from their survey, which was shown to the police force as the Oversight Commission was in its infancy. According to Roddy, the commission responded well, sending it throughout the task force. To date, the commission has not taken any disciplinary action, but the reassurance it provides to the community is the change residents wanted and needed.
Though the hope for a better future is apparent, they recognize that this change, like recovery, is not going to be immediate.
To work on facilitating this change, Howard Lazarus, the Ann Arbor City Administrator, helped to create a Workforce Development Program with the Neutral Zone. In a 12-week program, teens will be mentored, paid stipends and eventually occupy temporary city jobs to gain experience before taking on permanent ones. Additionally, Washtenaw Community College assists members of the program with full scholarships. The county commissioner, Jason Morgan, helped create the Washtenaw County Youth Commission with the Neutral Zone. The 19 teenage members now act as gateway between the city government and youth.
Roddy also hopes to mend the relationship between Neutral Zone attendants and AATA bus drivers. She wants the transit center to feel like a place where kids belong, not just a place where they have to pass through. Restorative justice circles for the higher supervisors of the bus drivers have taken place with the Neutral Zone staff members; in order to foster an environment at the transit center where kids feel like they belong, drivers need to better understand adolescents. In return for the AATA providing the center with free and unlimited bus passes, the Neutral Zone leads their appeal processes. When there is a conflict with a teen at the Transit Center, the Neutral Zone hosts bus drivers, teens, families and educators for a restorative justice circle. center, in return for the Neutral Zone leading their appeal processes.
Above all other programs the Neutral Zone has created, it has most importantly created an outlet for black youth since Slaton’s incident. It has also shifted from a considerably politically neutral organization to more outspoken, heavily advocating for marginalized adolescents in the community. Roddy has noticed the participation of black teens in leadership positions increase tremendously. Now, some of the teens that were members of the Black Youth PAR Project are in top leadership positions at the center.
“But it’s far more than just the bus station and the police,” Roddy said. “It’s about the overall experience that black people feel, and how isolated and alienated they feel from their community and opportunities that white youth have [that] they do not feel that they have access to.”
Roddy’s overall goal is to bridge the gap between the marginalized youth in Ann Arbor with the rest of the community. Roddy has recognized leadership comes in different forms, especially when teaching the youth how to march and how to sit at the table. Slaton’s incident created a platform for tough conversations to be held, eventually forming strong relationships among the Neutral Zone attendees.
As a result of protests and headway made by the organizations assisting his family, Slaton was able to ride the bus again. But this was only after they got the trespass warrant from the police revoked.
After Slaton’s experience, a statute of limitations was enacted surrounding his case. This act created a three-year window in which legal actions could be brought upon the AAPD or Slaton. Local activists, like Beckley, suggest that true justice for Slaton can only be gained within the statue. However, Slaton’s family did not present a case.
But justice is more than just gaining the right to ride the bus again, getting a trespass warrant revoked, or even winning a lawsuit –– it is about connecting the experiences of the two Ann Arbors.