Princeton research, ACLU intersect on GTC issues | Local News

TRAVERSE CITY — Grand Traverse County is in the crosshairs as the topic of a Princeton University study highlighting political violence in the United States — as well as the community’s response to it.

Grand Traverse was chosen by the university’s Bridging Divides Team because Michigan is a swing state and because the county itself is sharply divided, with rural areas typically voting Republican and urban areas Democratic.

The region also is an economic hub that has not been studied as much as more populated areas downstate. Residents, community leaders and government officials were interviewed during the summer and fall.

Four areas of conflict were identified in the study:

• Some local leaders’ refusal to accept the 2020 election results.

• Passage of a county board resolution naming the county a “Second Amendment Sanctuary.”

• Rejection of state COVID-19 health measures.

• Tensions involving school boards in the region about racial justice efforts.

As examples, the study mentions US Rep. Jack Bergman, R-Watersmeet, and his signing on to a Texas lawsuit challenging the 2020 election results, as well as the brandishing of a weapon by former county commissioner Ron Clous when asked to denounce the Proud Boys, a group that had been invited to a county board meeting earlier that year.

There were people who received death threats in the mail after speaking out against becoming a sanctuary county, which can have a chilling effect on public discourse, they said.

There was also pushback against businesses that required masks during the worst days of the pandemic, and the county resolution limiting its health department as far as the promotion of vaccines and banning vaccine mandates by the county for its employees. This eventually led to the non-renewal of former medical director Dr. Michael Collins’ contract, who wrote a column against the board’s actions that was published in the Record-Eagle.

A Record-Eagle reporter was shoved into a fence and punched in the face when he attended an outdoor anti-mask rally. Students from two Traverse City high schools put Black classmates up for bid in a Snapchat “slave trade.” There were men carrying assault rifles and wearing body armor at public rallies.

Some of these incidents prompted several area attorneys to establish the Northern Michigan Lawyers Committee for the ACLU of Michigan to respond to the Grand Traverse County board.

The group asked the Michigan Attorney General’s office to reinstate two Northern Lakes Community Mental Health Authority board members saying they were illegally removed by the county board.

“Our role in this community is to ensure that civil rights are being protected and the elected officials or government officials in general are not abusing their authority or exceeding their power,” said attorney Deyar Jamil, a member of the ACLU committee.

Another incident Jamil cited was when the county board refused to produce documents named in a citizen’s Freedom of Information Act request with no exceptions stated for why it should be withheld. When the ACLU got involved, the requested documents were turned over, she said.

“Ordinary citizens who are trying to exercise their rights should not have to retain attorneys to obtain a FOIA request,” Jamil said. “They’re abusing their authority to deprive people of their civil rights — and they’re doing this while waging culture wars to the detriment of people across the entire political spectrum.”

The Princeton study also included several mitigation strategies put into place as a result of the incidents, including efforts to prepare people for heightened strategies around the 2022 election cycle; coalitions of Black, Indigenous and People of Color to improve lives of county residents; and efforts to bring people together regardless of their party identity.

“It’s very interesting that our county was chosen for the study,” said Jessica Forster, chair of the Traverse City Human Rights Commission. “It’s telling.”

Forster also sees the positive aspects of the study. “I see opportunity here and I think there are a lot of good things going on in our county.”

Forster also is on the leadership team of Spiritual Activists Leading Together, a group that formed out of the 2020 election and engages people to move beyond party affiliations and focus on solutions for things like racial injustice and affordable housing. The group was cited in the study.

“We have challenges in our community, but we continue to lean into this work,” she said.

Comments are closed.