Media Frenzy Over Cushingberry Goes Too Far 

Media and public scrutiny should be more about issues, less about traffic stops.

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Watching Detroit City Council President Pro Tem George Cushingberry Jr.’s traffic stop reverberate through the media and social networking last week was an illuminating experience. Nothing stirs the pot of Detroit politics like a public official giving traffic cops the business (see also: Christine “Do you know who the fuck I am?” Beatty). 

According to the Detroit Free Press, Cushingberry, 61, said a supervisor, who arrived at the scene, let him and his passenger go. He said the supervisor noted that the rum bottle in the car was empty, and that, even though the car smelled strongly of marijuana, Cushingberry’s passenger had a medical marijuana card. The supervisor told the councilmember, “Well, we’re not trying to ruin your career or anything.” 

That said, depending on which version of events you believe, Cushingberry was either driving a sick friend back from dinner, probably while on his way to midnight services, when he was brutally racially profiled by two evil white cops, or else he was drunk and high as hell, speeding away from a strip club when he almost sideswiped a Detroit police car and then flashed his council ID when he was pulled over, all the while smoking an enormous blunt of Sour Diesel.

That’s certainly the content of the messages and postings we saw in the wake of these revelations. It seemed that, just a few days after Cushingberry’s traffic stop, everybody, from the police to Cushingberry’s acoloytes, knew exactly what the hell went down on Livernois that night. While some facts remained blurry in the coverage and ensuing discussion, it brought a lot of the fault lines of class and race in our region into sharp focus, probably saying a lot more about metro Detroiters as spectators than it does about Cushingberry or two traffic cops. 

Sure, it’s an ancient pastime, making fun of Detroit’s legislators, but it’s often a bit of old-fashioned racism in disguise. Because some people are definitely unfair when it comes to the council. Comparisons of councilmembers to children, questions about individual members’ sanity, remarks about their sartorial style — these things obscure the very real positions, often progressive ones, that some councilmembers hold. It’s something of a double standard in our town. L. Brooks Patterson can make borderline racist cracks about “Honkytown” and people chuckle as if grandpa had one too many shots of Wild Turkey and is talking out of turn. When George Cushingberry lashes out at the media — something politicians have done since the First Amendment was ratified — he’s considered a loose cannon? When attorney Cushingberry defends his rights as a citizen during a traffic stop, he’s an embarrassment? If we’re going to demand high standards of our public officials, we need to have consistent standards to judge them against.

Another instance of unfairness was tucked into Rochelle Riley’s Sunday editorial in the Free Press shaming Cushingberry for having a car that police said smelled strongly of marijuana. Riley goes on record in the editorial, writing in a taunting tone, “Oh, and you can’t smell marijuana unless it’s burning,” with the obvious implication being that Cushingberry and his passenger were blazing one in the car.

This is part of a larger problem with media coverage involving the War on Drugs: A lot of media people are clueless about the very issue they are reporting on. We can say with confidence that Riley is flat-out wrong on this one. We’ve known people who are not smoking pot, haven’t smoked pot for hours, but just happen to reek with a perpetual dank weed stank. It may overpower your nose, but your chances of getting high are zero. And it’s no smoking gun.

Now, a purported Facebook photo of the passenger, Richard Clement Sr., shows a guy who really looks like he could smell like weed the same way Glade smells like a country garden in bloom. The photo, joyfully posted in online forums due to Clement’s peek-a-boo through what look like some very vigorous pot plants, shows a guy who you would probably find in a crowd by following your nose. Sure, it’s a laughter-inducing photo, but the issue is serious: Those who know medicinal marijuana understand that the smell of pot, even the overpowering aroma of pot, is not evidence of wrongdoing. If we’re ever going to end this wasteful, destructive drug war, it has to begin with journalists and editors at least understanding the facts about marijuana, instead of taking puritanical and ignorant potshots (no pun intended) when there’s no evidence any laws have even been broken. The editorial staff of the Free Press deserves a little shaming for that blooper.

Even our own Jack Lessenberry seems a little preoccupied with Cushingberry’s style over his substance, complaining that his stubborn demeanor during the traffic stop reinforced negative perceptions about Detroit. Well, that may be so, but part of that credit goes to scandal-hungry pundits looking to score off Detroit City Council’s democratically elected members. (We also think there are probably about 10 billion other things contributing to negative perceptions of Detroit.)

Which all underscores what may be the worst thing about this brouhaha: There are solid reasons to object to Cushingberry’s politics. (See this week’s column by Lessenberry for some actual news on his shenanigans.) None of these legitimate political concerns involves something as exciting as a Detroit politican chewing out two patrolmen.

Now, all that said, Cushingberry shouldn’t be let off the hook entirely. There is something about his sainted account of that night that simply doesn’t ring true. Namely this: We’ve driven in Detroit for years and years. We haven’t obeyed all the laws all the time, and we’re not defending that. But doesn’t it seem that Detroit cops have bigger fish to fry than simply stopping people who don’t signal a turn? We’ve seen people blow through lights, stop signs, “Do Not Enter” signs. We’ve seen people drive the wrong way down one-way streets. Never once did we see a squad car flip on its lights and give chase. Hell, there are some spots in the city where you could do doughnuts in the goddamn intersection for an hour or two without officers of the peace intruding on your activities. So, doesn’t it sound a little odd that Detroit police officers would pull over his 1993 Buick Park Avenue for “fail to signal”?

To the experienced observer who knows what happens when councilmembers flash their identification at traffic cops, yes, it would seem something more has happened here. And if people in the media (and in general) lampoon Detroit City Council as a romper room of misfits, chiselers and dullards, episodes like this certainly don’t help. It’s early days yet, but, Councilmember Cushingberry, you might perhaps spend a little more time in church and a little less time at the Penthouse Lounge, just for the time being? 

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