Affirmative reaction

For most of Ann Arbor, this particular Saturday morning is business as usual.

Joggers exhale steam clouds as they run in packs along State Street through the University of Michigan’s main campus. Students who’ve signed up for weekend classes walk briskly with their heads tucked downward, faces wrapped in scarves. It’s a frigid day, and the faint sunshine does nothing to melt the patches of snow. But for a group of activists, lawyers, scholars and young people, things are just heating up.

The old, tannish-gray Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies sits opposite a tall, steel pole that hoists a flowing American flag. Inside the building’s auditorium, a cavernous, circular room filled with rust-colored seats, the activists are preparing to do battle. With U-M’s affirmative action policies before the U.S. Supreme Court, the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action & Integration and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary (BAMN) has called a rally.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who visited the campus for a demonstration earlier in the week, is on the agenda again today, but he’s a no-show. The Rev. Al Sharpton, who recently announced his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination, won’t make it, either. His Harlem headquarters were the scene of an electrical fire earlier in the week.

But for BAMN and a dozen or so campus co-sponsors, the demonstration continues. Lawyers, students and others have traveled from as far away as California and Texas to participate.

“We now have the single most powerful person in the world, George Bush, opposed to our fight, saying that affirmative action at the University of Michigan is about quotas, when he knows that’s a lie,” says Shanta Driver, BAMN’s national spokesperson. She accuses Bush of “saying that things are moving forward, when he knows that’s a goddamned lie!”

Driver, who has East Coast roots, is petite, light brown, with jet-black hair down her back. She’s a sister, but could easily be mistaken for Latina. In spite of her feminine voice and delicate appearance, something about the way she says the word “goddamned” indicates that hers is not a temper that should be riled — especially when it comes to issues like this. Driver has a round-the-way-girl vibe that simmers beneath the surface of her speaker’s composure.

Others are even more emotional. Geneva Thomas, who attends U-M rival Michigan State, has traveled from East Lansing. She is frustrated to the brink of tears as she approaches a microphone set up in the aisle. Thomas resents what she perceives as complacency — only 100 or so people have shown up, filling less than half the auditorium. She says she expected to have trouble getting into the rally; she certainly didn’t expect to see folks slouched and distracted.

“People are in here sleeping!” she says in disbelief. “You could’ve stayed at home to sleep.”

Thomas receives cheers when she finishes speaking.

Far from asleep are the enthusiastic members in a large delegation of high school students, mainly from Detroit and the Washington, D.C., area. BAMN has made a special effort to recruit youth who will take on the cause of supporting and defending affirmative action before they actually get to college; by that time, BAMN members say, it just might be too late. (The organization, which takes its name from a Malcolm X aphorism, stakes its positions in a 21-point manifesto at its Web site at For BAMN, the school admissions issue is just one part of “a reawakening international mass movement against racism and fascism.”)

Kyal Thomas, a student at Renaissance High School, has spent most of the week on campus, participating in mobilization and organizing activities. Thomas says he sees the disparity in opportunities when he looks at the advantages his white student counterparts have inherited in their neighborhoods and communities. In the city “the parents are on drugs, and in the suburbs, the kids are on drugs,” he says. “The children are not getting what they need.”

While Detroit students have carried toilet paper to school, Thomas says there is no shortage of supplies for students in places like West Bloomfield.

“You go in there and you say, ‘Damn, look at this!’” he adds. “We ain’t even got doors on the stalls sometimes.”

Many of the students present will join activists from throughout the country in Washington, D.C., April 1 when the Supreme Court hears arguments for and against U-M’s admissions policies. BAMN members say it will be a defining moment. Their presence will be “no April Fool,” supporters of the policies say.

“If we lose this fight, we’ll be in the position of seeing America resegregated,” Driver says.

Adds BAMN organizer Luke Massie: “Once we defend this bridge over the moat, I think all of us here know — we can take the rest of them.”

Eddie B. Allen Jr. is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]
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