Protesters in Detroit.
Mya King, a 16-year-old Indian-American from Chelsea, was among tens of thousands of young people who took to the streets nationwide to protest systemic racism following the brutal death of George Floyd in late May.
But her experience was anything but positive, resulting in a bloodied mouth, a ticket for marching on the street, and an encounter with an unsympathetic police officer who had posted racist and vile memes on social media.
It was so ugly that the University of Michigan’s Civil Rights Litigation Initiative (CRLI) got involved.
The string of events began on June 25, after a Black Lives Matter protest. At an open mic event later that evening with dozens of young people in Pierce Park in Chelsea, Mya saw a belligerent adult counter-protester cursing at a group of middle schoolers. When the soft-spoken teenager stepped between the adult and children, the counter-protester punched her in the face, “drawing blood and causing her lips to swell,” according to the CRLI.
Police arrived but were unhelpful. Officers failed to address Mya’s injuries, arrest the adult, or take her statement.
The next day, Mya and her mother reported the assault at the Chelsea Police Department, where they received a cold reception. Officer Rick Cornell even refused to wear a mask while interviewing Mya in an interview room.
“Throughout the interview, Officer Cornell suggested that Mya should have expected trouble because of the ‘mess’ she was causing by protesting,” student attorneys for the CRLI wrote in a letter to Chelsea’s police chief, mayor, and city attorney. “He warned Mya and Mya’s mother that this incident would not be the last time Mya would be assaulted. In fact, he suggested that, because of her race, she can expect a ‘lifetime’ of assault and trauma because that’s ‘the way the world is.’ Officer Cornell was dismissive and combative throughout the interview.”
Mya shared her experience with members of Anti-Racist Chelsea Youth (ARCY), who were at the park during the assault. After a little digging, they discovered racist and insulting memes on the officer’s Facebook page. Some glorified police misconduct.
The memes were shared with the Chelsea Police Department, and the officer was placed on administrative leave pending an internal investigation.
Attorneys believe police then retaliated against Mya by issuing her a ticket for “impeding traffic” for allegedly demonstrating on a street on July 31.
“It adds insult to injury that Chelsea has decided to punish such an admirable racial justice advocate who, after being sucker-punched by an adult and treated so horribly by a Chelsea police officer,” the CRLI attorneys wrote in a letter asking police to drop the charges. “Disturbingly, the Chelsea Police Department does not seem to be as concerned about maintaining a steady flow of traffic when adult counter-protesters, some of whom describe themselves as the ‘Patriot Parade,’ drive slowly through the streets screaming at and threatening young Black Lives Matter marchers.”
Attorneys said it’s rare for police departments to issue tickets for peacefully protesting, pointing out that police in nearby Ann Arbor, Saline, and Ypsilanti helped direct traffic for demonstrators.
“Mya King represents the promise of America. We must uplift and commend, not silence, our next generation of leaders,” the attorneys wrote. “In the interest of justice, we request that you drop all charges against Mya King and those similarly situated. If you refuse, we will be forced to defend the activist on constitutional grounds.”
Chelsea Police Chief Ed Toth didn’t respond to an email or call for comment.
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