City Council Recommends Rescinding Citations over Summer Protests


Student protesters march as part of Black Lives Matter protests across the country last summer. Credit: @antiracistchelseayouth on Instagram

Struggle Continues between Chelsea Police and Student Protesters

After months of conflict between residents and city police, Chelsea City Council voted unanimously to recommend rescinding citations that stemmed from protests held last summer. The Chelsea Police Department, however, indicated that it has no immediate intentions of tossing the tickets.

Black Lives Matter protesters marched from Pierce Park to the police station to hold a sit-in and open mic on July 31, 2020. They had marched nearly every other week that summer, but this day was different: officers documented the march with cameras, and the protesters were met with opposition from honking cars and, in some cases, obscene gestures, from the Patriot Parade, which included supporters of then-President Donald Trump and Blue Lives Matter flag fliers. 

Months after the incident, protesters from the BLM rally started receiving tickets for violating Chelsea law, which states groups need a permit to take the street unless the event is in association with a charity organization. At least 19 different people have been given citations, the most recent received on Wednesday.   

[The citations] were given in an attempt to silence people.”

— Sophie Bugala ('21)

Though Council decided it didn’t have the authority under the city charter to tell the police what to do, it did have some oversight over the actions of the police department under U.S Department of Justice precedent.

While the Chelsea Police Department declined to make an official statement, Chief Ed Toth referred Bleu Print reporters to hearings that will be held throughout the day on February 22, with information available through the Washtenaw County District Court website. 

“I will follow the City Charter, Oath of Office, department policies and procedures and the law,” Chief Toth told Chelsea Update on Wednesday.

According to an unconfirmed post on the ‘Drop The Charges’ Facebook page, a group supportive of the protesters, Toth told one citizen that he preferred to see the conflict play out in the courts.

Student protester Sophie Bugala (‘21) received three different $180 citations for July 31 and two protests after. Bugala’s father received two tickets, as well. Both were unaware how they were identified, citing the photos taken by the police as a possibility, including during one altercation that turned physical between a Chelsea student and an adult counter-protester.

“I think it’s really important that another investigation is made into the way CPD obtained evidence,” Bugala said. “City Council was given reason to believe they used evidence from the assault to identify and penalize protesters, which is concerning to many members of the community.”

During a February 1 meeting, Council got insight from private investigator Bruce Judge about tactics of the ticketing. He explained that though there is a “legitimate question of if it was beyond what was required,” he thought the tickets were given in an effort “to avoid young people getting hurt in the street.” 

Black Lives Matter protesters cross a street in front of a vehicle with a “We Support Chelsea Police” sign. Conflict between the two protests ramped up in July. Credit: @karipaine on Instagram.

“Some of the information and concerns the police were trying to address [with the tickets] was very much a concern of the safety of people, in this case many young people walking in the street,” Judge said. “I do think that the avoidance of injury to the students was very much front and center to Chief Toth trying to come up with a solution to what the city was facing over the summer.”

Bugala and many others who spoke during the public comment at both the February 1 and 16 meetings disagreed. Bugala said they attended protests where they “walked down main street in downtown Ann Arbor without penalty” and that no citations were given to protesters at similar protests in Dexter and Saline. For Bugala and others, this presents a startling contrast to how the city of Chelsea, and specifically city police, have reacted to protests organized by Anti-Racist Chelsea Youth (ARCY) this summer.

“If the charges are upheld that will set its own precedent,” Bugala said. “It sends a message to neighboring communities that this is a place where City Council and the police department do not welcome or support anti-racism and anti-racist action. No attempt was made to open a dialogue, whether that dialogue was wanted by protesters or not, and these citations were given knowing that protesters as young as 13 had no way to obtain a permit. They were given in an attempt to silence people.”

Toth declined to comment on the tickets and whether or not similar citations were given for the Patriots Parade this summer. 

Chelsea residents of all ages have spoken out against the citations since the first round of tickets were distributed last summer. From creating a website, to emailing and speaking to City Council members, the huge quantity of concerns spurred Council’s vote to recommend dropping all charges.

Many community members came forward at City Council meetings in February to speak in support of the protesters; a common theme was the “unusualness” of the tickets to teenage participants.

“I think it was unfortunate that juveniles were cited,” Judge said. “In my background doing law enforcement over twenty years I come from a place where you try to avoid having juveniles being involved in the system at all. It would have been easy for police to simply decide a handful of adults could be cited if they thought that was important.”

Another concern was the timeliness of the response. Judge explained that though “there could be explanations that directly address the concerns,” it wasn’t clear to him “why [the citations] couldn’t have happened within a matter of days and why the police department would elect to continue to devote resources to these enforcement activities 4-5 months later.”

Many citizens agreed, also expressing concern about how much time and how many resources are being spent on the collection of data about protesters. 

“I just want everyone to imagine if the time and resources that have been spent on discussing traffic tickets were put towards developing a more equitable city,” Foster Thorburn (‘19) said during public comment at the meeting on February 1. “I want everyone to imagine if, instead of harassing protesters, the city implemented the change that the protesters were advocating for.”

Council member Jane Pacheco says she encourages more young people to attend City Council meetings and let their voice be heard. She emphasized the importance of the connection between Council and community and encouraged anyone with an opinion to reach out to Council through email and preferably public comment.

“It is important for all people to have a voice in what happens in their community,” Pacheco said. “A student voice is important, and it matters. I would encourage students to reach out to community leaders, Council members, and decision makers even within the school and their churches and their youth groups because their opinion matters. You all are able to effect change from where you sit right now.” 

Members of ARCY have indicated that they plan to do just that. A post on the student-run organization’s Instagram account reads, “We must continue to hold our community accountable for its actions. We need public pressure and support just as much as we did last spring. The effort to better our community is not exclusive to anybody.”

The Bleu Print will continue to cover this story as the events unfold. In the meantime, it is clear that young people, including recent alumni like Thorburn, are invested in the process.

“Imagine if protesters, a lot of them teenagers who have been working to tear down racist structures built over generations, had more time to create necessary change instead of trying to avoid getting citations from the city they grew up in.”


Update: Since the publication of this article, Police Chief Ed Toth has released a public statement.