By Lydia Wylie-Kellermann
On May 21, 2018, 16 people were arrested in Michigan as part of the Poor People’s Campaign 40 days of actions around the country. They blocked the entrances to the Department of Health and Human Services. It was a cry against the systemic racism so ingrained in our systems that claim to be supporting the poor.
Over the last few months, folks have taken the consequences of this arrest. Some have done community service and paid fines while others plead no contest in court. They appeared before Judge DeLuca on October 30. While they tried to speak to the reasons they acted, the judge did not create much space. He sentenced them each to $300 or 12 days in jail.
Today, two of those arrested, Tommy Tackett and Bill Wylie-Kellermann, have turned themselves prepared to serve time rather than pay the fines. They were taken into custody and are beginning their 12 days. Before they went into court, I asked them each a few questions.
Lydia Wylie-Kellermann: Tommy and Bill, when people hear this news, people are going to want to love and support you. How can people support you or the movement during this time?
Tommy Tackett: You can support by continuing to spread the news of what is going on in Michigan and with the Poor People’s Campaign. We need to continue holding these state departments accountable (like the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Environmental Quality) for the crimes against community and they violence they have done.
Bill Wylie-Kellermann: If we are, we will only be in for 12 days. But certainly, correspondence in jail would be welcome. It may also be an opportunity for more organizing and rallies to speak about why we did this action. People can continue to join and support the Poor People’s Campaign.
LWK: Why jail time? Why not pay the fine?
TT: In moral consciousness, I couldn’t bring myself to pay the $300. When Judge DeLuca gave the choice of $300 or 12 days in jail, it forced me to ask ‘What are our communities worth? What am I willing to give for the struggle for justice?’
BWK: Civil disobedience and nonviolent direct action involve using your body in one way or another. In this case, refusing to pay the fines, puts it on the court to deal with our bodies. It is a continuation of the act. Direct action has a moral trajectory that goes through the court room, but can also get carried into jail time. As an act of moral conscience, it can generate political and spiritual energy in ourselves and in others.
LWK: What was your message on May 21?
TT: Accountability. To hold the Department of Health and Human Services accountable for their role in covering up the Flint Water poisoning and their role in Detroit with the water shuts offs. They play a role in the ways that Child Protective Services separates families if water is shut off.
BWK: We were calling the DHHS to serve human community. A calling for DHHS to serve people not the powers that be.
LWK: Tommy, you’ve been acting all over the country- standing against injustice, putting your body in the way, and taking real risk that could have real consequences. How are they connected for you? How does it feel to be here in Michigan for this?
TT: Well, this is a continuance of the direct action on May 21. It isn’t finished with the action. For me, all these struggles are deeply intertwined. I’ve been in Louisiana fighting the Bayou Bridge Pipeline which is part of the Dakota Access Pipeline which is owned by the same company that put in the Rover pipeline in Michigan which devasted our wetlands. Again, it is state departments that are complicit in the crimes against land and people.
LWK: Bill, how does the liturgical season of Advent affect your thinking as you go in?
BWK: Yeah, very much. One of the emblems is John the Baptism and one of the readings will be about his time in jail and the questions he asks. I often compare Advent to jail time. The door is locked. Yearning. Watching. Waiting. Praying for the one who will come with the keys. We will do our best to have our eyes open and be still. Jail is a good place to do Advent.
LWK: Tommy and Bill, you are loved by so many of us and that we are grateful for the working you are doing.