Black activists protest voting restrictions by land, air and sea at Mackinac Conference

By: and - June 2, 2022 3:30 pm

Defend Black Voters banner at the Mackinac Policy Conference, June 2, 2022 | Laina G. Stebbins

For a period of time on Tuesday, attendees ferrying to the Mackinac Island Policy Conference were confronted with a protest banner hung from the Round Island Passage Lighthouse: “Loepp, pledge to defend Black voters.”

The banner drop, put up by the Defend Black Voters coalition and targeting Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan CEO Daniel Loepp, was part of an ongoing effort by the group to pressure corporate executives sponsoring the event to stop bankrolling politicians who are undermining the Black vote in Michigan.

“You’re either for or against the people,” said the Rev. Keith Whitney, president of the interfaith group MOSES (Metropolitan Organizing Strategy Enabling Strength) in Detroit that is part of the coalition. “We’re not going to let you be both anymore.

Defend Black Voters banner at the Mackinac Policy Conference, May 31, 2022 | Courtesy photo

“If these companies are showing us they’re against the people by financially backing these lawmakers, then we’re going to expose them.”

Activists seek to call attention to efforts of Republican politicians who support efforts that promise to “secure” the state’s election process, but in reality would hinder the ability of vulnerable populations to vote.

Dozens of voting restriction bills that were introduced in the GOP-led Legislature, many of which were vetoed by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, have now been rolled into the GOP-backed Secure MI Vote ballot initiative that Whitmer would be unable to veto

Voting restrictions disproportionately affect people of color and those in low-income and rural communities, experts say.

Ken Whittaker, executive director of the Defend Black Voters coalition, told the Advance on Thursday that the group has been trying since last fall to confront the executives of Mackinac Conference corporate sponsors Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, DTE, Consumers Energy, Delta Dental, General Motors and more for what they view as “hypocrisy” on voting rights.

“Our message is simple,” Whittaker said. “You can’t give these empty statements about Black Lives Matter like you did after the death of George Floyd, change [your] profile pictures to black [and] issue empty policies at the corporations for their staff to feel good, but then on the backside, bankroll legislators that are literally trying to take away the ballot access for Black families, working families, communities of color.”

In addition to the banner drop on the Round Island Passage Lighthouse, an airplane circling Mackinac Island overhead towed a banner while activists on the ground marched and protested at the Grand Hotel.

“Those bills turned into the Secure MI Vote ballot initiative, which those same politicians and their colleagues want to use to bypass the governor’s veto and bypass the citizen’s vote,” said Whittaker.

“At such a pivotal moment for our democracy, companies must do more than issue tired, empty statements and black out their social media profile pics. We demand they stop bankrolling the attack on Black voters and pledge to defend democracy for all in Michigan.”

Grand Hotel, Mackinac Island| Susan J. Demas

Brad Williams is vice president of government relations at the Detroit Regional Chamber, which organizes the yearly conference.

“We’re not aware of any protests, but proud to be the leading bipartisan business organization in Michigan actively supporting and working on preserving and enhancing ballot box access,” he said in a statement.

The companies targeted by Defend Black Voters are the largest corporate donors to Michigan legislators who are pushing voter restrictions. So far, none of them have signed the pledge offered by the group.

“We aren’t going to roll over as politicians and the corporate backers attack our rights and undermine our democracy,” said Jennifer Disla, co-executive director of Detroit Action.

Advance reporter Ken Coleman contributed to this story.

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Allison R. Donahue
Allison R. Donahue

Allison R. Donahue is a former Michigan Advance reporter who covered education, women's issues and LGBTQ issues. Previously, she was a suburbs reporter at the St. Cloud Times in St. Cloud, Minn., covering local education and government. As a graduate of Grand Valley State University, she has previous experience as a freelance researcher for USA Today and an intern with WOOD TV-8. When she is away from her desk, she spends her time going to concerts, comedy shows or getting lost on hikes in different places around the world.

Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins is a former Michigan Advance reporter. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service.