By Trevor Wilhelm, The Windsor Star
DETROIT — Angry Detroit protesters defied police and stalled international trade Thursday by forming a human blockade at the Ambassador Bridge, snarling truck traffic all the way back to Windsor.
About 100 protesters, made up of Bridge Watch Detroit supporters and an Occupy Detroit contingent, locked hands, chanted slogans and blocked big rigs from exiting the bridge for nearly an hour.
As they waved signs and argued with police — protesting the actions and influence of billionaire bridge owner Matty Moroun — a long line of motionless tractor trailers stretched back across to Huron Church Road.
“Today we made sure our Windsor sisters and brothers knew we were doing this,” said Democratic State Representative Rashida Tlaib. “They’re tired as much as we are. They’re tired of the trucks rumbling through their community. They’re tired of the asthma rate increases. I mean we’re tired. We need respect. We may not be billionaires, but we have rights. We have power. The 99 per cent — we may not have money, but the power of the people matters.”
The march was organized by Bridge Watch Detroit, a group aimed at protesting and educating people about the impacts of the Ambassador Bridge and its potential second span.
Their numbers were enhanced by Occupy Detroit, part of a continent-wide movement protesting corporate greed and the inequality between the wealthiest one per cent and the rest of the population.
They were there to show their anger after Moroun’s intense political lobbying and hefty donations led to a handful of Michigan politicians rejecting the construction of a government-backed Windsor-Detroit bridge. The move means Moroun indefinitely retains his dominance of toll revenue and duty free sales at North America’s busiest border crossing.
Many marchers donned T-shirts emblazoned with a caricature of Moroun that looked much like the despised Simpsons cartoon character Montgomery Burns. The group assembled at 18th and Lafayette then marched along West Fort Street to the bridge’s truck exit.
Before they headed out, Pastor Matthew Bode of Spirit of Hope Church warned over a megaphone there would be civil disobedience. Anyone not wanting a confrontation with police, he said, should march the other way.
Bode said the bridge company has been closing streets, taking control of property and businesses, doing construction without permits and funnelling trucks through city streets instead of the freeway.
The results, he said, have included traffic backups, trucks “packing” city streets, high asthma rates and decreasing property values.
“We’re tired of the bridge company doing whatever it wants in this neighbourhood,” said Bode, also a member of Bridge Watch Detroit. “It’s the same old story. They continue to lose in court battles but they continue to not follow court instructions. We’re just tired of it and they need to know that the power belongs to the people who are in this community and the people of Detroit.”
Truck traffic immediately began piling up when demonstrators poured into the mouth of the bridge to block the exit.
At one point, Detroit Deputy Police Chief James Tolbert tried to get protesters including Tlaib to move out of the path of the trucks. They refused. Officers even tried to escort a truck through the crowd by walking in front of it. That didn’t work either. The group held up traffic about 45 minutes.
No one was arrested but if protesters didn’t disperse when they did, police were ready to move in. As the group chanted and cheered, officers stood in the background sorting plastic handcuffs.
“We were fully prepared to take action,” said Tolbert. “If it would have gone any further we would have had to take the appropriate action. But since they said they were going to leave, rather than give people felony arrests we decided to wait it out.”
The threat of jail wasn’t a deterrent for most.
“We’re going to keep on fighting until he gets the message, and if he don’t get the message then he’ll be sad that he didn’t get the message,” said Rev. Charles Williams II, pastor of King Solomon Baptist Church. “We will be back. We will continue to fight. We will go to jail. We’re fed up, we’re tired, we’re standing up and we’re not going to sit down and let him run amok in our city.”
If Moroun doesn’t get the message, the demonstrators promised they’d be back.
“Today, we only did it for 45 minutes and look what we were able to do,” said Tlaib. “Next time if he doesn’t build those ramps, he doesn’t comply with the court orders, if he doesn’t leave us alone, we’re going to be back for an hour. Then an hour and a half, then two hours. We’ll keep doing this until he complies and does the right thing.”