Bill Wylie-Kellermann gives his closing argument in the Gilbert 7 case

On June 18, 2018, members of the Poor People’s Campaign took part in a national protest for human rights, during which they halted QLine’s service along Woodward Avenue at Campus Martius. | Photo: Detroit Metro Times

By Elena Herrada

Reverend Bill Wylie-Kellermann and co-defendants were at 36th District Court in Detroit for charges of shutting down the QLine, a pet project of the gentrifiers. In fact, the “Q” stands for “Quicken Loans,” headed by billionaire Dan Gilbert. It is a light rail line running from downtown to the New Center area, a distance of only about three miles. (It is also known as the “train to nowhere.”) Seven activists were arrested in June 2018 for blocking the QLine

Wylie-Kellermann defended himself in the jury trial. The issue he raised was the brutal gentrification of beloved Detroit. Contrived bankruptcy, racially-targeted water shutoffs, predatory mortgage loans, overassessed properties and school taxes going to build Little Caesars Arena are the actual issues of the defendants in these dark days of diffuse empire posing as savior. We give gratitude to the media-silenced Poor People’s Campaign and to the unwavering, gentle warrior spirit of Bill Wylie-Kellermann for standing up to it all.

As of January 29, Wylie-Kellermann and his co-defendant Richard Levey were found not guilty. The trial resulted in a hung jury for the other five defendants and the judge declared a mistrial.

Closing argument of Bill Wylie-Kellermann, the Gilbert 7, January 25, 2019

In my opening statement, I thanked you for serving on the jury and underscored my conviction of importance of what we do as one. So again, thanks.

You’ve been instructed by the judge not to read any press accounts of the trial. It would actually be pretty hard to find any. You heard Charles Wilson of Rock Security, Dan Gilbert’s security operation, testify that they have a whole unit, a room full of people who do nothing all day but scan the media for reference to him. We’re talking about the landlord of the Detroit News and Free Press here.

Actually, that’s been true as well of the Poor People’s Campaign here and nationally. In Michigan, beginning Mother’s Day there were over 100 direct action arrests; nationwide, in 40 states, it was 1500, the largest focused campaign of civil disobedience in American history, but none of you had heard of it until this week. Too little chance of you being prejudiced by seeing news coverage. That’s part of the very systematic silence on racism and poverty [that] we are trying to break with our actions, and now our testimony on the record here.

So many basic institutions are under assault these days: education, voting rights, democracy itself. A jury is one of the last remaining institutions of direct democracy. I often find myself asking, how do you preserve democracy? One answer is by exercising it. It’s how you organize, build movements, structure campaigns. It’s even how you make decisions as a defense team. How do you preserve the absolute democratic power of a jury? The same way: you exercise it.

I also said that in defending myself I would try to follow the law and court rules and rulings.  You’ve seen me bungle a couple times, but largely I’m pleased to have done okay. You know there were times I wanted to say more, but objections were sustained. But you have heard our experience of poor and Black folk not only left out of city priorities, but actively expelled from Detroit by the structures and work of Mr. Gilbert. And there would be much more to say about that.

There’s one thing that can’t be excluded from the public square: that’s conscience. Once again, you preserve conscience simply by acting on it. I think of my conscience as God’s way of whispering to me. You may have a different way of thinking about it.

You know, early yesterday morning I was up considering what I might say in a closing argument. I wondered if I might need to say something about conscience being expelled from the courtroom. But actually, not so. Our witnesses have managed to convey something of the violence inflicted on the low-income and Black citizens of Detroit, as well as our histories, our commitments, all of what led us to that place on the tracks of the QLine.

I was struck that the prosecution couldn’t question us about this action without bringing up the Montgomery Bus Boycott. [The prosecutor tried to set the “economic boycott” of the Montgomery struggle against our civil disobedience.] Here is a campaign begun by Detroiter Rosa Parks refusing to move. The driver stops the bus and demands it. The police are called and she is told to move, perhaps warned three times, and still refuses. This is the act of civil disobedience that not only launched a city-wide campaign, but virtually an entire movement, even shaping the life and ministry of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

This morning, several of the defendants were asking about the cross I’m wearing. It was a Christmas gift from my grandson Isaac, so I’ve been wearing it to honor him, but of course also to bring into the courtroom in a small way, the memory of Jesus, who began his ministry with the conviction that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him to preach good news to the poor and release to prisoners. His ministry came to completion in arrest and trial, though of course, there were no juries of his peers in those days.

I was glad that we established in voir dire that it wouldn’t prejudice you if any of us didn’t testify. I do wish you’d gotten to hear from Tommy Tackett, Greg Olszta, and Richard Levey. If anything, it was a hardship on them. [Here an objection was raised and sustained by the judge, so I was only able to turn to them and say,] I love you guys.

Just so you know, I’ll be praying for you during deliberations. I’m not a lawyer, I’m a pastor, so I do that. I won’t be praying that you find us not guilty, though I do hope it. I’ll simply pray that your own consciences are alive to what you’ve heard and that your conversations include the poor of this city. If you do that, I’ll gladly receive the verdict you deliver. Thank you.

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