Posted on July 21, 2004

Diverse City Finds Unity In Voting

David Crumm And Cecil Angel, Detroit Free Press, Jul. 21

Campaign banners fluttered in four languages and neighbors from an array of ethnic backgrounds took to the streets and gathered in houses of worship in Hamtramck Tuesday to lobby each other as voters decided two hotly debated ballot questions.

Issues as universal as religious freedom and public education hung in the balance in the special election, but the grassroots politicking also presented a vivid visual confirmation of the nation’s growing diversity. Hamtramck’s political confrontation over a mosque’s rooftop broadcasts of the call to prayer also drew the attention of religious leaders from across Michigan.

“People around the world are watching what happens in Hamtramck,” said the Rev. Daniel Buttry, who is based in Warren but travels the globe as an expert on conflict resolution for the 1.5-million-member American Baptist Churches.

On Tuesday afternoon, Buttry told a gathering of Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders at the Al-Islah Islamic Center, “What we do here can have a positive global impact, if we work together.”

In the end, the ballot issue to repeal the call to prayer noise ordinance failed to get voter approval. In all, 1,462 cast no votes, city officials said, and 1,200 cast yes votes.

Though officials said the prayer election really wouldn’t have an effect on whether the mosque can broadcast, Muslims celebrated the outcome as a symbol of their acceptance.

On the steps of City Hall, Muslims cheered, chanted and held up copies of the election results. Abdul Motlib, 47, president of the Al-Islah Islamic Center, recited the call to prayer on the steps.

“A long time we are waiting for this amendment,” he said. “Today, Hamtramck residents are accepting our call to prayer amendment. We feel very good.”

Mohammed Uddin, 42, an immigrant from Bangladesh and a Muslim, had been waiting for hours occasionally going to the clerk’s window to check the latest results.

“It’s good for everybody,” he said. “I feel it’s better. We support other religions too.”

Supporters of a second city-wide ballot issue — to recall three school board members — were thrilled with the outcome of the election. All three school board members Camille Colatosti, Alan Shulgon and Richard Hyska were recalled and are no longer on the board.

It was not a typical election day in the 2.1-square-mile city. Turnout was running higher than normal, said acting City Clerk Genevieve Bukoski, and observers from the U.S. Justice Department in Washington, D.C., showed up at some of the city’s seven polling places.

Sada Manickam, who said he was with the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division in Washington, D.C., confirmed that he and at least two others had been sent to Hamtramck, but he declined to comment further.

At times the campaigning near polling sites grew emotionally intense, Bukoski said. Two women got into a shoving match across from City Hall and shouting matches between groups became so loud at some polling sites that homeowners complained.

The call to prayer dispute arose after the Al-Islah Mosque sought permission from the City Council to follow a Muslim custom of calling out prayer times from a loudspeaker. Council members told the mosque’s leaders that the call was fine and the council approved an ordinance regulating times and volume.

The daily calls began in May. However, opponents of the call placed a proposal to repeal the noise ordinance on Tuesday’s ballot. In May, organizers of the repeal effort said they hoped it would end the Muslim practice. Instead, the city’s top Catholic, Protestant and Muslim clergy, as well as City Council members, have publicly agreed that the call is welcome with or without an ordinance.

But Councilman Chuck Cirgenski said he’s glad the ordinance stands.

“I think it proves the people of Hamtramck are able to embrace people from many different lands,” he said.

Councilman Scott Klein described the election as a watershed for the city, which for decades has had a strong Polish-Catholic identity.

“It’ll show that the Polish majority is no longer here and a new majority is here,” he said.

Robert Zwolak, who led the petition campaign to put the issue on the ballot, said he’s not disappointed in the outcome.

“It was important it went to the vote of the people. It doesn’t end here because the Council has to regulate it,” he said.

Some residents complained throughout the day that they wished the school board recall and prayer issues had come before voters on different dates.

“This election has been confusing for people,” said Bo Karpinsky, president of the 250-memberHamtramck Federation of Teachers and a city native.

The teachers union wanted to oust Colatosti, Hyska and Shulgon, arguing that they violated the state’s Open Meetings Act and have inappropriately fired school employees, Karpinsky said.

The call to prayer issue complicated matters, he said. Karpinsky started the day by taping a white plastic sheet to his van with pro-recall messages painted in Arabic script. Recall activists also had banners, signs and leaflets printed in Polish and Bengali, a language spoken by many Hamtramck residents originally from Bangladesh.

“At Kosciuszko Middle School where I teach, 27 languages are spoken,” said Mike Dobbyn, a science teacher who stood on a corner passing out pro-recall literature in several languages.

A short distance away, Simona Smith, a paraprofessional who works in the schools, opposed her coworkers by greeting potential voters with brightly colored anti-recall stickers she had plastered across her chest.

“We think that these board members are trying to make important changes in our school system,” Smith said.

Would the call to prayer issue help her side?

“I think it helps us a lot,” Smith said, gesturing toward other activists crowded around her. “It brings more people out.”

Victor Begg, head of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Michigan, who helped to coordinate the day’s religious events, said, “The real question here is how our communities can learn to live together in this country.”