In a city rife with apathy, the fruit-throwing, “Sambo Sell Out” award-giving Call Em Out Coalition has emerged as a potent–if divisive–political force.
Members take credit for rallying opposition to the plan to transfer ownership of Cobo Center to a regional authority. They’re pushing City Council President Monica Conyers to launch a write-in campaign for mayor; and they’re leading the charge against selling more city assets, such as a Detroit Water and Sewerage Department interceptor.
The grassroots group that hurled Oreos at former Mayor Dennis Archer and distributed doctored photos of Councilman Kwame Kenyatta eating watermelon is nothing if not controversial. But even its critics concede the group, which claims some 2,000 members, is effective.
“They go too far sometimes,” said Jai Lee Dearing, a 2005 council candidate who is considering another run this year. “They don’t want to hear what you want to say. They only want you to hear what they say. But nobody wants them against them.”
The group’s founder and chief agitator is Agnes Hitchcock, 63, a onetime trainer of mechanics who now lives off Social Security disability payments because of carbon monoxide poisoning. She gained notoriety in 2007 when she was fined $250 for throwing red grapes at school board members during a testy meeting.
About two weeks before the council’s vote in late February, Call Em Out members began phoning council members, and Hitchcock urged listeners of her TV and radio show to flood the council. Soon, mainstream voices such as radio host Mildred Gaddis and then-mayoral candidate Freman Hendrix spoke out against the plan.
Call Em Out has partnered with labor unions and other grassroots movements to fight charter schools and reduce water rate increases. It works with the community organization ACORN to co-host sessions about avoiding foreclosures and joined the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization in urging former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick to resign.
The award–and the racially charged image of Kenyatta–prompted Internet service provider AOL to restrict Call Em Out’s account, requiring members to go through extra steps before messages are sent. Members also have been accused of tossing thumbtacks on the floor during school board meetings and launched numerous, unsuccessful recall petitions against council members, school board members and Archer.
The group known for protests and harassment campaigns has a mixed track record. Among its accomplishments is killing a plan in the early 2000s by philanthropist Bob Thompson, who wanted to donate $200 million to help build 15 charter schools in Detroit with Bing and the Skillman Foundation. Among its failures is a recall petition aimed at Councilwoman Sheila Cockrel and the late Councilwoman Brenda Scott, who were targeted on claims they pushed budget cuts that reduced city bus service.
“They have no definite agenda except to cause trouble,” said Reverend David Murray, a Detroit Public Schools board member and former recipient of the Sambo award. “Do I think they’re effective? I’d say they’re extremely weak.”
Political consultant Steve Hood [says,] “No one else is speaking up, and they have the loud voice that is filling that void,” he said.