Community fundraises for young, black and beaten

By: Jack Rechsteiner, managing editor

“I told my best friend in the car to record what was happening because I actually thought I might die.”

These are words most people never have to say throughout their life. For some, it’s nearly impossible to think of a situation where they would have to say something like that. They were Cornelius Phelps’s pained words as he described what happened to him when he was wrongfully assaulted by the police in March.

Phelps is a well-known community figure in Saginaw and a friend of many. He is an organizer for the Ezekiel Project as well as being involved with the Saginaw Bay Land Conservancy. Phelps is also a 7-feet-tall black man who was pulled over for speeding by police officers who dragged him from his car, tased him, stepped on him, beat him and then charged him with assaulting the cops who had assaulted him.

“I was driving through a county that’s a ‘sundown county.’ What I mean by that is that it’s a county where you don’t want to be out and about with a certain amount of melanin after the sun goes down,” says Phelps.

After this terrible incident, friends of Phelps set up an online donation to help Phelps cover attorney fees. Support was so overwhelming that the decision was quickly made to set up a fundraiser event to raise money in Phelps’s name for a civil defense fund that would be saved to help people facing similar trials in the area.

“We would like to stay on the friendly side of litigation and hope that justice prevails and that the courts find what is right,” says Benjamin Champagne, one of the civil defense fund organizers.

On April 5, the night of the fundraiser, Saginaw showed how strong and supportive its community is. More than 60 people came out to Counter Culture in support of Phelps and what his experience represented.

“This is about standing up as a community and saying we won’t allow this. The answer, resoundingly from everyone here, is that it is not tolerated. We, as a community, condemn the use of excessive force, especially against the young black men in our community to which this happens all too often,” says Champagne.

The main focus of the fundraiser was a silent art auction to raise money for the civil defense fund, with art that been donated by local community members. The fundraiser also featured a night of entertainment with a variety show that included music from Scott McCloud, comedy from Cbxtn Alexander, poetry readings from Imani Clark, Phelps telling the story of what happened to him in a lighthearted, Eric Andre-style interview and rapper Patch Milo performing a few songs. Dawn of a New Day Cafe, Bancroft Wine and Martini Bar and Bradley’s surprised the fundraiser organizers as well by providing food and refreshments for the entire night.

“This night is a revolution in itself because of what it means and what we’re all standing for tonight. I’m happy to play a part in helping Neil and raising awareness of what happened to him through donating my art,” says Amanda Thomas, one of the artists whose art was auctioned.

The house was packed for the event and everyone had a hug or kind words for Phelps. The energy of the night was one of compassion, heartache and, ultimately, of hope. Those in attendance that night at Counter Culture left knowing that they had made a real, palpable impact on what Saginaw represents and what it will do when it needs to take action for it’s community members.

“The thing I keep finding myself saying, because it’s the closest I’ve been able to express all these feelings, is that this is the most love I’ve felt pretty much ever. And that has been extremely humbling. Because of all this support, I feel it’s made me a better person and has made me believe in the good in people,” says Phelps.

The original goal had been to raise $2,500 to help Phelps. By the end of the night, the art auction fundraiser had raised over $1,700. The money from the fundraiser combined with the online donations means that nearly $8,000 has been raised for the civil defense fund in a month. If you’d like to bring that number even higher, you can donate and find more information on the fund at youcaring.com/corneliusphelps-1115605.

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