The date was Aug. 26, 1979. The venue was Cobo Hall. And a 17-year-old east-sider named Opolla Brown very much wanted to meet a living legend who once appeared on the FBI’s Most Wanted List — political activist, author, scholar and academic Angela Davis.
The message that day: “Save Dodge Main,” a reference to the former Hamtramck jewel that employed 36,000 autoworkers at the end of World War II, was displayed on a shirt worn by Davis, while Brown was more accustomed to wearing her McDonald’s uniform that summer. Nonetheless, Brown, a then-incoming freshman at Wayne State University, who still viewed Mack and Bewick as her turf, believed she deserved a moment with Davis just as much as anyone. So she made her move.
“I saw a documentary about Angela Davis when I was 6 years old and I thought she was a lawyer,” said Brown, who moved to Detroit from Chicago with her mother later that year. “I don’t know how I got that in my mind, but that is what I thought, so I decided then that I was going to be a lawyer, like her. By the time I went to see her in Detroit, I knew she was an activist — not a lawyer — and a renowned professor. But what mattered most to me was that she was fighting for the people.
"That’s why I walked straight up to that stage and introduced myself and told her how much I admired her and how much I was inspired by her. There were tons of people and security, but I said to myself: ‘I have to meet her — I have to touch her hand.’ That’s just how I felt, I had to touch her hand.”
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Despite the impassioned message on Davis’ shirt that day, and despite the zealous efforts of many in Hamtramck, Detroit and other parts of the country, Dodge Main could not be saved. The plant, which in its heyday was one of the world’s few fully integrated automobile manufacturing and assembly plants, closed in 1980. However, Davis remains a source of inspiration for Brown, who today is an assistant prosecuting attorney at the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, which prosecutes felony cases throughout the county. Her McDonald’s uniform is long gone and has been replaced by a business wardrobe, which Brown has carefully and pridefully put together through the years to present a professional image in court that reflects the respect she has for the people she serves. But Brown, who lost vision in one eye due to a childhood accident, says she never wants to be judged by a physical condition, or even by the clothes she wears. Instead, she said she hopes her actions reflect her commitment to making life better in her community. And as she approaches her 60th birthday on Dec. 6, Brown makes it clear that her commitment and love for her community are as strong as ever.
“It’s amazing to me because I honestly thought that when I got to this age that all of the stuff that people like Angela Davis and Dr. King were fighting against would be gone, that it would be over. But here we are dealing with issues like police killing people across the country,” Brown stated. “What is really important for Detroit, and Black people in general, to understand is that as a prosecutor, you make those important decisions. You get to say (to police) that you violated this person’s rights; or I’m not signing this warrant because you didn’t have probable cause; or you’re not going to get this warrant because it’s not valid. As prosecutors, we’re in a position to effect change and improve the criminal justice system. That’s why I believe my work continues to be very important to my community and we need more Black prosecutors, period.”
A graduate of Saint Clair Elementary, Joy Junior High and Denby High School, Brown said events during her early school days created the foundation for a more equitable criminal justice system locally that she is proud to contribute to today.
“I could not be a prosecutor in Wayne County and support the kind of police situations that we have seen in other places, and that is why people should give credit to Coleman Young,” said Brown, who was a student at Joy Junior High when Mayor Young first took office in 1974. “He got rid of STRESS (Stop The Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets unit of the Detroit Police Department) that was harassing Black people, abusing Black people and brutalizing Black people. And he did not get rid of all of the white police officers — he did not do that. What he did was integrate the police department with Blacks, Hispanics, white people, and all people, and that’s one of the major things he did during his time as mayor (Jan. 1, 1974 until Jan. 3, 1994).
"The type of police brutality that we have seen in other places has not been tolerated in Wayne County, and mostly Detroit. And nationally, when they talk about criminal justice systems, they talk about Wayne County because it’s so huge; and they talk about counties in New York and in Los Angeles; and for many, many years we have been the model.”
Brown also speaks passionately about Timothy Kenny, the chief judge of the 3rd Circuit Court in Wayne County; Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, who was elected to a fifth term in August, and the late Judge George Crockett III (son of Judge George Crockett Jr.). Brown said it was Judge Kenny, during the five years she worked for him as a research attorney, who opened her mind to the positive role prosecutors can play in her community. And as Brown tells it, a legal opinion that she penned in a pinch, impressed Worthy (who was then a Wayne County Circuit Court Judge) enough that she never forgot, which led to her providing Brown an opportunity to spread her legal wings when Worthy appointed her as an assistant prosecutor 17 years ago. But it was Crockett, many years earlier, who ignited a fuse for Brown with a few magic words.
“When I graduated from Wayne State, I worked for five years before I ever went to law school, and I had about five jobs, including an internship at the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice,” Brown said. “I was working in pre-trial services, and I would come into the courtroom of Judge Crockett and make arguments for defendants for bond — either keep it the same or lower the bond — and one day Judge Crockett said: ‘Oh, I think you’ll make a great lawyer’ and I was just beaming! Then I got an opportunity to go to Cooley Law School in Lansing, which was a tremendous sacrifice. At one point I was trying to work in Detroit and commute to Lansing daily and that nearly killed me. I finally had to put my work in Detroit on hold for a year, and then later take a year off from law school — and none of my classmates thought I was coming back — but I had received enough support and encouragement along the way to stick with it.
"Many, many people have held my hand and given me encouragement when I needed it most, like Judge Crockett did in his courtroom, and that is what got me to this point today.”
Brown says her thank you by giving back.
“Throughout my career I have always lent myself, so to speak, to young people that are working in law. And if they’re brand new, I would always give them my card and tell them where they can find more knowledge,” said Brown, who also has served as president of the Criminal Law Section for the State Bar of Michigan and has been a board member for the Wayne County Advocacy Program, which conducts continuing legal education for Wayne County criminal lawyers. “There have been a lot of prosecutors and defense attorneys that I have personally mentored. Some are judges now, or in private practice, and they are doing great things.”
One thing that is not so great for Brown is her inability to visit Detroit schools and talk to youths about the prosecutor’s office and law in general due to COVID-19. Brown says she also longs for an in-person courtroom, but she makes it clear that working from home does not diminish her focus or mission in any way, largely due to her late mother Ollie Mae Brown.
“My mother worked afternoons in the (Chrysler) plant, which meant she went in at 2 p.m. and got off at 11,” Brown said. “Because of her hours, I absolutely helped raise my younger siblings (Oliver, David, Lacriest and Donna) and I have no regrets about that and neither do they. We had dinner at 6 o’clock; you had to be home by the time the streetlights came on; then you got a bath and a story. And that’s exactly how my siblings raised their children.
“But even with my mother working those hours, I learned so much from her. She exposed me to books and showed me the importance of being responsible, paying bills and saving for a nice, clean home, like the one she moved us into on Elmdale. Now, I’m fortunate enough to be comfortable in a home I have been living in for 10 years, which is in walking distance of a place I love, Eastern Market. And now that I need to work from home, I am in a comfortable space where I can still do my best work for Wayne County and that’s very important.”
These days, Brown says her world is often confined to a tight but cozy space in her home, which connects her kitchen, dining room and living room. In that area, she gets nourishment, works, prepares for work and decompresses with books and TV. But even when she moves to other areas of her home, Brown says she is still reminded of why her work really matters each day.
“The day I had my washer and dryer delivered, one of the two delivery men said: ‘You’re a prosecutor, aren’t you?’ and I was like ‘Oh boy, here we go,’ ” Brown recalled. “He went on to say that I prosecuted his son. And after I gasped, I heard him say: ‘I want to thank you for saving his life.’ He then went on to say that his son had graduated from community college and was going to (four-year) college because he had gotten HYTA (Holmes Youthful Trainee Act, which provides youthful adult offenders with an opportunity to keep a criminal offense off their permanent criminal record).
"You know, as prosecutors we are not the judge or jury, and it’s not about victories or defeats. What we are trying to get at is the truth. And if getting at that truth can improve someone’s life, our community will be the better for it.”
Scott Talley is a native Detroiter, a proud product of Detroit Public Schools and lifelong lover of Detroit culture in all of its diverse forms. In his second tour with the Free Press, which he grew up reading as a child, he is excited and humbled to cover the city’s neighborhoods and the many interesting people who define its various communities. Contact him at: email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @STalleyfreep. Read more of Scott's stories at www.freep.com/mosaic/detroit-is/.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Wayne County prosecutor who lost an eye still has vision for justice