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Legal Observer of Detroit protests recounts violent clash with Detroit Police Department

Sara Habbo

As protests against police brutality toward Black Americans continue across the country and in Detroit, reports that Detroit Police Department officers are using excessive force on nonviolent demonstrators are increasing. And this violence isn’t solely directed at protest participants. A volunteer Legal Observer said police officers beat, pepper sprayed, and arrested some of her fellow Legal Observers at a protest Saturday, too.

Sara Habbo, an attorney based in Southfield and a board member of the Detroit and Michigan Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, said Legal Observers attend protests wearing bright green hats to make it clear to police they are there in an observational capacity. Legal Observers document the events and police interaction with demonstrators. They take handwritten notes, and record audio and video. They're often lawyers, legal workers, or law students, and, Habbo said, Legal Observers have been doing this kind of work since the 1970s.

Habbo said local Legal Observers have been observing marches in Detroit following the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. She said that, after two Legal Observers were arrested in late May, her team contacted Detroit Police Deputy Chief Todd Bettison to ensure they wouldn’t be arrested at future protests, and he confirmed they wouldn’t be impeded or arrested.

So at the protest this Saturday, Habbo explained, when Detroit police gave warnings to protesters on Woodward Avenue that people needed to leave the street or get on the sidewalk, Legal Observers in attendance reminded the officers present of Deputy Chief Bettison’s assurances.

“In response, the police officers hit one of our Legal Observers with a baton a couple times,” Habbo said. “Another one was hit with a police shield being used as a weapon. And then all three of them, who just happened to be together, were sprayed with pepper spray directly in their faces. And then one of our Observers on the opposite side of the street was arrested.”

“They all knew what the hats meant and what we would be doing, and the fact that we don’t participate in the protest, that we don’t impede the police officers from doing whatever they’re doing,” Habbo said. “We literally stand on the side and document. And when that was repeated to one of the officers, he replied, ‘Deputy Chief Bettison isn’t here.’”

Habbo, who said she was gassed twice at Saturday’s protest, explained that she and her fellow Legal Observers have been present at all local marches since late May, and her impression of the protests is that demonstrators have been primarily nonviolent and want justice, equity, and a safe community.

“It just feels like the Detroit Police Department is trying to prevent Legal Observers from being able to document what’s happening, and that, to me, is incredibly disturbing,” she said.

Stateside reached out to the Detroit Police Department for comment. A spokesperson for the department said she wasn't aware of the incident described by Habbo.

"We take allegations of excessive force/misconduct very seriously and will investigate it and if the actions of the officers are found improper we will hold him or her accountable," said Sgt. Nicole Kirkwood in an email to Stateside.

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Nell Ovitt.

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