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Detroit activists hold 'tribunal' to recount police violence during protests

Jodi Westrick
Michigan Radio

Protesters who have taken to Detroit’s streets in the weeks since George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police say Detroit police have brutalized them. Some recounted their stories at a self-styled tribunal on Saturday night.

Person after person gave testimony alleging that Detroit police taunted, pepper sprayed, and assaulted them at marches earlier this month – mostly for violating Detroit’s then-8 p.m. curfew.

“You will hear about the bullying, taunting, the unprofessional manner in which officers cursed at, charged at, and quite frankly assaulted people for no reason at all,” said Nakia-Renne Wallace, an leader with the group that organized the protests and has become known as Detroit Will Breathe.

Credit Jodi Westrick / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Detroit Will Breathe co-founder Nakia-Renne Wallace speaks at the tribunal.

“You will see them dispense tear gas from a truck, despite saying the very next day they dispensed it because they were pulled into the crowd," she said. "You will see them tear-gassing people directly in the face at close range. You will see them arresting legal observers, and beating people after they had already been detained.”

Jae Bass said that particularly on the night of Tuesday, June 2, Detroit police “sent an army” to deal with protesters who were nonviolent, and not being disruptive or destroying property.

”We just stood there with our hands up praying that they didn't shoot nonviolent protesters,” Bass said. “So at that moment, I was actually afraid.”

“I really thought that at that moment I could die," he said. "So I just put my hands up and I walked out of the crowd.”

Bass said he was then tackled, pepper sprayed, zip-tied, and left on a stifling prison bus for over an hour. He contrasted how these peaceful protesters were treated, with how police reacted to the armed demonstrators who stormed Michigan’s Capitol protesting the state’s stay-at-home order in late April.

“What’s the point of brutally assaulting American citizens who are protesting for the right for everyone to just be equal. Why?” Bass asked.

“Why are you trying to silence that?" he asked. "Because we see people who are tired of staying at home go to the Capitol with straps, and they’re basically knocking on Whitmer’s door, and there’s no tear gas thrown, there’s no pepper spray sprayed, there’s no prison buses. So why us?”

A transgender protester identified only as Graham said they saw police trap some other protesters on a street, “cheering and whooping when they made contact with me or another protester.” Graham said they tripped and fell on an scooter left lying in the street.

“I fell backwards and immediately curled up into a ball to protect my hands and stomach from being trampled,” Graham said. “My head landed on the curb and my body remained in the street. On top of the scooter, I heard men's voices above me calling me a bitch. I heard ‘You aren't even from here.’ Before three boots began kicking my back and arms repeatedly. The pain was blinding and the wind had been repeatedly knocked out of me with kicks directly to my kidneys.”

Detroit Police Chief James Craig and Mayor Mike Duggan have made much of the fact that many of the people arrested in the protests were not from the city of Detroit, casting them as outside agitators who came to foment violence outside their own communities.

“I cannot stress enough how scared I was for my life,” Graham continued. “There were moments where I thought I was going to die because I had two full adult men on me after having my neck pinched on a curb and no air in my lungs. I consider myself immeasurably lucky that I am still alive.”

Protesters are pushing for accountability for the police actions. Many are also pushing a larger narrative of “defunding the police” – moving away from traditional policing for most functions, and investing more in areas like health, housing, and education. They said relations with DPD as it stands are distrustful, and broken beyond repair.

Chief Craig issued the following statement about the tribunal:

I respect the right of the protesters tonight to express their views on recent events. In the emotional outpouring following the murder of George Floyd, however, the protesters continue to fail to acknowledge the serious danger the city faced in those first few nights. The organizers initiated those first marches without making any plans for controlling instigators of violence and without any plans for dispersing the crowd at the end of the march. As a result, the Detroit Police Department (DPD) faced crowds who attacked officers with rocks, fireworks, and railroad spikes. They smashed windows of police vehicles and began breaking windows of buildings, threatening to bring the kind of violence and looting to Detroit that many other major American cities experienced. That tragic outcome was avoided here because of the work of our officers and the active intervention of numerous Detroiters who personally stepped in to stop acts of destruction. Once our department saw that the evening protesters were no longer a danger to Detroit or our citizens, we stopped enforcing the curfew and have made no arrests of protesters in more than two weeks. This Department takes every allegation of police misconduct seriously and, as has been the practice since I have been Chief, any officer who acted improperly will be disciplined. DPD and the Board of Police Commissioners are investigating each citizen complaint and are actively collecting video evidence from body cams, building security cameras, and personal phones for a complete review of each claim. Across the country, the Detroit Police Department is getting credit for its professionalism in preserving the peace in our city without the kinds of tragic incidents seen in other communities. We are not perfect but every day we are committed to building trust between our department and the citizens we serve.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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