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Detroit, Dearborn & Grand Rapids protest leaders react to "bittersweet" Chauvin verdict

Members of the Michigan-based protest movements that formed in the wake of George Floyd’s killing say Derek Chauvin’s murder conviction is a vindication of their cause.

Leaders from the protest movement called Detroit Will Breathe gathered with supporters in the snow in front of Detroit Police Headquarters just after the Chauvin verdict on Tuesday evening. They said the verdict shows the power of their movement, but it’s hardly the end point.

“Today is certainly a victory for the movement and defense of Black and brown lives. Unfortunately, it falls short of freedom,” said Nakia Wallace, a co-founder of Detroit Will Breathe.

Wallace and other activists say Chauvin’s conviction is just one step in the larger fight against police brutality and racial injustice. They say plenty of work remains in Detroit, where they’ve been at odds with Mayor Mike Duggan and Police Chief James Craig. Detroit Will Breathe is suing the city over police violence at a protest last summer, and both Duggan and Craig have repeatedly referred to the group as outside agitators whose views don’t reflect the true state of police-community relations in the city.

Wallace bristles at that characterization. “I'm a Black woman, and I've been here my entire life,” she said. “The same cannot be said of Mike Duggan. And, it's really interesting to me when those narratives get pulled out, because what they do is aid in the erasure of those of us that are here, who have been in this city under attack and feeling the weight of systematic racism and oppression on us our entire lives.”

Detroit journalist and historian Ken Coleman said Floyd’s killing and Chauvin’s conviction rest on a “historical continuum” of other police killings, including some that have happened during Chauvin’s trial, as well as acts of resistance that have sprung up in their wake. He said there’s a similar and ongoing story when it comes to policing in Detroit.

“There's clearly a disconnect between [Detroit Will Breathe’s] view of Detroit and how it's policed and how city hall, namely the Detroit Police Chief James Craig, feels things are going,” Coleman said. “From a historical standpoint, that’s been the case for decades.”

Tristan Taylor, another activist with Detroit Will Breathe, told Stateside Wednesday, he says justice will be more transparency and accountability around violent police encounters.

"Real justice is when the guilty verdict that Chauvin received becomes the norm and not the exception," Taylor said.

Taylor pointed to an incident Tuesday afternoon, when Detroit police shot and killed a man who was having a mental health episode, as an example of the need for reformed policies. Detroit Police Chief James Craig said the man police shot first stabbed himself with a knife, and then stabbed police when they tried to take the knife from him. Craig said it's unclear if the man died of self-inflicted wounds or gunshot wounds. The wounded officer is expected to recover.

Rai Lanier, a member of the prison abolition group Michigan Liberation, agreed that Chauvin’s conviction is a sort of “bittersweet” moment in the fight against police brutality and racial injustice.

“I think that we are past level one,” Lanier said. “And that our organizing efforts are going to intensify, because what we really want is transformative change for the entire system.

“And the community knows today, that while we can take a minor sigh of relief, that our work is just getting started.”

Alexandria Hughes is with Michigan Liberation and Accountability for Dearborn. She said the verdict brought tears to her eyes with the sense that justice had been served. But it only took a moment for her to think of all of the violent and deadly police encounters that have happened since George Floyd was killed nearly a year ago.

"The amount of change, the amount of justice that happens needs to match the amount of trauma that has been put on Black people. There's no way it's going to feel like justice has been served unless that happens," she said.

Hughes said she's hoping the verdict sends a message to police departments in Michigan to adopt more oversight and equity in their work

Across the state in Grand Rapids, organizers with Justice for Black Lives gathered downtown shortly after the guilty verdict was announced.  

“This verdict means a lot. It means the world,” said Aly Bates, one of the group’s leaders. “But it’s still not enough. Okay, he’s found guilty, now what? Now what? How much time is he going to do? What are you going to do to stop it in the future?”

Credit Dustin Dwyer / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Activists gathered in downtown Grand Rapids shortly after the Chauvin verdict was announced.

Bates said she wants to see an end to qualified immunity, which gives protection to police officers and other government officials from civil lawsuits over actions that they take while on duty.

Justice for Black Lives has also called on leaders in Grand Rapids to defund the Grand Rapids Police Department, and re-invest the money in other community supports to prevent crime.

Bates and other organizers with Justice for Black Lives led a march around downtown Grand Rapids, repeating their calls for reform. The city barricaded the police department headquarters before the verdict was announced. But the march never approached the headquarters, and protesters kept to the sidewalk during the march throughout downtown.

They say they plan more events throughout the spring and summer to keep the pressure on for more change in Grand Rapids.

“Our work is nowhere near finished and we are in it for the long haul,” Bates said. 

*This story has been updated.

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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.
Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Public’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Public since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
Beenish Ahmed is Michigan Public's Criminal Justice reporter. Since 2016, she has been a reporter for WNYC Public Radio in New York and also a freelance journalist. Her stories have appeared on NPR, as well as in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, VICE and The Daily Beast.
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