Protesters Sue Detroit, City Pledges to Countersue

Detroit police fire rubber bullets at a protest in May.

Detroit police fire rubber bullets at a protest in May. Shutterstock


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Protesters against police brutality sued the city for the use of excessive force. The city’s top lawyer said he was “pleased to hear” of the lawsuit—because the city plans to countersue.

Protesters filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Detroit on Monday, saying that police in the city “repeatedly reverted to brutal tactics to punish and abuse peaceful protesters” during demonstrations against police brutality in the past few months. The suit seeks a temporary restraining order to prohibit police from using a variety of “non-lethal” weapons against protesters, including tear gas, rubber bullets, zip ties, sound cannons, and riot shields.

The lawsuit was brought on behalf of Detroit Will Breathe, a nonprofit community organizing group, and a bloc of fourteen protesters who say they sustained injuries at the hands of Detroit police officers. The plaintiffs include Alexander Anest, a street medic who said he was attempting to help another medic off the ground when police hit him repeatedly with their batons, leaving him with broken ribs and a collapsed right lung. Others said they were shot with rubber bullets while attempting to leave protests, received concussions from batons, were put in chokeholds, as well as subjected to sound cannons and flash grenades without warning. 

The suit includes graphic photos of the injuries protesters sustained at demonstrations and after being arrested.

Detroit, like some other cities across the country, has seen nearly daily protests since May, when Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd by kneeling on his neck. The protesters in Detroit claim that the police response to protests about Floyd’s death and broader police brutality issues have contrasted sharply to the police response to other recent protests, particularly those against coronavirus lockdown measures.

Police “responded with unjustified violence to these protests in direct reaction to the fact that the protests confront the racial disparity in police violence and the systemic racism that pervades our society,” the suit claims. “By contrast, [the Detroit Police Department] has protected other protesters in recent history—including protests led by white supremacists—rather than subjecting them to arbitrary curfews, excessive force, and unlawful arrests.”

Named as defendants in the suit are Mayor Michael Duggan, Police Chief James Craig, four individual officers, and 100 “Officer Does,” along with the city of Detroit itself.  

The city’s top lawyer, Lawrence Garcia, responded that he was “pleased to hear” of the lawsuit’s filing. “The litigation will provide the city an opportunity to counter with our own suit—to stop further violations of law and to hopefully reduce the assaults on police officers,” Garcia said in a statement. Garcia, the Detroit corporation counsel, was not specific about what the city might sue over and denied that protesters were “raising awareness around legitimate racial justice concerns.” He said that they were more intent on “provocation and public nuisance than bringing power to the people.”

Craig, the Detroit police chief since 2013, similarly rejected that protests have been peaceful and said that demonstrators have thrown things at officers and once directed a laser pointer at a police helicopter.  "I appreciate the city fighting to reject what continues to be another perpetual false narrative,” he said on Monday.

The police chief also said that his department is already investigating around two dozen complaints filed against officers in recent months in relation to protests, although they are struggling to get witnesses to cooperate. One officer, Daniel Debono, was charged with multiple counts of felonious assault related to his actions during a May protest. Local prosecutor Kym Worthy said that there were “simply no explicable reasons” why Debono allegedly fired rubber bullets at three journalists who were leaving a protest area. 

At least two lawmakers have called for a more thorough investigation into allegations of police violence. U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Detroit, a Democratic House member who is part of “the squad” in Congress, said that the “entire elected Board of Police Commissioners [must] take action” to investigate instances of excessive force. Michigan state Sen. Stephanie Chang called for an independent investigation into the serious injuries suffered by some demonstrators at a protest in late August..

The protesters who filed the suit say that they are not intending to antagonize police, but are trying to make protests more peaceful by preventing the use of weapons that can harm protesters. "Plaintiffs do not seek to stop the police from doing their jobs," the suit says. "They seek an end to the excessive, unjustified, and consistent pattern of violence that has caused serious injury to so many and deterred others from participating in demonstrations at all."

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.

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