Detroit protesters file lawsuit over ‘brutal violence’ from police

Detroit Free Press – Protesters against police brutality sued the city of Detroit on Monday, seeking to ban police from using batons, riot gear, tear gas and rubber bullets against them.

The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court claims Detroit police used those objects to fracture bones, inflictbaseball-sized lumps and concussions, collapse lungs and cause other injuries that left Black Lives Matter protesters hospitalized and disoriented during marches in Detroit that started on May 29.

“The demonstrators are out in the streets exercising their First Amendment rights and have been met with brutal violence,” said attorney Jack Schulz, who represents leaders of the Detroit Will Breathe movement and filed the lawsuit on behalf of protesters and the National Lawyers Guild’s Detroit/Michigan Chapter.

“We are at a point where the city needs to decide what its image is, what its soul is; whether Detroit is a place that encourages free and open thought and dialogue or whether open dialogue is met with brutal violence,” Schulz told the Free Press.

Caylee Arnold, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, spoke during a news conference Monday outside the federal courthouse in downtown Detroit. She said she was held down by police officers while another officer sprayed something in her face Aug. 23, and a photograph of the incident she described was included in the lawsuit. That day police arrested 44 people who blocked off a section of Woodward Avenue in the heart of downtown.

“When the occupation began, music played, people were freestyling on the microphone, bubbles floated up into the sky, there was dancing, there was laughter, it was beautiful,” Arnold said. “Needless to say, the night ended in terror.” 

Detroit Corporation Counsel Lawrence Garcia, the city’s top lawyer, said he had not seen the lawsuit, but he welcomed it. 

“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.

Detroit police spokeswoman Sgt. Nicole Kirkwood said Police Chief James Craig appreciates the city fighting what he called a “perpetually false narrative.”

Craig, who is being sued along with the mayor and multiple Detroit police officers, has said police used legal force to respond to protesters who created havoc downtown, violated curfew, damaged police vehicles, and hurled rocks, iron railroad spikes and fireworks at officers, some of whom were injured.

Craig said police are investigating about two dozen complaints against officers. One officer has beencharged with felonious assault for allegedly firing rubber bullets that struck three photographers working for media organizations.

Duggan has praised and defended Craig’s leadership of the police department in the wake of national outrage over the death of George Floyd, who died May 25 after a Minneapolis police officer put a knee on his neck and ignored his pleas that he could not breathe. That fatal encounter, combined with police shootings of Black men and women across America, prompted nationwide protests this summer. Detroit has avoided the rioting and looting that has plagued other cities. Detroit policehave made about 200 arrests during three high-profile clashes with protesters.

In addition to the lawsuit, which accuses Detroit police of violating protesters’ free speech and assembly rights, Schulz filed a motion for a temporary restraining order and asking a judge to order police to change their tactics immediately.

“Plaintiffs do not seek to stop the police from doing their jobs,” the motion 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.”

The motion accuses police of “arbitrarily and indiscriminately using force against peaceful demonstrators.”

Garcia said what’s happening in the city’s streets is “not about raising awareness around legitimate racial justice concerns. Wearing a bulletproof vest to a protest shows a certain desire and intent. What is going on nowadays is more about provocation and public nuisance than bringing power to the people.”

Craig has praised his officers and said police took action only after marchers ignored their warnings to go home after violating the city’s temporary curfew, which was lifted in early June. He has also said protesters have attacked police and damaged police vehicles. Craig blamed protesters for the most recent arrests, which he said occurred only because they occupied a section of Woodward Avenue and posted on Facebook that they would stay there until federal agents, who recently arrived to bolster crime-fighting efforts, left town.

“I am not going to let any group set up a Seattle zone of lawlessness here in the city of Detroit,” Craig said last week. “That is nonnegotiable.”

Earlier this summer, protesters in Seattle took over several city blocks and burned a police precinct. 

Craig credited police tactics and Detroiters who oppose outside agitators for helping the city avoid rioting and vandalism that has roiled Minneapolis, Seattle, Portland and, most recently, Kenosha, Wisconsin.

“When you resist, that’s when force is used,” Craig said last week. “As I’ve oftentimes said, whenever we have to use force, it never looks good.” 

He later added: “Force, in and of itself, doesn’t mean brutality.”

The lawsuit, backed by photos and affidavits from protesters who said they were attacked, paints a different picture.

Protesters detail injuries

Schulz said Alex Anest spent five days in the hospital after participating in the Aug. 22 march, which ended with 44 arrests after protesters stopped and closed off a one-block section of Woodward between John R and Grand River.

Anest’s account is one of more than half a dozen claims demonstrators make in the lawsuit.

According to the lawsuit, Anest is a volunteer field medic, with a red cross emblazoned on his clothing and bag, who tried to help another medic who had fallen when police hit him in the back with a baton, knocking Anest to the ground. He said he was “blinded with pain,” as the officer dragged him across the pavement in handcuffs. 

Anest said police ignored his pleas for an ambulance and, after one finally arrived, refused to let an EMT treat him, according to the lawsuit. He said he dialed 911, but an officer took his phone and hung up. Anest said he was arrested and released about 3:30 a.m., feeling “lost, disoriented, and in severe pain.”

He said other protesters took him to an emergency room, and he was hospitalized for days with a broken rib, a collapsed right lung, and a tube in his chest. The lawsuit includes a photo of a tube inserted into Anest’s chest.

Anest attended the news conference dressed in his street medic gear to demonstrate how he stands out in a crowd. He said he is a guitar teacher and recounted an exchange with an older student who served as a medic in Vietnam. Anest said his student told him the enemy targets medics because it’s a way to cripple an army.

Anest said he believes Detroit police are singling out street medics “in an attempt to incapacitate this movement.” 

Leader alleges chokehold

In addition to photos of the wounds protesters say they suffered, the lawsuit includes an image of police officers on top of Detroit Will Breathe co-founder Nakia-Renne Wallace while an officer has an arm around her neck.

The photo, according to the lawsuit, was taken on July 10, during a clash between protesters and police on San Juan on Detroit’s west side. That’s where Craig said Hakim Littleton fired two shots at police from point-blank range before officers returned fire, killing him. The lawsuit says police put Wallace in a chokehold after she said she saw an officer with his knee on a young man’s neck as police held him down on San Juan.

Wallace, according to the lawsuit, was “reminded instantly of the murder of George Floyd,” and shouted: “Get off his neck, get off his neck!”” before officers surrounded her and ordered her to get on the ground and placed her in a chokehold.

Wallace said in the lawsuit that she asked an officer: “Do they pay you enough to defend murderers and attack demonstrators?” According to Wallace, the officer responded: “Yes they do, and shut the f*** … up before I make you the next victim!”

Police SUV vs. protesters

Some of the events cited in the lawsuit made headlines earlier this summer, including a June 28 incident in which police drove a marked SUV through a cluster of marchers in southwest Detroit.

Jazten Bass, a Detroit Will Breathe leader known as Jae, said in the lawsuit that he stopped marching when he saw a police vehicle hit a marcher from behind. 

The police SUV “continued to move forward and then hit J. Bass, who had no choice but to try to roll onto the hood of the vehicle to avoid being completely run over, along with another Detroit Will Breathe organizer,” the lawsuit said. 

According to witnesses cited in the lawsuit, the driver of the police SUV hit the gas, causing “Bass and the other organizer to spin wildly on the hood of the vehicle … Bass grabbed the grill on the front of the vehicle to avoid being thrown to the ground and run over and held on as the driver of the vehicle continued to drive, alternating accelerating and braking, causing the DPD vehicle to jerk back and forth. J. Bass was eventually able to roll off the side of the vehicle, slamming into the ground and sustaining scrapes and bruises to his knee and hip.”

Craig has defended his officers amid an ongoing investigation, saying two police vehicles with two officers in each car were surrounded and attacked while trying to direct the crowd away from Vernor Highway. Photos show one of the SUVs with its rear window smashed in.

Conflicting accounts

Protester Margaret Henige said in the lawsuit that a blow from a police officer’s baton sent her to Detroit Receiving Hospital, “where she was diagnosed with a post-traumatic concussion and a closed head injury.”

Henige, who attended the news conference, said: “The amount of brutality from police that I’ve seen on these streets is something that haunts my dreams.” 

The lawsuit also claims police acted without issuing an audible warning to disperse” last weekend before they advanced in riot gear on a crowd of about 100 people who were blocking Woodward Avenue. Most of the 44 people police arrested were charged with misdemeanor counts of disorderly conduct, blocking traffic and disobeying a lawful order from police.

Craig said the next daythat police warned protesters to disperse at least eight times and waited more than an hour before taking action.

“We have been very patient,” he told reporters last week.

Other witnesses, including Detroit Will Breathe leader Tristan Taylor, said they heard police before they advanced, but Taylor said the police sound system was not very good and it was hard to hear what they were saying. He said he assumed they were telling protesters to leave.

Police said they are investigating at least three incidents caught on camera that night, some of which were shot by Adam Dewey and other freelance photographers who have been documenting the Detroit Will Breathe movement since its inception in June.

No court dates have been scheduled yet.

During a news conference at Detroit Public Safety Headquarters last week, Deputy Chief Todd Bettison said: “To Detroit Will Breathe: You’re not welcome here. Go.” 

Wallace attended the news conference outside federal court Monday and, referencing Bettison, said: “This movement and Detroit Will Breathe is not going anywhere.” 

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