Detroit Council approves using public funds to countersue protesters

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Detroit police officers restrain Nakia Wallace, co-founder of Detroit Will Breathe, during a protest. (Photo courtesy of Adam J. Dewey)

Detroit City Council voted on Tuesday to approve using public money to fund a countersuit against Detroit Will Breathe, a group of protesters that marched in the streets for more than 100 consecutive days to combat police brutality.

Detroit Will Breathe, a group that was born in the wake of police officers’ killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year, filed a lawsuit against the city at the end of the summer after several protesters and medics were beaten and tear-gassed by Detroit Police Department officers on Aug. 22

The council members who voted to support funding the suit against protesters are council President Brenda Jones, council members Andre Spivey, Janee Ayers, Scott Benson and Roy McCalister. The 5-4 vote came after overwhelming public comment against the use of taxpayer money for the countersuit. 

Nakia Wallace, co-founder of Detroit Will Breathe, said each council member should think about how they will be remembered for voting to approve spending to sue people who are victims of police violence. 

“Is this what you want your legacy to be during the largest social uprising in the history of this country? The Blackest city in the nation using all of its resources and funds to continue to abuse and repress people standing up for their constitutional right to protest and aligning themselves with right wing and racist policies,” Wallace said during the public comment session of Tuesday’s meeting. 


Sammie Lewis, another organizer with Detroit Will Breathe, said the city of Detroit is backing police brutality and allowing officers to violate their First Amendment right to peacefully protest.

“We are not a threat, we just looked to challenge the power and the violence they use against us,” Lewis said during public comment. “We will hold DPD and the city accountable, rightfully so, and we should be able to do such without additional attempts to silence us. Taxpayer money should absolutely not be used up on this racist counterclaim.”

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The protesters weren’t the only ones to speak out against the decision. John Royal, president of the National Lawyers Guild — which is representing many of the protesters in court, wrote a letter to City Council, urging it not to approve funding. 

Royal said in the letter that this countersuit is part of a national trend by units of governmental and corporate entities to intimidate grassroots activists.

“The City of Detroit should not use this repressive tactic against the progressive youth of southeast Michigan who are seeking redress for legitimate grievances against the DPD,” Royal said in the letter. “This counterclaim is an unjustified attempt to intimidate young people who are speaking out in support of basic human rights. It is also a waste of the taxpayers’ money and represents a shameful public policy.”

U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Detroit spoke during the same public comment period, saying the city and DPD have targeted protesters who were exercising their constitutional rights.

“Never did I think that we would use resources to silence people for marching, marching in a historic uprising in our nation for Black Lives Matter to end poverty, to get people access to water to end mass incarceration and so much more,” Tlaib said. 

Tlaib also penned an open letter expressing her concern that the city is repeating a “history of repression” against protesters. 

Councilman McCalister of Detroit’s second district voted “yes”, but he said he joined the military to fight for people’s right to peacefully protest. 

“Jesus Christ was a very peaceful person. Martin Luther King was a very peaceful person, but they did protest. And so my issue is with those people that came in and wanted to destroy our city and cause another [1967 uprising],” McCalister said. 

Council member Raquel Castaneda-Lopez, who voted against funding the countersuit, tweeted before the City Council meeting that she would vote “no” on the item when it came up for a vote. In the tweet, Castaneda-Lopez called the effort an “outrageous attempt by the Law Department to silence protestors through an expensive counterclaim attempting to hold protestors liable for civil conspiracy.” 

Detroit resident Peter Blackmer echoed the concerns of Councilwoman Castaneda-Lopez, calling the suit “baseless.”

“We’ve all heard this foolishness from Chief Craig on Fox News over the past year, and rarely, if ever, have Chief Craig, the mayor and corporate counsel presented any factual evidence to support these kinds of libelous claims. It’s unconscionable that Detroit’s citizens are being asked to foot the bill for this dangerous lawsuit,” Blackmer said. 

Despite council support of the countersuit, Detroit Will Breathe protesters have recently secured some legal victories in their fight against the city. A federal judge issued a temporary restraining order in September that prevented DPD from using tear gas, chokeholds and rubber bullets on protesters. 

Just two weeks ago, a 36th District Court judge dismissed disorderly conduct charges, among other charges, for 28 protesters who were arrested by DPD in the wake of Floyd’s killing, according to attorneys with the National Lawyers Guild. 

The city reviewed footage from the protests during its 8 p.m. curfew and dismissed the majority of tickets issued for curfew violations in May, Lawrence Garcia, the city’s corporation counsel, said in a statement Tuesday. 

“In light of that review, the Law Department is dismissing the majority of misdemeanor tickets issued on May 31 and June 2,” Garcia wrote in the statement. “Although certain cases from these two dates will be pursued, the City believes it is best to dismiss the vast majority of citations.”

What do you think, Detroiters? How do you feel about your tax dollars going to fund this countersuit against protesters? Let us know your thoughts on Twitter @BridgeDet313, and don’t forget to subscribe to our weekly newsletter!

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