Pride fest attendees blast Detroit police handling of Nazis

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News
Motor City Pride festival in Hart Plaza in Detroit.

Detroit — Attendees of a weekend gay pride festival downtown condemned the police department Tuesday over its handling of an armed extremist group's efforts to incite fear, claiming police should have informed the public ahead of time.

DeMeeko Williams, a resident and prominent water rights advocate, called for Detroit Police Chief James Craig's dismissal, claiming he "has failed the city." Williams claimed that the police "protected" the neo-Nazi group that demonstrated Saturday during the Motor City Pride event at Hart Plaza. 

"I am sad and I am angry and I want something done about this ASAP," he said, ending his argument by chanting "no Nazis, no KKK, no racist USA."

Williams joined a handful of individuals who spoke out against the department's handling of the incident during public comment at Detroit City Council's formal session. They spoke after Craig addressed the panel to detail the department's efforts to thwart the neo-Nazi group's plan to spark what he called "Charlottesville 2.0" at the downtown Detroit festivities.

Police had advance notice the Nazi group planned to protest the event and would be armed, Craig said. 

The white supremacists, Craig said, hoped to spark a riot that was worse than the Aug. 12, 2017, incident in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which a car was deliberately driven into a crowd of people who were protesting the Unite the Right rally, killing one and injuring 28. James Fields Jr., 20, was convicted in the killing and sentenced to life in prison.

Detroit police have received criticism for appearing to escort members of the Nazi group from the scene at Saturday's event, but Craig said the officers were merely trying to keep the peace.

Police, he said Tuesday, worked quickly to move the group's members a block away from the festival after they arrived. 

Members of the Nazi group were openly carrying firearms — which is legal in Michigan — while they traded barbs with counter-protesters described by Craig as "an Antifa group." Craig said the Nazi group had three rifles and two pistols. 

"We had a hate group that was armed, that was very aggressive about trying to incite violence," Craig told council members. "That didn't work."

Council President Pro Tem Mary Sheffield said Tuesday that council didn't sign off on the protest or approve any permits for it to take place. Craig acknowledged that the department didn't make efforts to inform the panel about the Nazi group's planned visit but said in the future, it will. 

Dave Wait, chairman of Motor City Pride, said Tuesday he wishes there wasn't a need to have police at the festival.

"But, ultimately, we live in a time where LGBT individuals — especially trans women of color — suffer disproportionately in their share of violence, which is always on our mind," he said. "This Nazi group had the potential to incite violence on Saturday and we are thankful for the police that they remained calm and managed to keep things under control and move them away from the festival."

Bridget Huff was on the verge of tears as she told council members that her child had attended the festival, and she criticized Craig on claims he kept the group's planned visit quiet from local leaders and the public. 

"He's not doing his job if this council doesn't even know what's going on. You are elected to be involved in this," she said. "Everyone who lives in the city and everyone who visits the city deserves to have a choice about whether or not they are around that thing. No one should be taking their kids to Pride to teach them about love and acceptance, to be OK with who they are, and come up against Nazis because nobody thought a Facebook post was appropriate. It's unacceptable. It's disgusting."

Deputy Chief Elvin V. Barren told The News after public comment that the department had intelligence of the Nazi group's visit and there were no efforts to keep it secret. But the department, he said, has to maintain public safety and control public fear.

Barren said he was among the officers controlling the group on Saturday, warning members if they entered the festival they'd be arrested for trespassing. The police ultimately led them about a block away from the event.

"To the people that were hurt, I am sensitive to that. I'm hurt, as an African-American man to have to deal with that situation," he said. "But I have to be professional and above all I have to follow the law. That's what we did and we kept people safe."

George Hunter contributed.