Detroit Will Breathe organizers march on despite uncertainty

Jasmin Barmore
Special to The Detroit News

Detroit — Organizers of Detroit Will Breathe garnered attention with sustained protests that got them a meeting with Mayor Mike Duggan and the city’s top cop, but they are now grappling with the group's future, including how to spend $35,000 in donations.

Nearly three weeks after Metro Detroit marches began in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, the group plans a public tribunal at 5 p.m. Saturday in Hart Plaza.

They say the goal is to hold Duggan and Police Chief James Craig accountable for how protesters were treated in the first days of marches, which included police in riot gear deploying tear gas and firing rubber bullets while making arrests and enforcing a curfew.

Detroit Will Breathe organizer Tristan Taylor rallies a crowd of demonstrators with a speech prior to one of the recently nightly protest marches through downtown Detroit in honor of George Floyd and in opposition to police violence against black men and people of color.

As the group continues its momentum, its main leaders — all Detroiters — admit they are unsure how to structure the organization and are internally debating whether they were too quick to solicit donations. The group’s growing pains are happening as they are challenged by other long-time Detroit activists who question their methods.

“We are trying to do things right,” said Jah-T Headd, 24, one of the organizers and a spokesman for Detroit Will Breathe, earlier this week. “It’s not easy when you have people actively interfering with that and making it harder. We need a little more time.

“... There are quite a few of us that need to talk to each other and get things squared away. Especially how we are portrayed by the media, and how we are portraying ourselves to the general public.”

A GoFundMe account was set up by one of the group’s lead organizers, Nakia Wallace, 23, on June 7 and has more than $35,000 as of Friday with a goal of $40,000. Wallace, 23, said the account was formed for donors to support the group’s financial needs and the money had not been touched as of Monday.

Organizer Nakia Wallace leads chants while protesters march against police brutality in Detroit on June 10, 2020. This is the 13th day of protesting in Detroit.

Wallace said it will be used to purchase video equipment and food, along with about 30% going back to medics who volunteered to help keep them safe when marching and people who provide protesters food. 

Tristan Taylor, 37, who has been the face of the group over the last several weeks, said fundraising will continue because people continue to back their efforts.

“Fundraising is a big way people show support who can’t be there physically,” he said. 

But organizers, including Taylor, admit that view has not always been shared.

Headd believes the request to fundraise was premature, and Taylor said Monday that the large number of donations they’ve received is foolish. 

“It’s stupid. It’s just really stupid,” Taylor said.

Taylor also said the money will be used for video equipment, websites, merchandise and medical personnel.   

The GoFund Me page shows it has been shared 1,700 times and received donations from 640 donors as of Friday afternoon.

Headd said the money could be going to other places, such as “direct action to get people’s water cut back on, neighborhood watches and other direct action organizational things that we could do as a community and not have to rely on police to do.”

The Rev. Horace Sheffield III, a longtime community activist who represents several nonprofits in the Detroit area, said the group needs to define themselves if they are going to be doing community work. 

“I think if an organization is going to do stuff, they need to be an actual legitimate organization, which means an LLC or something,” Sheffield said. “I don’t see how a for-profit can be involved in this type of work.”

There is no record of the name Detroit Will Breathe, nor any organizations under the names of the head organizers, according to Michigan’s Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs.

Headd says the group is not a for-profit organization and defines the group as a “loose organization” and activists trying to get the demands met for people.

Wallace said the group members have discussed whether they will become a 501c3 nonprofit. According to Wallace, the group “does not have access to the funds” and is teamed up with lawyers and accountants to assist them in accessing the money.  

Taylor, who is against the organization becoming a 501c3, said he is still working on how to define it, but the group collectively is unsure of what that will be.

Oren Goldenberg, a Detroit resident, donated $216. He said in an email that he was not asked to donate nor told what the funds would be used for. He was prompted to donate to the group because they supported him with love and courage after he says he was hurt during protests.

“The leaders and community that formed DWB were there for me, with love, courage and support when my First Amendment rights, and my body, were literally being stomped on,” Goldenberg said.

“They are calling to be in the streets every day, which is the tactic I agree with to prevent a return to normalcy, and normalcy is deadly, racist and destroying the Earth we live on and call home.”

Sheffield said Detroit Will Breathe should come together with other organizations in the community and believes instead of the group holding a public tribunal, “all the black organizations in Detroit should come together and have a summit,” where they can come up with “a common agenda that represents the consensus of our community.”

After Taylor and Wallace met privately with Duggan and Craig last week to discuss their demands, they were confronted by longtime community activists who told Taylor that he could not say he was a spokesman for a global movement.

Taylor said Friday they are going forward with Saturday's public tribunal. 

“We’re still new, and we’re just bumping along, as you know, as we move,” he said.