In a city known for violence, Detroit protests have not been marred by arson, looting, destruction

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — The city is no stranger to destructive civil disorder.

In a span of just 24 years — between 1943 and 1967 — two major racial conflicts left 77 people dead and blocks of Detroit in ruins. And for more than a decade starting in the mid-1980s, arson fires ravaged the city each Devil's Night, the night before Halloween.

"It wasn't many years ago when we were known as the city that burned because of Devil's Night," said Martin Jones of the Detroit 300 activist group. "That stopped because of the engagement of the community, the city and the police.

Activists Brendan Scorpio and Jah-T Headd (top) march together with demonstrators down Fort Street and through southwest Detroit, July 1, 2020, to protest police brutality after a Detroit police vehicle drove through a crowd of protesters earlier in the week.

"We've seen the same thing happen during these protests. We're all working together because we have the same goal, which is a better city."

Demonstrations against police cruelty and racial injustices have been ongoing in Detroit and around the nation since the May 25 death of George Floyd, who was African American, beneath the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer.

But aside from momentary flare-ups, Detroit has avoided the violence and destruction seen elsewhere. Residents, activists and city officials suggest a variety of reasons, many rooted in the city's own history.

Protesters march back toward the Detroit Police Department's 4th Precinct in Detroit on June 30, 2020.

Detroit, which last year reported the highest violent crime rate in the United States, saw pockets of disorder and dozens arrested during the first few days of protests that began in the city May 29.

While the protests that followed over the next month were largely peaceful, tensions flared again June 28, when a police car struck protesters during an anti-police brutality march.

Detroit police chief James Craig said the next day the officers had to take "evasive action" and called some of the protesters "agitators" who initiated the incident by damaging the SUV. He said an investigation was opened on the officer driving the vehicle as well as those who appeared to attack the SUV. 

In response, protesters gathered three successive days this week at a city precinct building to demand that the officer be fired and charged with a crime.

“We want justice,” said Tristan Taylor of Detroit Will Breathe, one of the leading organizers of recent Detroit marches. “What happened to us ... was an assault on our lives.”

Still, Detroit has avoided large-scale violence during the protests. 

Protesters march against police brutality in Detroit on June 30, 2020.

"What we've seen happening in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and even Grand Rapids hasn't happened here," Craig said. "There's a reason for that, and it's not by accident."

Police and city officials, residents and some activists say strong police-community relations have helped keep the peace.

"The time to establish relationships with the community isn't when something goes wrong," Mayor Mike Duggan said. "You have to be proactive, and the police department has worked with the community for six years now.

"When you think that we've not had one building burned, or one store looted, I think you're seeing all that hard work paying off," he said.

Many of the police reforms people are calling for in cities across the country, such as banning chokeholds and hiring police officers who reflect their communities' demographics, have already been enacted in Detroit during 13 years of federal oversight, and afterward.

Detroit Police Commander Franklin Hayes marches with protestors through downtown Detroit May 31, 2020 to protest the death of George Floyd.

"I think a lot of police departments can learn from us," Craig said. "We're certainly not perfect, but this is a constitutional police department now."

Detroiters also say they either remember, or grew up hearing about, the 1967 civil unrest that destroyed wide swaths of the city — and they insist they don't want to repeat that disaster.

"Detroit has a different mindset," said Eileen Wilson, a 72-year-old lifelong resident of the city. "We have a good relationship with the police here now. We didn't have any riots (during recent demonstrations) because we've already been there, done that.

"There aren't many people of my age involved in the protests, but maybe people imparted to their children like I did that there's nothing to be gained from burning down our city, because we saw what happened in 1967, and in my opinion, we still never recovered from that," Wilson said. 

Allen Dennard, 26, doesn't remember the 1967 rebellion — "but people still talk about it," he said late last month as he walked to a protest outside Public Safety Headquarters. 

Allen Dennard, of Detroit, talks to The Detroit News before the protest, Wednesday.

"Everyone says how devastating the riot was, and how we destroyed our own neighborhoods. We're not here to do that. This is a new day. We want change, but we're not going to burn our city down."

While arsonists have torched buildings throughout the country during the recent demonstrations, Duggan said Detroit hasn't had one protest-related fire. 

Some people, including Alexis Olechowski, aren't happy with the police response. She complained officers were too heavy-handed during the first few days of the demonstrations

"The cops were terrible those first few nights, bullying us and shooting us with tear gas for no reason," said Olechowski of Detroit Will Breathe, a group that's been at the forefront of the recent demonstrations. "The way they were violent with us is unacceptable. Police brutality is never acceptable."

Alexis Olechowski, of Detroit, talks to The Detroit News before the protest, Wednesday afternoon.

Craig said he stands by his officers' actions, which he said were taken after members of the crowd hurled projectiles at them.

"Some people are trying to push the narrative that none of the protesters did anything wrong, and that's false," he said. "They were throwing things; one of our supervisors suffered a concussion after being hit in the head with a boulder."

The Rev. Maurice Hardwick — "Pastor Mo" — of Power Ministry church of Southfield said he and other community leaders worked to prevent violence by "outsiders who came to cause trouble."

Volunteer Liv Puente hands out water to demonstrators as they march through southwest Detroit, July 1, 2020, to protest police brutality after a Detroit police vehicle drove through a crowd of protesters earlier in the week.

"Some of these people who are calling themselves protesters don't want solutions — their goal is to get on CNN," Hardwick said. "Those first few days, they were talking about burning down police headquarters, and burning down the city, and we let them know we weren't going to let that happen."

Craig agreed. "We had some professional agitators who came to Detroit, as they did across the country," he said. "But the community groups stepped up and worked with us to keep the violence in check."

There have been a few instances of violence, particularly early in the demonstrations.

On May 29, the first night of the protests, an Eastpointe man was fatally shot downtown, although police say it was unrelated to the demonstrations. The following evening, police made 84 arrests after unruly crowd members hurled M-80s and bricks at the officers.

Activists Alexis Olechowski, left, Jah-T Headd, and Brendan Scorpio, right, march together with demonstrators down Fort Street and through southwest Detroit, Wednesday, July 1, 2020, to protest police brutality after a Detroit police vehicle drove through a crowd of protesters earlier in the week.

A Detroit officer has been suspended as Police Department officials investigate why he allegedly shot rubber pellets at journalists who insist they showed him their media credentials. An MLive photographer reportedly was struck by several of the projectiles in the May 31 incident.

Also that night, a Detroit News reporter was handcuffed and briefly detained by police. 

Craig said deploying officers downtown to quell potential problems means fewer cops patrolling neighborhoods, which have seen a recent spike in violent crimes, mirroring similar increases in cities across the country.

"When you look at what happened in all those other cities, there's a cost," he said. "We were one of the few major cities that didn't have riots."

Duggan agreed. "There was a huge cost, both financially and to the community, to the overall enforcement of the city," he said. "But it could have been a lot worse."

Activists Brendan Scorpio, left, and Dwayne Taylor march together with hundreds of demonstrators through southwest Detroit, June 29, 2020,

The recent spate of shootings in the city's neighborhoods have occurred in part because police have not been able to fully employ their crime-fighting strategies, the mayor said.

"Chief Craig had a very detailed plan to deal with gun violence, and we would've been implementing it in the last two to three months, but we had hundreds of officers quarantined because of COVID — and then, as soon as we came back, we had to deploy hundreds of officers to the protests every night," Duggan said.

"But things are getting back to normal, and we're moving forward on the plans to stop gun violence," the mayor said.

Jones of Detroit 300, a group that passes out fliers and questions residents to help police solve crimes, said things would've been worse had Craig not sent large numbers of cops downtown during the early protests.

"The chief had to make sure we didn't have any of the problems we saw (during demonstrations) in other cities, and he did that," he said.

"Yes, that comes at a cost to the neighborhoods," Jones said, "but I think the cities that had violence will end up with a much bigger cost when it's all over."

Activists Brendan Scorpio and Jah-T Headd (top) march together with demonstrators down Fort Street and through southwest Detroit, July 1, 2020, to protest police brutality after a Detroit police vehicle drove through a crowd of protesters earlier in the week.

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN