Detroit police: 'Dozens of warnings' issued before rally arrests; protesters call action brutal

Ariana Taylor and Jasmin Barmore
The Detroit News

Detroit — Demonstrators were back on the street in Detroit on Sunday to denounce the action by police to arrest 42 people during a protest the night before.

Tristan Taylor of Detroit Will Breathe, which conducted the protest Saturday over federal agents in the city, on Sunday called the action by Detroit police brutal and accused Detroit police Chief James Craig of not believing people should be treated with respect.

Protest organizer Tristan Taylor speaks the crowd during a meeting Sunday at Third Street and Michigan Avenue in Detroit. The group discussed the arrests and alleged brutality by the Detroit Police Department the previous night in Detroit.

“We were standing in the middle of the street and they arrested us," Taylor told a crowd of about 50 people. "The issue isn’t that they arrested us. The issue is the brutality. When you do something to get arrested you expect arrest, but not brutally beaten. We weren’t doing anything to get brutally beaten.”

Craig called Taylor's claims “completely false and inaccurate” in a statement to The Detroit News. 

Sgt. Nicole Kirkwood, a police spokeswoman, said protesters blocked all lanes of traffic early Sunday by standing in the intersection of Woodward and John R and used barricades such as construction barriers that were taken from the side of the roads. 

She said of those arrested, 18 people were from Detroit and 25 were from outside of Detroit, including one from California. All but one, who is connected to a weapons charge, have been released, Kirkwood said.

Operation Legend protesters, led by the activist group Detroit Will Breathe, march in downtown Detroit on Saturday night. Early Sunday morning, 42 people were arrested as they blocked traffic on Woodward Avenue in downtown Detroit, police said. All but one of them was released later Sunday.

“Dozen of warnings were given to them before any arrests were made," Kirkwood said. "They were advised they were blocking traffic by blocking all four lanes of Woodward and John R and that they were assembling unlawfully."

She said any allegations of excessive force would be investigated.

Operation Legend protesters, led by activist group Detroit Will Breathe, march along Woodward Avenue Saturday night, August 22, 2020. Later in the evening many were arrested as they blocked traffic on Woodward Avenue in downtown Detroit.

Kirkwood said the majority of the arrests were for disorderly conduct. 

"DPD is not going to “tolerate people blocking the public streets,” she said.

Taylor said the demonstrators on Saturday and early Sunday morning were protesting the presence of federal agents in Detroit. The agents are in place, according to federal, state and local leaders, to address violent criminals, part of the Trump administration's "law and order" initiative. The move comes as Detroit sees a surge in gun violence. The agents are focusing on gun and gang violence, fugitive apprehension and drug trafficking. 

Detroit U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and Craig have said the daily rallies and marches in Detroit won't be a focus of the initiative by the White House called Operation Legend.

Demonstrators said they were pepper sprayed, struck with weapons and beaten by officers. Some showed up to the meeting Sunday limping. Others wore arm casts and some had bruises, which they said resulted from the encounter with police.

Kevin Kwart of Detroit said he had two black eyes and hurt his shoulder during the arrest.

“I separated my clavicle bone from my shoulder,” Kwart, 34, said. “All I can remember is being punched in the face repeatedly while I was trying to comply with the officers. I had one hand behind my back and the other covering my face, which is a natural instinct to protect yourself if you’re being hit in the face. After about 10 more punches I said screw it and just gave officers my other hand.”

On social media posts, Detroit Will Breathe described the protest as "brutality by DPD" against nonviolent protesters. Up to 150 people protested, the group said.

Allison Laskey, another organizer with Detroit Will Breathe, was among those arrested. Laskey said police tried to forcibly remove protesters, and five people from the group went to the emergency room with injuries caused by "excessive force." 

Some people who were trying to leave the area were pulled from their vehicles by police and four Black men who had nothing to do with the protest also were arrested, Laskey said. 

"Nobody wants to have to spend the night in jail but it does strengthen one's resolve when we realize that the brutal force that was used to beat up our friends and detain us ... are closely tied to the policies that are bringing federal agents into Detroit," Laskey said.

"When we say defund DPD, demilitarize DPD, the first step is to get these federal agents out of the city. That's millions of dollars that could be spent on safe opening of schools, on making sure that people stay in their home during a pandemic and other things that get to much more root causes of violence," she said. 

Laskey said she was arrested for disorderly conduct for blocking traffic and not obeying a police officer. She was released at 9 a.m. Sunday morning. 

In his statement, Craig also addressed the de-fund movement: "I’ve always been transparent since day one. I’ve always been open about police misconduct investigations and how they will be handled. Tristan is masterful at creating a false narrative. He doesn’t speak for Detroiters.

"I represent people who really live and work in this city and who also come here for entertainment, and when you talk about defunding the police, that is not what the people of the city want."

In a video posted by the group, police are seen standing across from protesters in riot gear holding shields before the arrests. Protesters chanted "we don't see no riots here, why are you in riot gear." 

WARNING: The linked video, below, contains expletives and language some might deem offensive.

A canister of an unknown smoking substance was thrown toward the protesters as police marched into the crowd of organizers in an attempt to get them to disperse. Police then deployed tear gas when they did not leave.

In the video, police can be seen pushing protesters to the ground while other officers fell to the ground in the middle of the commotion. Police yelled at protesters to get back and participants yelled profanities back. 

Brianna Vanderveen, who was arrested, said she came to the protest to be civilly disobedient and accused Detroit police of being violent.

“They were there to beat us and drag us through the streets and to ignore us when we had serious medical issues,” Vanderveen said.

Vanderveen, 24, wore a bandage around her left foot at Sunday's gathering.

Another Detroit resident, Lloyd Simpson, said he was able to avoid being arrested but he was hit with a baton and pepper sprayed.

“That was some real brutal actions by the DPD," said Simpson, 33. "And honestly, I don’t even call them the DPD anymore. They are a violent gang formerly known as the DPD."