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Protesters sue Detroit, police over 'excessive force'; city welcomes suit

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — Protest group Detroit Will Breathe filed a federal lawsuit against the city and its police department Monday, alleging officers engaged in "unnecessary, unreasonable and excessive force" during ongoing protests against what they say is a racist criminal justice system.

Among the suit's allegations are claims that since demonstrations began in late May, peaceful protesters have been "tear-gassed, pepper-sprayed, beaten and otherwise subjected to unconstitutional excessive force, shot with rubber bullets ... put in chokeholds ... and arrested en masse without probable cause."

Detroit Will Breathe organizers Nakia Wallace and Tristan Taylor, right,  and their legal counsel hold a press conference announcing their lawsuit to stop tactics by the Detroit Police Department against protesters.

Detroit corporation counsel Lawrence Garcia said he's "pleased" the group filed the lawsuit and said he plans to file a counter-suit, while police Chief James Craig said he appreciates the city's Law Department "fighting to reject ... another example of the perpetual false narrative."

The lawsuit names as defendants Mayor Mike Duggan, Craig, officers Stephen Anouti, David Hornshaw and Mariah Erard, Sgt. Timothy Barr and 100 other "John Doe" officers, in addition to the city and police department.

Accompanying Detroit Will Breathe's 81-page lawsuit was a request for a temporary restraining order to prevent police "from utilizing striking weapons such as batons and shields, against demonstrators who do not pose a threat to any officer and have not committed any crimes," among other restrictions.

Detroit, like other cities nationwide, has hosted protests almost daily since late May, after the choking death of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who was charged with second-degree murder.

Members of Detroit Will Breathe and their attorneys announced their lawsuit filing at a noon press conference outside the U.S. District Court building on Lafayette in downtown Detroit. 

"Beginning May 29, Detroit police have continuously responded to my clients' exercise of their First Amendment rights with coordinated displays of excessive and unjustified violence," attorney Amanda Ghannam said at the briefing. 

Caylee Arnold, one of 15 plaintiffs in the suit, claimed she was assaulted by officers at an Aug. 22 protest near John R and Woodward.

"I was pepper-sprayed in the face while police officers held me down," Arnold said Monday. "I was tackled. I asked, 'Why am I still being pepper-sprayed?' when I was already on the ground with my hands behind my back."

Police in riot gear try to disperse the crowd with tear gas shortly after a curfew begins around 8 p.m. in downtown Detroit in June.

The lawsuit described the protests and demonstrators as "peaceful" 28 times, but Craig has said agitators have thrown hammers, "a boulder" and other projectiles at officers, along with someone pointing a laser at a police helicopter pilot.

Garcia agreed in a Monday statement that protesters have been the aggressors and added they aren't really interested in social justice.

"I was pleased to hear it," Garcia said of the lawsuit's being filed. "The litigation will provide the city an opportunity to counter with our own suit to stop further violations of the law and to hopefully reduce the assaults on police officers.

"After 13 weeks of protest and demonstration, what has been recently happening in the streets of Detroit is not about raising awareness around legitimate racial justice concerns. Wearing a bulletproof vest to a protest shows a certain desire and intent. What is going on nowadays is more about provocation and public nuisance than bringing power to the people." 

Craig added: "I appreciate the city fighting to reject what continues to be another perpetual false narrative."

On Aug. 22, the police chief said his officers prevented protesters from setting up a "Seattle zone of lawlessness" after dozens blocked the intersection of John R and Woodward, and, Craig claimed, refused to leave after repeated orders to disburse. 

But plaintiff Nakia Wallace said she and other demonstrators were not trying to take over the area as protesters did in Seattle, where authorities allowed people to occupy several blocks for about two weeks until clearing the area in late June. There were at least two people killed and a sexual assault in the zone.

"They said we were trying to build an encampment on Woodward, but it's just not true," Wallace said Monday. 

Wallace was asked if the group didn't plan to take over the intersection, why did Detroit Will Breathe post on social media hours earlier: "Detroit Will Breathe is occupying the intersection of Woodward and John R. to demand the immediate end to Operation Legend and the withdrawal of federal agents sent to Detroit by the Trump administration to criminalize and terrorize black and brown communities. We aren't leaving until the feds leave."

"Yeah, we want the federal agents to leave," she said. "We said we were going to hold this space until the federal agents left. It was just going to be us in the streets, dancing, singing, reading and having fun until the police came."

The lawsuit further claims that an unknown police officer assaulted plaintiff Jazten Bass at a July 10 protest, hours after police fatally shot Hakim Littleton after video shows Littleton firing a pistol twice within feet of a police officer.

During the protest, the lawsuit claims, the officer "slammed his riot shield directly into J. Bass’s face two consecutive times. Like the other plaintiffs, J. Bass was unarmed, had not responded to the officer’s provocations, and posed no threat to the officer or anyone else at the time of the attack."

Bass said Monday that Craig doesn't care about Detroiters like him.

"In my city, the Blackest city in America, I have a Black police chief who doesn't care about my Black life," Bass said. "We won't be submissive to the system anymore. We've got to fight. It's time to fight."