Protest groups repeat call: 'Chief Craig must go'

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — The protest group Detroit Will Breathe on Thursday joined other civil rights groups in demanding James Craig to step down as the city's police chief, accusing him of encouraging police brutality and violating their right to peaceful protests.

Craig responded by saying the organization's leaders don't want to protest peacefully, pointing to a video the group posted on its Facebook page Wednesday in which a speaker was applauded after saying demonstrators should eschew nonviolent protests and be "less nice to police."

Activist Darryl Jordan speaks at a Detroit Will Breathe press conference

A consortium of several groups held a press conference Thursday at The Shed at Martz Park on the city's east side. Several speakers accused Detroit officers of "executing" citizens, and complained about "federal troops" in Detroit, a reference to Operation Legend, a local-federal crime-fighting initiative.

The briefing comes after Detroit Will Breathe filed a federal lawsuit last week accusing Detroit police of excessive force and of violating members' constitutional rights.

The theme of Thursday's press conference was articulated by speaker Darryl Jordan, who said, "Chief Craig must go."

"People in Detroit are hurting; we had three dead in two weeks," said Jordan, a member of the East Michigan Environmental Action Council. He was referring to three fatal shootings by police in Detroit between July 10 and July 30.

"That's not right," Jordan said. "There's better ways to police."

Craig has said the incidents are under investigation, although he said the evidence he's seen supports his officers' claims that they acted appropriately. 

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 has been charged with second-degree murder.

Several speakers Thursday, including Jordan, criticized Operation Legend, in which federal agents are teaming with local police to fight violent crime, as part of President Donald Trump's "tough on crime" initiative.

Authorities said last month they had charged 22 people with gun crimes during the operation's first few weeks.

Jordan said he doesn't want federal agents patrolling the city.

"We want people who live in our community," he said. Other speakers echoed his call to bring back the residency requirement for Detroit police, which was lifted in 1999 when the state legislature banned residency requirements for municipal employees. 

A statement from Detroit Will Breathe complained about the police response to an Aug. 22 skirmish, in which Craig said officers prevented a "Seattle zone of lawlessness" after he said protesters blocked the intersection of Woodward and John R, and ignored repeated orders to disperse.

In a written statement, the consortium of groups accused police officers of excessive force during the incident.

"The actions of the Detroit police ... were sadistic and all too familiar," the statement said. "Utilizing the playbook police departments always use when they have been caught abusing their power, Detroit Police shamefully spread lies to the media almost immediately following the events of (Aug. 22)."

The statement further read: "We call upon Chief Craig to resign. Go. It's just not working."

Craig said he doesn't plan to step down anytime soon.

"I'm here and will continue to work for Detroiters who live here, who work here, and who are entertained here, along with the men and women who serve this community, and I'm talking about police officers," he said.

"This group does not speak for most Detroiters," Craig said. "Just (Wednesday) night, at their gathering before the march, they were making speeches that are deeply troubling, and reinforces that they are not interested in peaceful protests."

Craig referred to a Facebook video posted Wednesday night in which an unidentified speaker said: "We need to effectively fight these m-----f------. ... we need to engage, and not in a way that's about being respectable.

"Nonviolence is no longer that shield," the man said. "Nonviolence is now … it’s not even a crutch; it's a cast to help heal an old wound. It was necessary at one point, but nowadays that nonviolence s--- will get you killed.

"If some cop was beating somebody down hypothetically, and an entire neighborhood came through and beat the cop up, they wouldn't be able to arrest everybody," the man said. "It’s a lot of m-----f------ who are ready for a fight, and if we don’t prepare for that fight before these cops continue to escalate, because they will, then somebody is going to die, and there's going to be a war, and we won't be prepared.

"We need to start planning to be less nice to the police," the man said. "They need a deterrent."

The group applauded the man when he finished speaking.

Craig said Thursday: "Does that sound like people who want to be nonviolent, peaceful protesters to you? You can't be peaceful when you're talking about violence."

During Thursday's press briefing, which was attended by about 50 people, Shea Howell of the Grace Lee Boggs Center in Detroit said Craig is "betraying this community."

"Chief Craig has responded to the rise of federal troops in this city in a way that should embarrass everyone," Howell said. "We do not need Chief Craig anymore."

Tristan Taylor, an organizer with Detroit Will Breathe, said he didn't mind if federal agencies helped Detroit.

"We need federal aid, not federal raids," he said.

Detroit Police Chief James Craig speaks about protests in downtown Detroit from Police Headquarters on Saturday.

Taylor said he's most troubled by Detroit officials working with the Trump administration.

"Mayor (Mike) Duggan, who has been silent, needs to stop playing political footsies with Donald Trump," he said. "That's the most disturbing thing of all."

Duggan's spokesman John Roach replied: "Detroit was the only major city in the country that kept the National Guard out during the protests and didn't ask for any help from the National Guard. So, once again, Tristan Taylor is lying."

Thursday's press conference isn't the first time protesters have demanded Craig be removed as police chief. They called for his firing in June, after police officers drove an SUV through a crowd of people who'd been jumping onto the vehicle. Craig said his officers thought they were being "fired upon."

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN