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Judge refuses to ban some Detroit protest activities

Oralandar Brand-Williams
The Detroit News

A federal judge in Detroit denied a motion Wednesday by the city of Detroit and its Police Department to ban some Detroit Will Breathe protest activities they say are violent.

U.S. District Judge Laurie J. Michelson denied a motion by the city seeking to stop "violent" protest activities, saying "for number of reasons" that it is not necessary to modify a temporary restraining order because what the city and police seek is already addressed in the order.

Michelson added that the city and the police department "lack a factual basis" for their motion to modify her temporary restraining order because there is no evidence her order has "emboldened" protesters to use violence or upset the "status quo."

Police have alleged that police officers were hit by projectiles and bottle rockets during recent demonstrations and that officers "had lasers pointed in their eyes, and were attacked by protesters" before Michelson issued the temporary restraining order.

Michelson said the city and the Detroit Police Department "point to just two non-violent incidents that occurred after the TRO was issued," saying that protesters spray-painted a statue and “menaced” patrons at one restaurant by standing on a patio railing and chanting.

"There are no allegations of violence by protesters on the night those two incidents occurred," she said.

The protest group Detroit Will Breathe, which has organized several protests in the city in response to the death of George Floyd following a police stop by Minneapolis police, sued the city and the police department, alleging that on some occasions they have been met with "excessive force" by police at their demonstrations and that police have violated their First and Fourth Amendment rights.

On Sept. 4, the judge granted the group a temporary retraining order against Detroit Police preventing officers from using tear gas, rubber bullets and taking other actions against protesters.

The city and its police department have filed a motion to modify the temporary restraining order because they allege the restraining order disrupts the "status quo" and encouraged protesters "to act unlawfully."

The city and its police department also asked the judge to order protesters to not deface property or throw objects at police officers.

The judge ruled that although the city and its police "have not presented a viable legal or factual basis for modifying the temporary restraining order, the motion does give her an opportunity to make the order clearer."

"Protesters have an interest in voicing their beliefs and seeking reform. The police have an interest in maintaining the peace and enforcing the laws. These interests can co-exist," Michelson said Wednesday.

"Both sides recognize this. The Detroit Police have stated that they do not use force against peaceful protesters," she said. "And Plaintiffs have expressed that they do not intend to voice their opinion through violence and they undoubtedly recognize that they cannot violate the law without consequences.''

The judge said most of the restrictions in the temporary restraining order can only stop officers from taking action against  “any individual peacefully engaging in protest or demonstration who does not pose a physical threat to the safety of the public or police.” 

The judge said police officers can still use "a variety of lawful tools when faced with protesters who pose a physical threat or have broken the law."

The judge said Detroit Police Chief James Craig has himself said the temporary restraining order “is no different than what we’ve always done” and “reinforces” the police department’s policies.

Also, in an emergency motion filed Tuesday, Detroit officials asked the court to trim the amount of information they're required to release to Detroit Will Breathe  

In another motion filed Tuesday, the city asked the court to order the protest group to turn over "relevant" texts, emails, videos, photos and social media content before an upcoming hearing on the group's lawsuit, which was filed last month.

Staff Writer Mark Hicks contributed.