For a Glimpse of the Racial Justice Protests’ Staying Power, Look To Detroit
Under the banner of Detroit Will Breathe, the city’s Black Lives Matter activists have formed a cohesive and lasting local political force.
As perhaps the highest-stakes election in a generation approaches, the widespread protests against racism and policing that defined much of the news cycle this summer have largely faded from national headlines. But the movement has not dissipated.
In Detroit, activists have created one of the most cohesive local movements in the country. Their work shows how the ongoing mobilization can change the landscape of local political organizing, particularly when it comes to the issue of policing.
Since late May, under the banner of Detroit Will Breathe, activists have been identifying pressing local racial, economic, and social justice issues, and mobilizing a diverse array of educational, direct action, and advocacy campaigns. They’ve canvassed for police reforms, organized campaigns to pressure the city council on policy, mobilized in support of neighbors who have experienced racism and police violence, and even sued the Detroit Police Department.
Detroit Will Breathe has taken advantage of the current momentum to rally against what its members see as an abusive police force and a malevolent political establishment, and placed itself at the center of local civic life.
“We’ve already created so much change,” said Sammie Lewis, a Detroit Will Breathe organizer. “We’ve protected each other more than the police could ever protect us. And we know that, because of that, we need to keep up this fight.”
As in most other American cities, protests erupted in Detroit after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in late May. Thousands took to the streets in anger and mourning, fueled by an extensive history of violent and abusive policing in the nation’s largest majority-Black city, which is also one of its poorest.
As the movement in Detroit commenced with daily marches in the days after Floyd’s killing, demonstrators self-organized. They began to hold open mic assemblies before each action, where members of preexisting advocacy groups as well as unaffiliated residents could speak about the issues they thought protests should address and the tactics they should use to address them.
These meetings were often tedious, and sometimes contentious, but they were needed—and fruitful—activists say. “They allowed us to have political debates between different approaches,” said Tristan Taylor, one of the lead organizers. “And that really helped consolidate the movement, which allowed it to continue on a daily basis but in a dynamic way.”
From these conversations, the Detroit protesters came up with a list of 24 demands for the city—11 of which they labeled “priorities”—spanning a variety of issues. Many of the demands relate to police reform, including the central call of the post-George Floyd moment: to “defund” the police. But other demands focus on housing, criminal justice, poverty, water rights, immigration, and other issues, reflecting a recognition among the movement that police brutality is only the most front-facing injustice residents endure.
During the early weeks, demonstrators also decided to unite more officially, so they created Detroit Will Breathe, which became the main umbrella group for the Black Lives Matter mobilization in the metro area. Though movement decisions were still mostly made during the open assemblies—now held weekly rather than daily—the centralized nature of a named group lent it a new air of legitimacy. Detroit Will Breathe organizers won an audience of city officials to relay protesters’ thoughts and demands. The new organization also made it easier for demonstrators, as the summer wore on, to steer the movement’s actions toward where they were needed most.
“If we needed to go to the suburbs to support someone who was killed by the police in the suburbs, we could do that,” said Taylor. “And when the police would attack us … we could respond in kind, making sure that we’re going to the precinct where the cops came out of.”
Activists affiliated with Detroit Will Breathe have repeatedly faced violence at the hands of police. When demonstrators marched in defiance of the city’s 8 p.m. curfew in the early days of the protest movement, for instance, officers responded with tear gas, pepper spray, arrests, and beatings. At a demonstration in August, which organizers described as non-confrontational, even festive, police with riot shields showed up to deploy tear gas, tackle protesters, and beat them with batons. The Detroit Police Department made 42 arrests that night.
And over the weekend, at a protest march in Shelby Township, a Detroit suburb, local police showed up with riot shields, broke up the crowd, and arrested several protesters, including Taylor, shortly after the demonstration began—for refusing to march on the sidewalk rather than in the street. Shelby Township police later arrested more demonstrators who showed up at the police station to support the arrestees. Some of the protesters were charged with felonies.
As part of its organizing against police brutality, Detroit Will Breathe sued the DPD in federal court at the end of August over its abusive tactics. The group alleged that “peaceful protesters” were “tear-gassed, pepper-sprayed, beaten and otherwise subjected to unconstitutional excessive force, shot with rubber bullets, blasted with deafening and disorienting sound cannons and flash grenades, put in chokeholds, cordoned off in small groups (‘kettled’), and arrested en masse without probable cause” by Detroit cops. As a result, protesters suffered serious injuries, including broken bones, a collapsed lung, punctured skin from rubber bullets, and menstrual irregularities from tear gas exposure, according to the suit.
In September, the court partly granted Detroit Will Breathe’s request for a temporary restraining order, which, for the time being, forbids the DPD from using certain tools of force—including chemical agents, batons, and rubber bullets—against any protester “who does not pose a physical threat to the safety of the public or police,” giving the group one of its first major victories.
Outside of the courts, Detroit Will Breathe has elevated the fight against police brutality by holding public “tribunals,” during which community members tell their own stories about violent and abusive experiences they’ve had with police. The group began soliciting testimony in June and held the first tribunal later that month.
“We had over 20 people give their individual testimony of being assaulted by police. We had over 100 submissions,” said Taylor. “That was a watershed moment—pushing back against police repression.”
“We created space for ourselves to talk to each other, and to get the truth out,” said Nakia Wallace, another Detroit Will Breathe organizer, who faced especially egregious police violence when a cop put her in a chokehold during a July 10 protest against the police killing of a 20-year-old Detroit man.
Actively bringing the community into their work in this way is important to Detroit Will Breathe. In recent weeks, the group has been canvassing door-to-door with petitions and information, including one petition urging the city council to cancel a contract with a company that provides the police department with invasive and notoriously unreliable facial recognition technology. These canvassing efforts have served a dual purpose, according to activists: In addition to getting word out about and garnering support for specific issues, they’ve been a way to introduce Detroit Will Breathe to community members who are most likely affected by the poverty, racism, and police brutality the group is fighting against, but who haven’t participated in any protests themselves.
“Marches are great. And while it’s awesome that people see us going through their neighborhoods, it’s just not the same as having those conversations,” said Lewis, who has organized much of Detroit Will Breathe’s canvassing efforts.
The direct conversations are especially helpful considering that, according to activists, many Detroit residents’ only exposure to Detroit Will Breathe is what they see on the local television news, which is often deferential to anti-protest authority figures, like Detroit’s police chief, James Craig.
“Neighbors are thankful that we’re taking the time,” said Lewis, “actually explaining to them why we stay marching, why we’re knocking on their door, what we think we can actually achieve in this movement.”
If Donald Trump is the unofficial Fox News president, then James Craig is the Fox News police chief. The head of the Detroit Police Department has appeared on the conservative network repeatedly over the past five months, spinning conspiracy theories about protesters across the country, spreading misinformation, and painting them as criminals. Last month, he told Fox and Friends that the nationwide protest movement is “coordinated,” “planned,” and “financed” by “a Marxist ideology” trying to “undermine our government as we know it.” In July, on Tucker Carlson’s show, he called demonstrators “misguided radicals that have tried to incite violence.” To another host, he declared, “I’m not going to allow criminals to … take over our city streets.” His appearances have earned him Trump’s praise, by which he has said he is “humbled.”
Furthermore, Craig—on whom Detroit Will Breathe has called to resign—has tried to create the perception that protesters are an unwelcome presence among Detroit residents, and that most of the city backs him and his department.
“Detroiters stand with [the police],” he told news cameras a day after his officers deployed tear gas on nonviolent demonstrators and arrested 84 people, including a reporter. “They don’t want people coming into our city who are not from here creating chaos and ravaging the city.”
But Detroit Will Breathe activists give little credence to the chief’s rhetoric. “Craig is trying to pretend like we are not Detroiters,” said Wallace, who, like other lead Detroit Will Breathe organizers, was born and raised in the city. “I’m not going to participate in my own erasure.”
Instead, they’re focusing on their community outreach, while pushing to shrink Craig’s department’s presence and divert its funds to community resources. In recent months, much of Detroit Will Breathe’s police defunding advocacy has been focused on facial recognition contracts, but the group is beginning to turn its attention to the 2022 city budget. Last week, activists called into the annual public budget hearing to demand that the city reinvest much of the DPD’s more than $300 million—a quarter of the city’s general fund expenditures—to housing, health care, and education initiatives.
“We don’t need police; we need money, we need resources,” said Lewis. “A lot of racism exists here. There’s been a lot of segregation. There’s been just a lack of resources to the communities, and instead that money is going to a $315 million budget for the police. And that’s money that belongs to the community.”
“That’s why we really believe in fighting with the community. It’s their fight. It’s our fight.”