Planned tribunal is a throwback to post-1967 Detroit rebellion effort

Tristan Taylor | Ken Coleman photo

As Detroit anti-police brutality demonstrations continue, a group of lead protesters plan to hold a public tribunal Saturday. The effort, organizers say, is designed to highlight what they believe have been abuses carried out by city police. 

Tristan Taylor, Detroit Will Breathe co-founder, told the Advance on Thursday that it will be a forum for those who have been arrested during the last 22 days and feel that they have been violated. 

Tristan Taylor | Ken Coleman photo

“So, think of it as court but is actually based in the community,” Taylor said. “We’ll be hearing from the actual people who have been arrested during these days of the protests, and activity of the DPD [Detroit Police Department] on us. We will be highlighting the need for systemic change and how the Detroit police handle themselves.”

Detroit Will Breathe posted this summary on its Facebook page: 

“We know we won’t find true justice in the courts, so we are making our own space to put Chief [James] Craig and Mayor [Mike] Duggan on trial. Join us this Saturday in Hart Plaza in a direct action to hear and share the truth about DPD’s response to nonviolent protests. Stand with us in demanding that all charges against protesters be dropped!”

The set of daily demonstrations in Detroit began on May 29 following the Memorial Day Minneapolis, Minnesota police killing of George Floyd, an African-American man. Four men charged in connection with the death have been fired from the force. 

Protests have occurred in more than 2,000 cities around the country and the world, including more than three dozen in Michigan.

Detroit Will Breathe Facebook page

The Detroit tribunal, which scheduled to begin at 5 p.m. at Hart Plaza in downtown Detroit, is reminiscent of another Detroit event regarding concerns about police brutality. 

On August 30, 1967, more than 2,000 people attended a mock trial carried out at Central United Church of Christ on Detroit’s west side. The site, led by the Rev. Albert B. Cleage Jr., was located about one mile from where the Detroit Rebellion started about one month before. The uprising was largely a Black community response to decades of police harassment and brutality by white cops. 

At the center of the 1967 tribunal was the killing of three Black teenagers at the Algiers Motel on July 25. It occurred during a six-day period when sections of Detroit businesses where burned and looted by largely by oppressed people who rebelled against deprivation and discrimination. State and federal troops were ordered in to restore peace. 

Law enforcement said that they were responding to a report that gunmen were on the site. Tribunal organizers were concerned that law enforcement officers had not been charged in the death of Aubrey Pollard, 19; Fred Temple, 18; and Carl Cooper, 17. 

Dan Aldridge and V. Lonnie Peek Jr., African-American men in their early 20s, were the lead organizers of the “People’s Tribunal.” Both were leaders in the city’s growing Black Power movement. 

Detroit Police Department | Ken Coleman

“We had no idea what it was gonna be like,” Aldridge recalled on Thursday about the effort held 53 years ago. “We were working on word of mouth and mimeograph sheets.”  

Aldridge pointed out in the days leading up to the tribunal the Detroit Police Department closely monitored both he and Peek. At the time, the department had fewer than 300 African-American members, yet the city was about 40% Black and its police force had nearly 5,000 personnel. 

The event attracted media from other parts of the country, as well Europe. Aldridge and Peek recruited several high-powered men and women to participate. 

Among the jurors were noted African-American novelist John O. Killens, popular local bookstore owner Ed Vaughn and civil rights icon Rosa Parks. Attorneys Milton Henry and Ken Cockrel Sr. were involved, as well, and white activists were engaged. Justin Ravitz, also an attorney, served as judge. Frank Joyce, a founding member of an underground newspaper called The Fifth Estate, served on the jury.  

Aldridge believes that the tribunal had societal impact. On May 3, 1968, a federal grand jury indicted security guard Melvin Dismukes (an African American), and Detroit police officers Ronald August, Robert Paille and David Senak (all white) on a charge of conspiring to deny civil rights to the motel occupants. 

Dan Aldridge | Ken Coleman photo

Ultimately, after a change of venue to Mason and a deliberation of nine hours, an all-white jury found the four men not guilty of conspiracy. 

The Detroit Will Breathe tribunal was inspired by Aldridge’s recent conversation with Taylor. Aldridge, who remains active in the Detroit community, has not been involved in the planning. But he believes the effort has the opportunity to have lasting impact.

“I don’t know what they are going to do,” Aldridge said. “The difference is that we had a very specific case and fact pattern. As a concept, though, I think people need to hold tribunals all over [the nation] and bring their own evidence.”

Protesters negotiate with official who knows Detroit’s Black-police struggle

Conrad Mallett Jr., Detroit deputy mayor, met with Detroit Will Breathe last week after the group issued a set of demands.  

Mallett knows first-hand of Detroit and its sometimes notorious history regarding people of color and police. His father, Conrad Mallett Sr., a former public schools teacher and city police officer, served on the force when it employed very few Blacks. 

Conrad Mallet Jr.

The year that he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army, 1948, Leon Mosley, a 15-year-old Black boy, was fatally shot in the back by white police. Two officers beat the charges several months later. 

Mallett Sr. later became the highest-ranking Black executive assistant in the Jerry Cavanagh mayoral administration of the 1960s. He was a progressive who helped to defend Black voting rights in the South. His wife, Claudia, also was an activist and civil rights supporter. 

Mallett Jr. recalls his family joining a protest in 1961 at a local supermarket because it would not hire African Americans. They lived within eyesight of 12th Street and Clairmount, where the civil uprising started on July 23, 1967. 

A Detroit Free Press paperboy at the time, 13-year-old Mallett Jr. witnessed the uprising during its early hours as he sought out to pick up his papers for delivery. Mallett later served in the Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young administration during the 1980s. 

Young, the city’s first Black mayor, led an effort to hire hundreds of Blacks, and women to serve on the lily-white police force. Mallett Jr. later became an aide to now-former Gov. James Blanchard and was Michigan’s first African American to serve as chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court in 1997. 

As Detroit protests near third week, civil rights leaders eye big changes

He has since served on the city’s civilian police commission, which oversees the police department. He said on Thursday that city government welcomes the opportunity to collaborate with Detroit Will Breathe. Mallett met with the group last weekl. 

“We still hold ourselves out ready to speak with anyone who wants to speak with us about how we continue to make sure that this city goes forward,” he said. 

As for Aldridge, he suggests that Detroit Will Breathe and its allies carry out their tribunal with precision. 

“We understood that anything we got wrong that would destroy the whole thing, the credibility of the whole process,” Aldridge said. 

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman reports on Southeast Michigan, education, civil rights and voting rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.