Detroit protesters step up call for probe of police during tribunal

Jay Bass speaking at the Detroit Will Breathe police tribunal, June 20, 2020 | Ken Coleman

About 300 people attended a public tribunal on a sweltering 90-degree Saturday evening at Hart Plaza in Detroit where organizers stepped up their call for the police to be policed. 

The newly formed group Detroit Will Breathe organized the effort designed to hear directly from protesters who have been arrested or harassed during the 23 days of demonstrations in Michigan’s largest city. They began on May 29 following the Memorial Day Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, an African-American man. Four men charged in connection with the death have been fired from the force. 

Lead organizers Nakia Wallace and Tristan Taylor wanted to have a public display, ask that all charges against demonstrators be dropped, and continue the call for the Detroit City Council to oversee an independent investigation of the Detroit Police Department.

“The purpose of this tribunal is to expose the excessive and dangerous use of force against citizens,” Wallace said during the demonstration.

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

The tribunal was reminiscent of a mock trial held on Aug. 30, 1967, after the Detroit Rebellion, a response from the Black community to decades of police harassment and brutality by white cops. At the center of the 1967 tribunal was the police killing three Black teenagers at the Algiers Motel on July 25, but officers weren’t charged. Civil rights icon Rosa Parks was among the judges.

At the Saturday event, Ellie St. Clair of Detroit said she had brought her 13-year-old daughter to a recent protest and found the police presence unsettling.

“So I grabbed my daughter’s arm tight,” St. Clair said. “This was actually happening. When it came time to run our eyes began to burn. Our noses were overcome with smoke and it became increasingly difficult to breathe.”

Ellie St. Clair speaking at the Jay Bass speaking at the Detroit Will Breathe police tribunal, June 20, 2020 | Ken Coleman

“It was painful. It was terrifying. And the worst part, it was nothing that I could do to get my daughter to a safe space.”

Michael Stauch, a professor at the University of Toledo, was arrested by the Detroit Police on June 1 during one of the demonstrations. He argued during the tribunal that city residents have endured continual police harassment and brutality, even under Black mayors and police chiefs. In recent decades the Detroit Police Department has sought to carry out a philosophy known as community policing, a system of placing officers in particular areas so that they become familiar with neighborhood residents.  

“The problem with community policing comes down to who counts as the community, and who is placed outside that community, and is subjected to the order of policing forces,” Staunch said. 

Detroit Will Breathe police tribunal, June 20, 2020 | Ken Coleman

“That is the problem with community policing,” he continued. “It maintains and enforces existing hierarchies of inequality as policing as always done.”

Jay Bass, a 24-year-old Detroit man, said he was disappointed in how the police reacted to protesters. He said that he was tear gassed and arrested. “I really thought that I could die,” he said.  

“I was committed to making change happen,” Bass continued. “I am committed to making justice happen and what I understand at that point is the leadership in Detroit is [Mayor] Mike Duggan was committed. [Detroit Police] Chief [James] Craig was also committed. But they were committed to silencing us. They weren’t committed to justice. They were committed to silencing us.

Baylee Huffman, a 20-year-old from Port Huron, said that a friend, Nadia, was injured by tear gas during a demonstration that they attended.

“We were turning around to leave, and they shot her,” Huffman said. “Turning around to leave. Turning around to run.”

Willie Burton, a member of the Detroit Police Board of Commissioners, attended the tribunal and supports the effort of Detroit Will Breathe.

“We expect for our police officers to be peace officers. Not an occupying army,” Burton said.

Detroit Police Chief James Craig did not attend the tribunal. 

“I respect the right of the protesters to express their views during tonight’s public tribunal,” he said. “However, the protesters continue to fail to acknowledge the serious danger the city faced in those first few nights.”

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.