Detroit BLM co-founder vows to continue fight for police reform, housing equity

Nakia Wallace | Ken Coleman

Detroit Will Breathe (DWB) co-founder Nakia Wallace said this week that her anti-police brutality organization and city officials continue to have sharp differences when it comes to the treatment of those who were arrested during Black Lives Matter protest rallies in 2020 and labeled a crime-fighting initiative by the new police chief a “stop-and-frisk” plan.  

“There are definitely some outstanding issues,” said Wallace, referring to the city government, which includes the Detroit Police Department (DPD).   

Wallace made the comment during a virtual public interview with the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion on Wednesday. Wallace, a Detroit resident, pledged to continue the fight against police brutality in Detroit and other metro communities.

Wallace continues to be critical of recently retired Detroit Police Chief James Craig, who may run for governor in 2022 as a Republican, and acting Police Chief James White. DWB, along with other activists, called for Craig’s resignation last year. 

White last month resigned from the Michigan Department of Civil Rights after a brief tenure there as executive director to return to the Detroit Police Department. He served as assistant police chief under Craig for eight years. 

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Wallace suggested that the tension between DWB and city police will continue after White recently offered a “four-point” strategy designed to empower precinct commanders to implement strategies to place more police on the street to reduce the rising number of homicides and shootings.

Wallace labeled it a “stop-and-frisk” policy. Such efforts have been carried out in other urban cities like Detroit and New York City. Activists have argued that the approach disproportionately affects Blacks and Browns. In 2009, for example, Black and Latino people in New York were nine times as likely to be stopped by the police compared to white residents, according to a 2010 New York Times report.

However, the Detroit Police Department disputed Wallace’s characterization of the plan. 

“The Detroit Police Department is firmly committed to constitutional policing and best practices,” said Dan Donakowski, a DPD spokesman. “Nothing in Chief White’s four-point plan is designed to abridge any of the rights and liberties of the city’s residents and business stakeholders. The four-point plan is specifically aimed at reducing crime while augmenting community engagement.” 

The Wayne State University-educated activist said there are DWB demonstrators who are still in court stemming from 2020 arrests. However, charges have been dropped in many cases.

A federal judge in March dismissed the city of Detroit’s legal claims against DWB, ruling that it failed to prove that demonstrators conspired with one another to cause civil unrest and harm police officers last summer.

“In sum, the city fails to establish the essential elements of a civil conspiracy claim under Michigan law,” U.S. District Judge Laurie Michelson wrote in her opinion. “Their allegations about planning and coordination of the conspiracy are limited to media interviews with individual plaintiffs and posts on social media about attending the protests, but not about any unlawful action.”

The Advance reported in August that a group of plaintiffs, including DWB, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan against Craig, Mayor Mike Duggan and more than 100 city police officers.

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Later, the group secured a temporary restraining order against city police using tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets during demonstrations. City attorneys then filed a counterclaim, arguing that protesters were part of a “civil conspiracy” to destroy property, hurt police officers and incite rioting.

“Really what we are seeing is a political witch hunt,” said Wallace about the Detroit Police Department toward DWB.   

DWB has also been critical of DPD’s continued use of facial recognition technology. Facial-recognition systems misidentified people of color more often than white people, according to a 2019 federal study. 

Wallace also said that DWB will continue its expansion into other issues that Blacks face in Detroit such as affordable housing and mortgage foreclosures. The group and others have held rallies and demonstrations calling for an end to what they describe as “illegal foreclosures” related to city property tax assessment policy carried out several years ago. 

She called for more city resources to be used to assist families and individuals to stay in their homes as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. Michigan is to receive more than $150 million in new federal grants for rental assistance, the creation of affordable housing and other initiatives meant to decrease homelessness, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge announced in April. Nonetheless, Wallace expressed concern about the economic well-being of many city residents.

“There is a looming eviction crisis coming up in Detroit,” said Wallace.

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil 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.