“Kneel With Us”: Four Nights In, Detroit Protestors, Police Fight For Narrative

Demonstrations ended quietly Monday evening with crowds dispersing after curfew. Protestors say they want to be heard.

Eli Newman / WDET
Eli Newman / WDET

Demonstrations against police brutality and systemic racism have gone on for four days straight and the city is under an 8:00 pm curfew to keep the peace. Monday night protests ended largely without incident shortly after curfew.

Sparked by the police killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Minneapolis black man, and Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman in Louisville, Ky., protests encompass a fractious history of police-involved deaths.

As curfew nears on Sunday, 33-year-old Roy Allen Jr. remembers violent acts that have defined his life. 

On the Frontline: WDET’s Eli Newman reports from Sunday’s protests. Follow him on Twitter for more coverage.

Allen has a two-inch scar on his brow.

“This from high school,” he tells me. “Getting my head busted while I’m walking with some shoes home from Denby High School. It started back then. 15 [years-old] beating my ass and shit.”

“America doesn’t care if its peaceful or not. We get treated the same way.” — Siwatu-Salama Ra, organizer

Allen lives near Van Dyke and 6 Mile in Detroit.

It’s not far from where Damon Grimes was killed in 2017. The 15-year-old boy was riding an ATV, when he was tasered by a Michigan State Police trooper. Grimes then crashed into a flatbed truck and died. The trooper involved was sentenced to five to 15 years in prison, and Michigan State Police paid out $12 million in a settlement.

Allen says that death was personal.

“I’m from the east side. I knew his brother! I went through hell with the police all my life. All my life.”

“This Is An Uprising”

Not far from Allen, hundreds of protestors chant, “Kneel with us!” 

The police form a line, prepping their gas masks and zip tie handcuffs. Eventually, Deputy Chief Todd Bettison takes a knee, an act of solidarity recently popularized by NFL player Colin Kaepernick, pleading with the group to leave.

“Every day, the protests did turn violent. And I’m not talking about the majority of protestors.” — Chief James Craig, Detroit Police

“We got you!” Bettinson calls. “This is the Detroit Police Department. We are you. Look at our faces! We do not want to engage.”

The act goes largely unnoticed. 

Eli Newman / WDET
Eli Newman / WDET

Police Chief James Craig says using tear gas and performing arrests is necessary to keep order in the city at night.

“Every day, the protests did turn violent,” Chief Craig says. “And I’m not talking about the majority of the protestors who were peaceful.”

Craig says a few officers have been injured and at least one was assaulted while patrolling after someone lit a firework and threw it into their patrol car. 

About 250 arrests were made in Detroit thus far. Officials say most were residents of the city’s suburbs. Craig and Mayor Mike Duggan have blamed outside agitators for the aggression, but many protestors disagree.

“We wanted to keep this peaceful. We’re not destroying our city.” — Ashley Daniels, organizer

Siwatu-Salama Ra is a Detroit organizer who participated in the demonstrations.

“This is an uprising,” Ra says. “America doesn’t care if its peaceful or not. We get treated the same way even if it’s peaceful or it’s violent.”

Ra says violence is perpetuated by the government and the police.

“The canisters that they have, the tanks that they have, that takes a lot of money,” Ra says. “But that same kind of money and the same type of funding needs to be incorporated in community-led solutions and collective care that we all know and want to implement ourselves.”

Detroit vs. Everybody

Ashley Daniels is an organizer with Michigan Liberation, a group that was offering bail out support to protestors. She was working to de-escalate the demonstration as some refused to leave.

“We wanted to keep this peaceful,” Daniels says. “We’re not destroying our city.”

Large scale property damage has not occurred in the city as it enters its fifth day of demonstrations.

Daniels, a black Detroiter, got into a verbal confrontation with a white protestor who refused to leave. 

“She’s not from the city,” Daniels says. “Don’t try to get us to destroy our city. So I asked her to leave.”

Ra says it’s important to have multi-racial solidarity in the movement against police brutality. 

What that looks like in the days and weeks ahead in Detroit — and around the country — remains to be seen.

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  • Eli Newman is a Reporter/Producer for 101.9 WDET, covering breaking news, politics and community affairs. His favorite Motown track is “It’s The Same Old Song” by the Four Tops.