Detroit City Council approved a $200,000 expenditure that will fund a counter-lawsuit against the city’s Black Lives Matter protesters in a 5-4 vote. City attorneys are suing demonstrators associated with the Detroit Will Breathe movement, claiming they engaged in a civil conspiracy during last summer’s marches. But the protestors sued the city first. Their federal complaint alleges the Detroit Police Department used excessive force to stop demonstrators from exercising their First Amendment rights. A federal judge issued a restraining order against DPD’s use of rubber bullets, chokehold and tear gas against peaceful protesters following the protester lawsuit.
“I am for peaceful protesters,” said Council Member Roy McCalister, Jr., who voted for the contract. “My issue is with those people that came in and wanted to destroy or cause another (1967).”
Council Members André Spivey, Janeé Ayers, Scott Benson and President Brenda Jones joined McCalister in voting for the measure. Council Members James Tate, Raquel Castañeda-López, Gabe Leland and President Pro Tem Mary Sheffield voted against it.
City attorneys told City Council that they are obligated to represent the City of Detroit in any case that appears before a judge.
“Whether there’s a counterclaim or not, my office has to defend the City in the federal court case that involved Detroit Will Breathe,” Corporation Counsel Lawrence Garcia told City Council. “That is going to be an expense that requires funding no matter where we stand with respect to counterclaims.”
But some council members are skeptical of Garcia’s motive.
“What has really made me pause about this particular counterclaim is the way that Corporation Counsel has approached it,” said Council Member James Tate. “He has been very evasive with answers. He has alluded that council members that ask questions about this lawsuit potentially are doing so based on political motivations. The evidence that I have seen does not lead me to conclude that there was any civil conspiracy that took place.”
Many activists and lawyers had urged City Council to reject the measure before the Tuesday vote.
“The City’s counterclaim is one of many examples of a national trend by units of government and corporations to intimidate grassroots activists from suing them by seeking to tie up their time and waste their financial resources with frivolous counter-lawsuits,” said John Royal, president of the National Lawyers Guild in Detroit, in a statement. The group is representing many of the protesters in court. “The City of Detroit should not use this repressive tactic against the progressive youth of southeast Michigan who are seeking redress for legitimate grievances against the DPD.”
After the vote, attorneys with the National Lawyers Guild expressed dismay over City Council’s decision.
“It’s of grave concern that our city council is authorizing the payment of that amount of money to a private law firm to take this legal step, which is to a large degree just a chilling effect on First Amendment rights to this community,” said Julie Hurwitz, one of the lawyers representing protesters in civil litigation.
During City Council’s public comment period, many people made statements against the contract.
“You really need to ask yourselves if this is how you want to be remembered during the largest social uprising in the history of this country,” said Nakia Wallace, one of the leaders of Detroit Will Breathe. “The Blackest city in the nation using all of its resources and funds to continue to abuse and oppress people standing up for their constitutional right to protest.”
Wallace is named in a federal complaint against the Detroit Police Department, which alleges officers used unlawful excessive force to detain protesters during the summer marches. Tristan Taylor, another leader of Detroit Will Breathe, is also named in the lawsuit.
“This is in fact a political move that has nothing to do with bringing protesters to justice and everything to do with trying to stop our ability to bring accountability and transparency to the police department in the city of Detroit,” Taylor told City Council.
Detroit Dismisses 238 Criminal Charges Against Protesters
The contract decision comes as city prosecutors dismissed 238 of the misdemeanor charges protestors received between May 31 and June 2 during the immediate aftermath of the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In the week that followed, more than 400 people were arrested in Detroit as anti-police brutality demonstrations took to the streets. Mayor Mike Duggan issued a temporary citywide 8 p.m. curfew, ending it on June 8.
City prosecutors say the dismissals were made after the City Law Department and Detroit Police Department studied videotape and other evidence from the demonstrations where protesters were arrested and ticketed.
“The departments have also considered the discretion that was exercised during that week – where, for example, citations written on June 1 were never submitted to the court, and where many protesters were not ticketed at all, despite being out after curfew,” said Corporation Counsel Lawrence Garcia. “In light of that review, the Law Department is dismissing the majority of misdemeanor tickets issued on May 31 and June 2. Although certain cases from these two dates will be pursued, the City believes it is best to dismiss the vast majority of citations.”
City Council’s approval follows a blow to the city’s criminal prosecution of demonstrators. A judge with the 36th District Court dismissed without prejudice criminal cases against 28 defendants earlier this month, the first ruling to affect a large swath of the city’s Black Lives Matter protesters.
Activists say the charges should not have been issued to begin with.
“I think they are understanding that now, in lieu of my charges being dropped and 27 other protesters due to lack of evidence,” said Jae Bass, one of the organizers for Detroit Will Breathe. “They can’t come up with the body cam footage. They can’t come up with the arresting officers. You have no basis and no right to have arrested us in the first place.”
Lawyers representing the demonstrators say the dropping of charges could have a bearing on federal litigation. But defense attorneys have not received a list of who the dismissals affect or what the terms may be.
“I think the dismissal of charges is an indication that they realized they do not have the evidence to support any charges of criminal activity against these activists,” said Hurwitz.