Legal Observers Sue City of Detroit, Alleging Civil Rights Violations During Anti-Police Brutality Protest

Much of the lawsuit surrounds the actions of officers on the night of Aug. 22 during a peaceful demonstration on Woodward Avenue.

Several legal observers from the National Lawyers Guild are suing the City of Detroit, Mayor Mike Duggan and Police Chief James Craig over violations of civil rights and due process. 

The complaint alleges excessive force by officers, and violations of the First Amendment and of the observers’ rights to due process while the observers documented anti-police brutality protests held last summer locally by the group Detroit Will Breathe. 

“I believe that the police targeted legal observers with violence that night in particular, in order to prevent us from witnessing and documenting their brutality against nonviolent protesters.” –Shannon McEvilly, one of the legal observers who are suing the City of Detroit  

Protesters and legal observers alike point to a demonstration on Woodward Avenue last August when the peaceful protest turned violent after police moved-in to arrest protesters.  

At a press conference Monday, April 12 outside the federal courthouse in Detroit, legal observer Clarissa Grimes describes her experience with police during the Aug. 22 protest. 

“They punched me in the gut with a baton so hard that I doubled over, unable to move and unable to breathe. And then when another legal observer saw me coughing and gasping for air and came to move me out of harm’s way, that’s when they pepper sprayed us,” Grimes recalls. 

Russ McNamara/WDET
Russ McNamara/WDET

The legal observers wore vivid green hats to denote their status and did not participate in the protest marches. They say they were told by Detroit Police they would be able to monitor protests without reprisal.   

At each of those marches, the legal observers watched the interactions between police and protesters. On multiple occasions those interactions became violent. 

Detroit resident Shannon McEvilly is among the five legal observers filing the lawsuit against the city. She says Police Chief James Craig has attempted to demonize the protesters by saying they’re a danger to Detroiters. 

“I was never harassed or intimidated by anyone at those protests besides the police, and I was certainly never injured by anyone at a protest until I was injured by my city’s police,” McEvilly says. 

McEvilly says Detroit Police intentionally abused those who were documenting the Aug. 22 protest. 

“I believe that the police targeted legal observers with violence that night in particular, in order to prevent us from witnessing and documenting their brutality against nonviolent protesters,” she says. 

Several protesters, legal observers and medics were injured by police at that protest — with one medic suffering a collapsed lung. 

Grimes says those documenting the protests followed police orders and still faced an attack by officers. 

“Chief Craig wants you to think that DPD represents law and order. He will try to tell you that if you just play by his rules, nothing bad will happen to you. But on Aug. 22, I did play by his rules and DPD beat me up anyway,” she says. 

Legal observer Marie Reimers says her interactions with Detroit Police have left her traumatized. 

“I no longer feel safe setting my home alarm or calling the police after a fender bender. Because after the events of this summer, it became clear that the Detroit police department does not exist to help Detroiters, but to terrorize us,” she says. 

The social justice group Detroit Will Breathe filed its own suit alleging civil rights violations by Detroit Police.  

The City of Detroit has taken the extraordinary step of countersuing the protesters — calling them a “civil conspiracy.” 

WDET is still awaiting comment from Detroit Police.  

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  • Russ McNamara
    Russ McNamara is the host of All Things Considered for 101.9 WDET, presenting local news to the station’s loyal listeners. He's been an avid listener of WDET since he moved to metro Detroit in 2002.