What’s Behind the August 22 Police Riot in Detroit?

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Above: Detroit police brutalized a bystander who lives on Woodward Avenue and opened his front door to provide respite to demonstrators as they dispersed. Multiple officers seized him, held him down, punched him in the face and arrested him.

By David Sole

Black Lives Matter protesters under the leadership of “Detroit Will Breathe” marched through the city on the night of Saturday, August 22 in Detroit as they had for over 80 other nights since George Floyd was murdered on May 25. During the first few days of this ongoing protest Detroit police launched vicious attacks and arrested over 400 people. On a few other nights, especially after the police murder of Hakim Littleton on the northwest side of the city, police also attacked brutally, injuring many and arrested some. But on most of the nights the police kept a low profile and the demonstrators rallied and marched unimpeded.

What changed on the night of August 22 and why? A rally at the McNamara Federal Building kicked things off with many speakers denouncing the presence of Federal agents in Detroit sent by the Trump administration. Then the protest took to the streets. They marched for hours throughout the business district ending up on the main street, Woodward Avenue in the heart of downtown. Instead of leaving the crowd played music, danced in the streets (after all it is Motown), chanted and generally occupied the space.

Police gathered in riot gear down the street along with an armored vehicle. But let’s be clear. Witnesses and extensive video reveal that there were no bricks or bottles being thrown. No fires were set. No windows were broken. One could argue that blocking of the street was illegal (at midnight there isn’t much traffic) and that the demonstrators were liable to be arrested.

Without warning, however, a phalanx of riot cops in full gear of shields, riot sticks, helmets and padding marched toward the peaceful crowd. When they got close all hell broke loose. There was no attempt to arrest anyone and escort them away in handcuffs. Instead the police came in swinging and ramming people with shields. Many were body slammed to the ground. Video shows several officers pinning people to the ground while another cop heavily sprays chemical spray in their faces.

At all protests for the past three months lawyers participated as legal observers. Everyone, including the cops, knows that they stand out wearing their bright green hats. On August 22 the cops singled out the lawyers for attack. Street medics identified with packs bearing red crosses also were targeted.

Especially noteworthy was the fact that many cops went after specific individuals who have played a leading role in the Black Lives Matter summer of protest. Witnesses report that cops went around groups of other people to assault specific people, slam them down and arrest them. In all 44 people were arrested. Many were injured including some who had broken bones and had to be hospitalized.

Such an attack cannot be ascribed to “a few bad apples.” That may be the case in isolated incidents. But for a whole troop of riot cops to literally run riot is not a breakdown of discipline. This can only be explained as a preplanned action with orders given to the rank and file officers by their superiors. To target specific individuals means that much time was spent in the station house going over intelligence photographs. And the entire squad must have been told to use major force and violence with arrests being of secondary importance.

Police Chief James Craig was quoted on Detroit.cbslocal.com on line site as justifying the attack because “the organizer made a public post to a social media page, making demands and refusing to leave the intersection.” In another report the Chief claimed the cops were justified in using force because demonstrators had, in past protests, thrown things at his officers. None of his claims make sense.

What does explain a lot, and which is not being looked into by the mass media, is that only five days prior, on August 18, United States Attorney General William Barr came to Detroit. It was reported that he met with top city officials including Chief Craig and that he took a helicopter ride with the Chief over Detroit. Less than a week before the Republican National Convention was set to begin with Trump emphasizing “law and order” what could the two have talked about?

A clue can be gleaned from the reports of Trump and Barr’s admonitions to state governors on June 1, soon after the massive protests rocked the country with Minneapolis police lynching George Floyd. Trump demanded the state leaders “dominate” the streets and jail protesters “for ten years.” Most telling, though, were the Attorney General’s own words [abcnews.go.com; June 1, 2020]. Barr told the governors “we have to take out the professional instigators and the leadership group in the major cities.”

Chief Craig and Barr denied that their meeting had anything to do with protesters. But the scenario is a perfect match and cannot be ignored. High ranking police officials must have given the orders to violently crush the August 22 protest. They must have also ordered the riot cops to focus on physical harm, including attacking clearly marked legal and medical personnel. And targeting “professional instigators and the leadership group” is precisely what Detroit’s cops did just days after AG Barr came to town.

While the mainstream (big business) media at first tried to ignore the entire August 22 incident, the news spread widely in social media. [see accompanying first hand account and video by Jessica Nadeau]. The outcry was strong enough to force TV and newspapers to give coverage. Of course these outlets gave most of their attention to the cover story put out by Chief Craig (constantly being altered).

Many participants are filing complaints with the Detroit Police Commission and each complaint is supposed to be investigated. However, everyone in Detroit knows that the Commission rarely if ever challenges actions by the Detroit Police Department. In fact in one meeting of the Commission last year the chairman of the commission had police officers drag out one of the commissioners, Willie Burton, during a meeting for speaking out.

Several Commissioners, believing the Commission will not expose all the facts, are preparing to hold their own public meeting to gather testimony by way of the online zoom platform. And Representative Rashida Tlaib may convene a zoom Congressional hearing along with other progressive political figures later in September.

Several Freedom of Information requests are also being submitted requesting the release of any and all minutes from the meeting between Craig and Barr. Also being requested is the chemical makeup of the various tear gases unleashed on the demonstrators.

In the meantime the protests continue. The August 22 attack, rather than intimidating people, seems to have just hardened their determination to continue the movement until profound changes are won against police brutality and white supremacy.

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