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Why isn't Detroit, the nation's Blackest big city, ready for criminal justice reform?


Police brutality protesters, lead by activist group Detroit Will Breathe, have been marching in the streets of the Motor City for more than 100 days. - MARC KLOCKOW
  • Marc Klockow
  • Police brutality protesters, lead by activist group Detroit Will Breathe, have been marching in the streets of the Motor City for more than 100 days.

On June 2, Ray Winans, a Black Detroiter from the east side, put out an urgent call to neighbors in a Facebook Live video — he needed a crew and guns right away.

White "racists" intent on "setting our motherfuckin' neighborhood on fire," were about a mile away at Conner and Gratiot, Winans shouted.

"Y'all want to shoot down there? My niggas. That's right, pull up with those motherfuckin' sticks," he says, using a slang term for "guns."

"We gonna beat their ass right there."

The threat supposedly coming for Winans and his neighbors? A group of protesters marching against police brutality and structural racism, like other protests that have materialized throughout the country, inspired by the recent police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The first few nights of protests saw clashes with police and minor vandalism of downtown Detroit businesses. Though the June 2 protest, and each subsequent march through the neighborhoods, has been peaceful, Detroit Police Chief James Craig had already seized an opportunity — he presented demonstrators as violent, suburban outsiders unwanted by residents in the majority Black city.

Although many of the protesters were Black and from Detroit, Craig's PR blitz created an "us versus them" narrative that shored up support for DPD and generated opposition to the demonstrators, helping prevent their message from taking hold among the city's wider population.

"They don't respect our chief of police!" a woman yells from off camera in Winans' video.

The tension is only part of a bigger, surprising picture in Detroit. Despite being the nation's Blackest big city, there seems to be less appetite for major criminal justice reform and broader support for the police than elsewhere, particularly among older African American residents.

Nationally, Floyd's killing fueled a reckoning on racial injustice and policing. Protesters and residents' demands for meaningful law-enforcement reform and an outpouring of support for the Black Lives Matter movement prompted policymakers to enact sweeping changes at police departments while a wave of progressive prosecutors defeated "tough on crime" opponents. In Detroit, a movement against police brutality called Detroit Will Breathe has coalesced, and its marches and rallies have drawn thousands of supporters.

Yet despite a well-documented history of corruption, violence, and racial bias in the DPD, there have been few reforms to speak of in Detroit, and there's almost no discussion at city hall of more changes. Perhaps the most significant measure — a ban on chokeholds passed by the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners — was already in place statewide, and DPD officers appear to continue to violate that order.

To get a handle on why there appears to be a low level of support for reform, Metro Times spoke with more than 15 Detroiters, including activists, residents, members of the city's political establishment, and people who work in the criminal justice system.

While they all agree that there's limited demand for change, sources offered a range of theories on why. Some view Detroit as a conservative city even though residents reliably elect Democrats. Many Black Detroiters or their parents brought conservative values from the post-Reconstruction South during the Great Migration, helping cultivate a brand of conservative liberalism.

Some also say the local media doesn't do enough to challenge DPD, creating a situation in which the department's narrative is often the only one around law-enforcement incidents. The city's high crime and poverty rates also foster support for the police and contribute to disenfranchisement. For those reasons, Detroit seems collectively unaware that its department and chief need reform, says Chris White, director of the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality.

"When you're in survival mode, you're not thinking about the collective, you're thinking about the individual, so you can't see where these police shootings impact you," he says. "You can't see 'them today, you tomorrow.' That's where a lack of consciousness comes in."

The support for law enforcement manifested in several scenarios beyond the protests this summer. During a three-week span in July, Detroit police shot four people, killing three. Not only was there little outrage to speak of, each incident prompted a flood of support on social media for officers and Craig. Even when DPD's narrative around one shooting unraveled as video of the incident was scrutinized, few seemed interested outside of the victim's family and activist circles.

Meanwhile, Victoria Burton-Harris, a Black progressive civil rights attorney backed by Bernie Sanders, challenged the incumbent, more police-friendly Wayne County prosecutor Kym Worthy, on a platform that included proposals to hold officers accountable for misconduct and to stop filling jails with Black men. She lost Detroit in the Aug. 4 primary by 20 points.

Opposition to reform is also evident in the city's political establishment, which has largely been silent or clearly backed the department. Mayor Mike Duggan is challenging a court order that prohibits DPD from using some militarized tactics that have seriously injured demonstrators. City council president Brenda Jones opposed dropping charges against protesters, the majority of whom were accused of only violating a curfew. Her chief of staff, Stephen Grady, used right-wing talking points on social media to attack Detroit Will Breathe and back Craig throughout the summer.

"We are the only major city that did not fall to the '$oros socialists' and plunge into the violence, looting and arson that haunted other cities," Grady wrote in a Sept. 3 Facebook post. "The 'hood' has stayed away from these suburban group street meetings some call 'protests' (which are actually 'no-tests') as this group does not speak for Detroit."

Grady and DPD did not respond to requests for comment.

'Detroit is a conservative city'

Like so many other Black Detroiters during the last 100 years, Ann Jones grew up in the post-Reconstruction South and moved to the city with her husband in search of work during the Great Migration. Though she carved out a life in the more liberal north, Jones never shed the conservative values instilled in her by Alabama.

She's a Trump supporter who previously pulled the lever for Obama, but switched after Democrats lost her on gay marriage. She also considers Trump to be the "law and order" candidate and says she's perplexed by the protests in Detroit.

Defunding the police or reducing their ranks doesn't make sense when there aren't enough officers as is, she says, and "people need to learn to respect the police because they're out there to protect us."

As for the protesters — they're "taking it much too far," she says.

"They're talking about Black Lives Matter, but to me all lives matter," Jones adds. "I know Black people go through a lot at times, but why are Black people always killing one another?"

Jones's conservative views aren't entirely unusual in Detroit. The city's older Black population skews right on some issues, especially policing, says Larry Hightower, a Black Detroiter who lives in the solidly middle-class Green Acres neighborhood.

"When you really get down to it, Detroit is a conservative city. The most influential voting bloc is Black females over 50 years old ... and they vote in larger numbers than any other group," he says. "These are people who are from the South, who descended from the South, and folks from the South — because of the environment they grew up in — are very conservative."

It's those residents who have through the decades elected local leaders who govern by their values, and that style of conservative liberalism could help explain why progressive candidates and ideas like those pushed by Black Lives Matter, Detroit Will Breathe, and other activist groups aren't fully resonating with many Detroiters or the political establishment.

Hightower, a retired DTE Energy executive who's part of the "Green Acres Radio Club" neighborhood watch group that stays in close touch with DPD, told the story of his own parents. They grew up in rural Lee County, Georgia, and were subjected to "vagrancy laws" that required Blacks to have jobs and to not break the law. Violating the rules subjected them to the chain gang, or forced labor — a punishment widely viewed as re-enslavement.

However, that instilled a strict work ethic and respect for the law in Hightower's father, who he says "used to brag about having a job and never getting in trouble." That sensibility was passed on to Hightower.

Reformist prosecutorial candidate Burton-Harris saw that strain of conservatism at play in her race. She offered proposals that would've radically reformed the local criminal-justice system in a way that benefited Black residents, but her platform didn't seem to catch on with many older, conservative African Americans.

She says many of those who migrated from the South around the time of the civil rights movement and lived through the 1967 Detroit rebellion don't seem to see a connection between past and present race struggles.

Some simply aren't interested in continuing to fight for criminal-justice reforms, Burton-Harris says, and "the conversation with older conservative folks tends to stop at their own feeling of safety, even if it's a surface level idea of safety."

"They would like to, for once in their lives, get away from that idea of constantly having to fight to be, and they just want to be," she adds. "They created this very comfortable, safe existence to be in, so these things don't concern them.

"It's understandable why they have the views they have — their experience of late has not been the experience of that of a lot of younger, marginalized Black people."

Taking it a step further, Burton-Harris says the "narrative that 'unruly Black folk' need to be controlled has been shoved down their throats all their lives," and Black conservative residents often view themselves instead as "the good Black folk."

The city's "good Black folk" in middle-class neighborhoods also receive a disproportionate amount of police resources and attention, Hightower says. He points to a recent Deadline Detroit series that showed that 911 response times to calls in wealthier neighborhoods were shorter than those in lower-income areas.

Hightower's Green Acres neighborhood maintains "an excellent relationship" with the DPD that includes a special direct line to the department that Hightower utilized when a suspicious person was sitting in a car outside a neighbor's house. Within moments of the call, six squad cars were on the scene — a far better response than less politically connected neighborhoods receive, Hightower says.

"Craig has done a yeoman-like job making sure that in areas of the city with an older, conservative population — northwest Detroit, sections of the east side — making sure that those folks are taken care of," he says.

In a June 3 press conference, Mayor Mike Duggan and DPD Chief James Craig called the protesters “outside agitators.” - CITY OF DETROIT
  • City of Detroit
  • In a June 3 press conference, Mayor Mike Duggan and DPD Chief James Craig called the protesters “outside agitators.”

'Us versus them'

On June 3, the day after Winans threatened violence against protesters, Mayor Duggan and Chief Craig presented him at a press conference as the type of Detroiter who opposed the allegedly violent suburban demonstrators.

"Stay up out of here. Leave everybody in the city of Detroit alone," Winans said in a message to Floyd protesters at the press conference.

Winans was part of a high-stakes public-relations campaign waged by Craig in response to the protests. Its success is critical — should public sentiment in Detroit shift against him and DPD, he could be forced to enact meaningful reforms, as has happened at departments around the country. Moreover, a group of 40 organizations — most of them Black-led — recently signed an open letter calling for Craig's firing. In short, Craig's job is on the line.

The effort has hinged on painting demonstrators as white suburbanites and violent "outside agitators" intent on vandalizing the city. By resorting to the time-tested tactic of pitting Black versus white in a segregated region with a history of racial conflict, Craig created a potent "us versus them" dynamic that helped him secure Black Detroiters' support.

And it has largely worked.

"The protesters don't live here — these people don't live here," says Keith Williams, chair of the Michigan Democratic Party Black Caucus. "How are you going to demand something when you don't live here? Bottom line is we have a sheriff and we have a police chief who grew up in Detroit, and Black folks are comfortable with them."

However, the reality around the protests, who's involved, and who supports it or DPD is much more nuanced than what Craig presents.

Objectively speaking, it's impossible to track where each protester lives, but according to DPD, about 50 of the 130 people arrested on June 2 were from Detroit, though some have said they reside in the city but have suburban addresses on their identification cards. The demonstrators are a mix of Black and white people. Detroit Will Breathe, which still marches almost daily, is largely Black-led, though many of its ranks are also white.

Protesters in the early days damaged some buildings and battled with officers in downtown demonstrations, but never damaged property in the neighborhoods. Since then, clashes with police and vandalism have been rare.

Levels of support are also less clear than Craig has claimed. While he has showcased his backers to the media and declared that the neighborhoods are behind him, protesters say neighborhood residents have come from their houses to join their marches and vent about Craig and DPD.

Detroiters came out of their homes to support protesters near the intersection formerly known as 12th and Clairmount — the location of the incident that sparked the city’s bloody 1967 summer of civil unrest. - STEVE NEAVLING
  • Steve Neavling
  • Detroiters came out of their homes to support protesters near the intersection formerly known as 12th and Clairmount — the location of the incident that sparked the city’s bloody 1967 summer of civil unrest.

Moreover, when Craig claims the community is on his side, he's using his own narrow definition of "community," says Michael Stauch, a University of Toledo professor writing a book on the history of policing in Detroit.

In Craig's strict sense of the word, the "community" is those with middle class sensibilities who aren't calling for his resignation, Stauch says. Detroit is actually much larger than just that population.

"People who deviate from that 'community' and how it defines order bear the brunt of policing," says Stauch, who regularly marches with Detroit Will Breathe. "Community gets defined as whoever supports the police."

Meanwhile, as Craig labels protesters "outsiders," only about 23% of his officers live in Detroit, only about half are Black, and the city is run by a white mayor who moved here from Livonia to run for office.

Regardless, the real question is whether Detroiters are buying what protesters are selling.

Detroit Will Breathe is demanding specific law-enforcement reforms, including the prosecution of officers involved in brutality, halting the use of rubber bullets, and an end to the city's use of racially biased facial-recognition technology and the controversial Project Green Light surveillance-camera program. It's also calling for an end to evictions, restoration of water service to those who've lost it, and an end to property foreclosures, among other poverty-related measures.

Though on the surface the latter demands may seem out of place in a protest over policing, they're about raising awareness of the root causes of crime, says Derek Grigsby, a member of anti-foreclosure group Moratorium Now who marches with Detroit Will Breathe.

"We're trying to get people to see and understand that if we had better and more social services, if we had good, free education, housing, if we had jobs and work was a guaranteed right for everyone and those kinds of things ... then crime would go down," Grigsby says.

Some Detroit Will Breathe critics say that older Black, conservative residents are looking for reform, but not that kind, and activists aren't meeting with and including those residents' voices.

"Reform is good, but guess what?" Williams says. "You need to negotiate and sit down and talk with people in the neighborhoods, and what I would do if I was [Detroit Will Breathe] — I'd go to a precinct meeting and listen to how those African Americans interact with the Detroit Police."

White says Detroit Will Breathe is pushing an agenda of the "white left" and criticized it for failing to "localize" the national call for reform. The protesters "have failed to secure buy-in from the residents," he adds.

"That element is forcing the Black community to lock arms against their message," White says. "Now what's being lost is that there needs to be serious change and transformation in the Detroit Police Department. And what the chief has been successfully doing is playing 'us versus them.'"

Detroit Will Breathe leader Tristan Taylor didn't respond to a request for comment.

High crime fosters support for DPD

In July, Detroit police killed Hakim Littleton, a 20-year-old who shot at an officer. It was the first in a string of four DPD shootings during a 21-day period that left three people dead.

The killings, however, didn't spark outrage, as may be expected during the summer of Floyd protests. Instead, Black Detroiters, along with conservative white suburbanites, offered something else on social media during Craig's press conference on the killing — praise for officers and vitriol for Littleton.

"Got trash off the streets."

"Who cares if he was shot he was prolly a dope dealer good one less off the streets."

"Great job DPD when you shoot at police you die, DAMM FOOL." "Love Our Police Chief!!!"

Though activists and Littleton's family called the shooting "an execution" and called for an investigation, a groundswell of support for Littleton never materialized.

The collective reaction contrasts sharply with the outrage directed at officers who have killed Black men in other cities. In short, Detroiters "celebrated death," says White, of the Coalition Against Police Brutality.

"What happened with the shooting of Littleton is the police became empowered, and that leads to three immediate shootings after that," White says. "Now we're living in a city where the police are empowered to shoot, whereas in other cities, you're seeing this pushback."

Craig, however, blamed the shootings on suspects "emboldened" by "anti-police rhetoric."

There's a sense that the level of support for the police is in part driven by the city's high crime rate, while its deep poverty disenfranchises residents. White says the sum of the issues leaves Detroiters unable to think more critically about the department, and there's "a lack of consciousness as a community as to what public safety is, and what we're supposed to be getting from the police department."

The high crime rate likely also plays a role in the divide over which kind of reforms to the criminal-justice system are needed. That question is a key point of contention in the discussion among activists and older residents in the city.

While Detroit Will Breathe is focused on systemic reforms, some older residents just want improvements like faster police-response times. Ann Jones, the conservative Black woman who supports DPD, says reform involves "getting rid of" bad cops, but she wants DPD to have more, not fewer, resources.

"They're putting their lives on the line. Why would we take from them?" she asks. Similarly, Green Acres' Hightower says the department needs more officers and better response times to 911 calls. However, he also supports the idea of non-police units responding to mental-health issues or domestic disturbances.

The reform divide also often forms along generational lines, and White notes that Detroit's population is older. He says the likelihood of selling an elderly Black woman in Detroit on the type of reforms Detroit Will Breathe is pushing are "slim to none" because older residents are more concerned about safety.

"What they want is police to protect them, because they just don't want to get hurt," White says. "If you ask that 90-year-old lady about criminal-justice reform, she's gonna say, 'Man, I couldn't care less about that.' But if you ask her, 'Do you want the cops to come when you call?' She'll say 'you bet.'"

Grigsby sees another factor at play — fear. Detroit is a majority Black city, and Black people have endured centuries of racism. They're "a little afraid to go against a massive entity like the police department."

"In majority-white towns, people are supporting Black Lives Matter and more than willing to protest and demand change openly, but whites haven't had that background of terror that we faced in this country," Grigsby says.

Police brutality protesters, lead by activist group Detroit Will Breathe, have been marching in the streets of the Motor City for more than 100 days. - MARC KLOCKOW
  • Marc Klockow
  • Police brutality protesters, lead by activist group Detroit Will Breathe, have been marching in the streets of the Motor City for more than 100 days.

'The media is complicit'

In the days following the Hakim Littleton shooting, a controversy developed — Littleton's family and a coalition of civil rights groups say dash-cam footage shows Littleton was subdued when police fired a final shot that killed him. Police say he was not.

But the media largely hasn't mentioned the controversy, and instead mostly presented DPD's side. The situation highlights how Detroit reporters regularly fail to scrutinize or challenge DPD's and Craig's narrative around law-enforcement controversies.

Critics say that persistent failure partly explains why the department enjoys a relatively high level of support, and why there isn't a harder push for reform among city residents.

"The media is a huge factor — it's the factor," Moratorium Now's Grigsby says. "The media is complicit in this and alway has been. I don't know how we can get around that."

Within hours of the police killing Littleton, Craig called a press conference and delivered a play-by-play of the deadly incident as seen in video from police cameras. The chief painted Littleton as a gang member possibly linked to a deadly block-party shooting." Officers were clearly justified in firing four bullets into Littleton, Craig told reporters.

The stories that followed largely reported that version of events. The Detroit Free Press even took it a step further, declaring that Littleton was a "suspect" with "ties" to the block-party shooting. Several days later, the paper penned an editorial under a headline proclaiming Littleton "was no George Floyd."

But Craig's presentation involved some trickery — he had turned off the video's audio, perhaps because the audio contradicts his story. A closer examination of the videos with audio turned on revealed that officers had shot Littleton in the legs three times and may have subdued him. A moment later, an officer ran up from behind Littleton, who was underneath another cop, and fired a final bullet into his head. The last shot can be heard while Littleton may be subdued.

Reporting from Deadline Detroit, a small, independent news source, revealed the full video with audio, as well as a more complete picture of the circumstances around the shooting and Littleton's life. Police also later admitted that Littleton had nothing to do with the block-party shooting.

By that time, however, Craig had already won the public-relations battle by using the supportive media as a tool to convince the public that his department had done no wrong.

Civil rights attorney Burton-Harris says the narrative around Littleton took hold because "Chief Craig immediately went to the media because he knew he had a problem."

"He did what he thought was smart — he showed one vantage point of the incident through an edited video," Burton-Harris says. "Lo and behold, [more complete footage emerged] and it showed something totally different than what Chief Craig showed and told the media."

The Littleton killing's coverage is part of a larger problem. Even with the city's high crime rate and troubled police department, the Free Press doesn't have a regular police reporter. M.L. Elrick, the staffer who has most regularly covered the protests, is the son of a police officer, and The Detroit News's crime reporter, George Hunter, comes from a family of Detroit cops.

The summer is full of examples of questionable reporting on police incidents and issues.

On Aug. 11, The News's Hunter penned a story under the headline of "Autopsy backs Detroit police in shooting that killed Hakim Littleton." But the dispute in the Littleton shooting is over whether the final shot, which killed him, happened after he was subdued. The autopsy doesn't refute or corroborate police claims on that question, and Hunter doesn't offer anything in the story that speaks to it.

Instead, the story appears to grant DPD a win in a battle that doesn't exist.

In a July 28 segment, WXYZ reporter Jim Kiertzner "fact checked" Detroit Will Breathe's statements on police killings. He found some inaccuracies, but also made factually incorrect statements in his own reporting. Kiertzner notes in the segment that Detroit Will Breathe claimed that two of the victims in the summer's string of police shootings were on the ground when they were shot. Kiertzner tells his audience that Detroit Will Breathe is wrong — neither was on the ground, Kiertzner says, and he plays video to support his claim.

However, he stops the video short of the part where an officer fires on Littleton while he's on the ground with another cop on top of him. That part of the video shows that Detroit Will Breathe is correct in this case.

Though the department has been repeatedly caught making false or questionable statements, Kiertzner did not apply the same level of rigor to vetting its claims.

In fact, the omission of the circumstances around the final shot, which killed Littleton, is a common theme in the coverage of the incident. Though video appears to show an officer firing while Littleton may be subdued, and a coalition of civil rights groups and attorneys have called for an investigation into the final shot, the Free Press, News, and television reporters rarely, if at all, mention that part of the story.

The Detroit media's timidity around law enforcement extends beyond DPD. Burton-Harris says most reporters seemed afraid to challenge Worthy, her opponent in the August 4 primary and the longtime Wayne County prosecutor. Burton-Harris questioned whether reporters were afraid to lose access, and asked why it's national media who are breaking stories of law enforcement wrongdoing in metro Detroit.

"I'm hopeful the town will become more and more ready for significant change," says Burton-Harris, "but it's going to require people to tell the full story and not let it be told through false narratives put out by public officials."

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