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Detroit Activists Continue Legal Fights as They Stare Down Countersuit from Police Department Accusing Them of Sowing Unrest

A racial justice activist group was back in the streets in a Detroit suburb this week as it continues to protest while fending off civil and criminal charges from local authorities. This comes months after the Detroit Police Department countersued members of the Detroit Will Breathe movement last September, accusing the plaintiffs of collaborating “together to violate the law and sow unrest.”

On Tuesday, Jan. 19, Detroit Will Breathe demonstrators led a protest in Mount Clemens, Michigan, in an effort to persuade the Macomb County prosecutor to drop charges against the “Shelby Five” men and women who are facing felony charges in the wake of their arrests in the Detroit suburb of Shelby Township. The criminal case against those defendants was adjourned Tuesday, but that fight is one of several Detroit Will Breathe is waging simultaneously, including being countersued by the Detroit Police Department.

“Public criticism of the Detroit Police Department is free speech and always allowed. However, the Plaintiffs acted together to violate the law and sow unrest. That is where we draw the line,” the city said in a statement last fall about the countersuit.

The countersuit is in response to one Detroit Will Breathe brought against the department in August 2020 for the way officers responded to Black Lives Matter protests that began in May after the slaying of George Floyd.

According to Detroit Will Breathe, this was the scene at one of their protests against racial injustice in 2020. (Photo: @detroitwillbreathe Instagram)

Several protestors were injured by police and the police violated their First Amendment rights to free speech, the original lawsuit claims. Organizers also said the Detroit Police Department’s lawsuit is baseless, according to The Detroit News.

“What Detroit Will Breathe has said is protected speech; they’re exercising their right of dissent, their right to express their dissatisfaction with the current state of politics and policing in Detroit,” Phil Mayor, a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union who is representing the protesters, said. 

Mayor added the countersuit against Detroit Will Breathe is “an attempt to suppress their speech” and “manipulate the judicial process to do what police violence in the streets could not, which is to silence protesters.”

Tristan Taylor, one of Detroit Will Breathe’s organizers, said they’ve held over 150 marches and only a few resulted in skirmishes with the police. Their August lawsuit led to an injunction being placed on the department that prevents them from being able to use certain tactics on peaceful protestors, including chokeholds.

“They will [be] under that injunction for the duration of this lawsuit which could be a few years actually,” Taylor told Fox 2 in November. “The ACLU believes in the far-reaching implications of such actions. If the city of Detroit says this is a conspiracy, it would call into question the basic democratic right of protesting.”

On its Facebook page, the group said the Detroit Police’s countersuit was filed in “retaliation for a federal police brutality lawsuit we filed.”

The ACLU also is helping Detroit Will Breathe to try to get charges dropped against five of its members who make up the “Shelby Five.” Their case stems from an October protest against Police Chief Robert Shelide making disparaging comments about Black Lives Matter protestors.

“You’re attempting to hold protest organizers liable for speaking out against racial injustice,” Mayor said. “You can hold those individuals who committed a criminal act liable. You can take them to court. But what you can’t do is try to sue racial justice protest organizers and bankrupted them in order to silence their speech and their organization, because that violates their right to speech, and it violates their right to assemble and band together, to seek change.”

The group said at least one city council member, Raquel Castaneda-Lopez, is on their side as relates to the countersuit.

“If we as a city begin countersuing residents for protesting, it’s setting the first stone on the path of making it even more legally permissible to violate people’s First Amendment rights,” Castaneda-Lopez said, according to the group.

Taylor said the ultimate goal is accountability. “The end game is to make sure that we operate in a city where police officers don’t act with impunity,” Taylor said.

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