Michigan’s summer of protests was often tense and tumultuous, but rarely violent, MLive analysis shows

Monday, May 25: George Floyd dies under the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Thousands of angry and distraught Michiganders took to the streets to demonstrate after yet another video depicting police brutality against a Black man. By the weekend, tears flowed faster as teargas billowed through a […]

Monday, May 25: George Floyd dies under the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.

Thousands of angry and distraught Michiganders took to the streets to demonstrate after yet another video depicting police brutality against a Black man. By the weekend, tears flowed faster as teargas billowed through a handful of city streets across the state.

Some of Michigan’s most prominent cities undeniably saw outbursts of violence in the days following Floyd’s death. A Detroit police command officer struck by a rock. Grand Rapids area police vehicles torched. Storefronts in Kalamazoo left with smashed windows.

Police brutality protests in Michigan: What you need to know from this weekend’s rallies, riots

Flash forward to Sep. 23: No homicide charges filed against the Louisville police officers who burst into Breonna Taylor’s apartment before her fatal shooting. Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron said his office’s investigation into the incident showed officers were acting in self-defense when they responded to gunfire from her boyfriend, according to the Associated Press.

Another chance to lash out at racial injustice. In Louisville, two officers were shot and wounded by a gunman participating at the night’s demonstration.

Michiganders marched and chanted in the streets, but without incident. In Grand Rapids, members of Taylor’s family led 200 protesters for a short march downtown. In Detroit, officers kept their distance as ralliers again hit the streets, as they’d done daily for four months straight.

For those demonstrating all summer, the peaceful protesting is nothing new. Since the initial outbursts, protests in Michigan have been defined by non-violent resistance to police brutality.

How many protests turned violent in Michigan?

In the last four months, Michigan has seen violence related to police brutality protests less than 1% of the time, according to an MLive analysis.

Protests continued for more than 120 days in Detroit, while demonstrations in other cities continued over the same time span on a semi-regular basis. Over those four months, there were eight protests that resulted in violence, which includes incidents instigated by outside agitators, fringe members of Black Lives Matter, police and counter-protest groups such as the Proud Boys.

In Grand Rapids, there was one day of rioting on May 30. After two hours of shouting chants such as “no justice, no peace” and “hands up, don’t shoot,” a handful of protesters were arrested for instigating violence by smashing windows.

Read more: Riot suspects to stand trial after photos, videos put them at the scene

Five Wyoming police cruisers and a downtown Grand Rapids dumpster were torched, as well. Grand Rapids’ damage estimate was around $850,000, while Wyoming police estimated losses at $325,000.

The protests started off peacefully, said Grand Rapids Police spokesman Sgt. John Wittkowski, but “outside agitators riled up the crowd.” These people have not been determined to be part of any Black Lives Matter organization, he said.

It has so far been the only instance of protest violence in Kent County.

In downtown Kalamazoo on June 1, police used tear gas to disperse roving groups of vandals who went around smashing windows and spraying-painting buildings. Some members of the group could be heard chanting “No justice, no peace. What’s his name? George Floyd. What did he say? I can’t breathe.”

The demonstrations have lasted longer in Detroit. In fact, it’s only just started to cool in the last few weeks. Violence on the part of demonstrators only emerged in the opening few nights of marches, and in one late June incident.

The first Detroit protest on May 29 drew 1,500 people and started peacefully, until about 9:45 p.m., when protesters and police in riot gear began facing off near the Renaissance Center, with some throwing rocks and bottles toward the officers. Police responded by charging toward the protesters, with punches thrown and gas canisters fired.

Read more: Man shot and killed, dozens arrested as 1,500-strong Detroit protest over George Floyd death turns violent

Detroit Police Chief James Craig said that while most of the protesters were peaceful, about 30 of more than 40 demonstrators arrested that night lived outside the city.

“I will not stand by and let a small minority of criminals come in here and attack our officers and make our community unsafe,” Craig said. “Just know, we’re not going to tolerate it.”

On May 30, about 500 people marched in the streets before confronting 100 Detroit police officers in riot gear at police headquarters on 1301 3rd Ave. Chants of “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” segued into antagonizing police officers. It wasn’t until a handful of protesters starting tossing fireworks and “small bricks,” as Craig put it at the time, that officers fired tear gas and rubber bullets at the crowd.

Read more: Detroit George Floyd police brutality protest turns violent as police fire tear gas, rubber bullets

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan set an 8 p.m. curfew on Monday, June 1. The third night of protests proceeded that night, and despite downtown Detroit being quiet and unscathed, teargas was deployed to disperse protesters resistant of the curfew.

“I was just trying to walk and protest and cops started to chase us all down,” said a man who declined to be named. “And then I tripped and they picked me up. They tossed me to the fence. They started to spray my face and they started (expletive) stepping on me and stuff.”

Police made more than 200 arrests for disorderly conduct or curfew violations between May 29 and June 2, according to figures released by Craig.

After tensions eased when the curfew lifted the night of June 3, there were three weeks of protests without incident. Then on June 28, two officers in a police cruiser attempted to direct a crowd off of Vernor Highway, said Detroit police spokeswoman Sgt. Nicole Kirkwood.

In response, several protesters surrounded the vehicle, including a few sitting on it. After the back window of the car was partly shattered, as shown in a video, the car plowed through the crowd at speeds approaching 25 miles per hour.

Craig said his officers “did the right thing.”

“Once they heard the rear window smash, it was very loud. They were not certain that they were not being fired upon,” Craig said in a June 29 press conference. “So it was important to them to get out of there for their safety and certainly the safety of others.”

While some protesters resorted to violence, the Detroit Police Department has also seen criticism for its use of teargas, rubber bullets and more forceful tactics, even against peaceful protesters.

U.S. District Judge Laurie J. Michelson issued a court order Sep. 5 granting a temporary restraining order against the city and its police department, ruling in favor of Detroit Will Breathe, an activist group that has been leading the protests.

The order bans Detroit police from using “certain tactics, including the use of striking weapons, chemical agents and rubber bullets against demonstrators, medical support personnel and legal observers.” Police also cannot use chokeholds, tighten zip ties or handcuffs to the point that they cause physical injury, or arrest any demonstrators without probable cause.

Craig has frequently argued, including in several appearances on Fox News, that protesters are more violent than they appear, including attempts to set up an autonomous zone similar to rioters in Seattle. That came to a head on Aug. 22, one of the days referenced in the court order.

Read more: ‘It changes nothing:’ Detroit police chief defends department after judge issues restraining order

The ruling says there was a verified complaint and a number of affidavits in the Aug. 22 incident, in which DPD beat protesters with batons, sprayed them with pepper spray, fired tear gas and rubber bullets at them and rammed them with a police car.

Several similar expressions of civil disobedience have occurred without police using force, such as protests in Ann Arbor, Bay City, Flint and Jackson.

In total, the days of protester-instigated violence in Detroit have been far outweighed by months of marching, chanting and meeting with various local politicians and union leaders to discuss steps forward.

The same has held true across the state due in part to tough conversations between activists and law enforcement.

Protester intervention, police education

Quentin Bryant, a community organizer in Kalamazoo, saw how the actions of a violent few can paint a whole movement negatively. He and others in the West Michigan city work to keep the protests focused on nonviolent resistance.

“Beforehand, we voice very clearly that these are peaceful protests,” he said. “Any form of violence is not wanted, and we don’t want that here. I’ve had to verbally ask someone to leave a protest who has started exhibiting that behavior. It’s also about setting an example. You have to show them you’re serious about keeping the peace.”

Many of the vandals at protests have been white, including a majority of those arrested in Grand Rapids, said Wittkowski. Organizers are frequently intervening to calm emotions and teach about the racial dynamics of violent protest, said Kalamazoo organizer Noelle Massey, who is white.

“When there’s negative energy or emotion going, black leaders seem to be really strategic about stepping in and using it as a teachable moment for others in the group that may be protesting,” she said. “(White protesters) may not be even thinking about how their white privilege may be coming into play in those moments.”

Many of the demonstrators are young people experiencing protests for the first time, said Tamara Custard, another Kalamazoo organizer. That’s why swearing is even discouraged, she said.

While Kalamazoo protesters are making efforts to de-escalate potential conflict, they are asking local police to reciprocate.

Calls for the resignation of Kalamazoo Public Safety Chief Karianne Thomas spread throughout the community over months of police brutality protests, as well as after a Proud Boys rally on Aug. 15 that led to violent clashes with counter-protesters. No Proud Boys members were arrested in that incident, the only public clash in Kalamazoo since June 1.

Thomas stepped down Sep. 17 after a city subcommittee concluded that local government needs “to work with the community and key stakeholders to develop clear strategies, practices and regulations” for public protests and rallies. While protesters like Custard believe communication with Thomas was lacking, she is giving Thomas’s replacement Chief Vernon Coakley a chance.

“We have to have a working relationship with him,” she said. “There has to be a level of rapport and communication and trust between him and leaders such as myself, Quentin and Noelle. I have to give him a chance… but if he drops the ball, we’ll just have to come harder.”

In Grand Rapids, protests have been semi-regular, leading up to a gathering of around 200 people in the Sep. 24 rally for Breonna Taylor.

“We are not going to go away,” said Taylor’s cousin Tawanna Gordon that evening. “It is not over.”

Preventing potential protest violence has required a multi-faceted approach, Wittkowski said. One element was working with local departments to make sure there’s enough police manpower to combat larger riots should they emerge down the line, he said.

However, the bigger part of the strategy has been communication with community leaders and understanding the racial implications of police presence, he said.

“The most important thing is listening to what these groups are bringing to the table,” he said. “That created room for healing and making sure everyone has a voice in forming solutions. Number two, unless we received information that a group was planning a violent act, we took a hands-off approach… We would be on the periphery just in case something went down.

“Sometime police showing up adds fuels to the fire,” he continued. “We realized sometimes we’re part of the problem and not part of the solution, even when someone is having a peaceful protest.”

A concern going forward is how divisive groups such as the Proud Boys could instigate violence. In Kalamazoo, the worry from protesters was that the Proud Boys were in fact welcomed by police, rather than rejected, Massey said.

“This hate group walked through our streets and were made to feel welcome,” she said.

Grand Rapids police are “always on the guard” for counter-protests groups, whether it be Proud Boys at a Black Lives Matter march or liberals showing up at Trump rallies, said Wittkowski.

“People that may be trying to agitate things,” he said. “We want to segregate those individuals quickly so things do not get out of hand.”

With a Michigan winter around the corner, incoming snow may smother the flames of the summer’s unrest. If protests persist next summer, the law enforcement lesson learned throughout the state may be a need to give protesters some room to breathe.


©2020 MLive.com, Walker, Mich.

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