At the end of August, activists in Detroit, like those in dozens of U.S. cities, sued their local government for its police department’s reaction to this year’s Black Lives Matter mobilization. Their complaint alleges that Detroit cops “repeatedly responded with violence” when they took to the streets and includes photos and descriptions of some of the gruesome resulting injuries: bruised and broken ribs, concussions, a collapsed lung, a fractured pelvis. In light of this brutality, the protesters asked a federal judge to bar the police from using “tools of excessive force,” like chemical weapons, sound cannons, and rubber bullets, against them.
Less than a month later, after the court issued temporary orders restricting the cops’ use of force, the city filed its official response. It includes a line-by-line denial of every brutality accusation — and a countersuit.
Detroit’s demonstrators are part of a “civil conspiracy,” the city’s countersuit alleges, “to disturb the peace, engage in disorderly conduct, incite riots, destroy public property,” and resist police orders, among other “illegal acts.” The countercomplaint asks the court to issue judgments declaring that the protesters engaged in this conspiracy and “defamed” the mayor and police, and to award the city damages.
The countersuit against Black Lives Matter protesters is a novel move in the post-George Floyd moment, and it has lit a fire under already boiling local tensions. The city has tried to portray it as a routine legal tactic, but many see the counterattack as an effort to suppress the right to protest and to shift the public narrative away from the police department’s violence. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., whose congressional district includes much of Detroit, has lambasted it as “an unthinkable assault on constitutional rights.”
The protesters are fighting back on two separate tracks: one in court, with the backing of national legal groups, and another in the city council, which has the power to cut off funding for the city’s litigation. One council member has already vocalized her opposition to the countersuit, and the activists are working to lobby others ahead of a vote early next year.
The situation highlights how officials across the country have weaponized the legal system to suppress the Black Lives Matter movement — like with the overuse of felony charges against protesters, something the Detroit activists have also experienced. When activists gathered in a suburb in October to march in defiance of racist policing, local cops in riot gear attacked them minutes after they took the street and eventually charged five with felonies. The prosecutor has not dropped the charges, despite pressure from community members, activists, and members of Congress.
“These attacks against us are a way of attempting to minimize our ability to go on the offensive and call for transparency and accountability,” said Tristan Taylor, a protest leader and plaintiff in the demonstrators’ original lawsuit. “This is just a way of saying to people, ‘This is not a place where you can raise your voice.’”