Statement on the May 30, 2020 Detroit Protests

A Detroit rookie officer in riot gear holds the line on Third Street at Michigan Avenue.

Last night, May 30, 2020, I attended the protest in downtown Detroit over the death of George Floyd at the hands of since-charged Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin on May 25. I went with a friend to take pictures. I wore my photographer backpack and had a large camera setup with a microphone for recording video.

The protest began at the Detroit Public Safety Headquarters before taking a circuitous route through downtown, where we caught up along Woodward. The group circled Campus Martius, stopped at the Joe Louis Fist on Jefferson Avenue, and then looped back up Griswold Street to Michigan. The protest stopped at Third St., just north of the Public Safety Headquarters, where the police had formed a line.

Around 22:25, a police lieutenant got on the bullhorn and declared the protest to be an “unlawful assembly,” demanding that the protesters disperse. Around this time, riot police were arriving to form a front line with shields, and vehicles and more officers were backing up the line. From my vantage point, at least two water bottles were thrown at the line. Although I didn’t see anything else, some protesters had been setting off fireworks (not in the direction of the police at this point).

As the situation grew increasingly tense, however, I eventually signaled to my friend that we should probably mask up, telling him that we probably had “about 45 seconds” before they tear gassed the crowd. We retreated about ten feet from the corner of 3rd and Michigan, and I produced from my bag the masks we had brought with us. This was around 22:30.

Protesters across Griswold St., headed northwest on Michigan Avenue. American Coney Island is visible in the background. Faces have been blurred to protect the identities of participants.

“UNLAWFUL ASSEMBLY”

While I can’t pinpoint the “who” or “how,” the sequence of events was fairly clear at that point. At the moment that I put on my mask, a police officer came charging at us and fired something– or some things. I was seeing this mostly indirectly while I was struggling to put on my mask, but I felt a solid projectile hit my chest. My nose and face were burning, but I managed to get my mask on, so I wasn’t breathing anything noxious (yet). As I adjusted the mask, moving eastward down Michigan, I realized that we had also been tear gassed.

The police decision to fire chemical agents at members of a free press, while not completely without precedent in this country, is extremely dangerous. Far more dangerous still is the precedent we’ve seen from protests around the country in which police are indiscriminately brutalizing citizens at protests aimed at that very brutality.

While this was my first bout with proper chemical agents, I’ve made some careless digital errors when preparing habanero salsa, and I can tell you that the latter was probably more unpleasant, but also far less pervasive. As I write this the day after, my face and neck still feel warm from the pepper spray. I’m glad it didn’t get in my eyes. And it could have been so much worse, I thought, as I passed by a woman who had been standing only feet from me– and may well have been the specific target of the initial pepper spray attack. She was crying, drenched in some combination of substances, quite possibly from the same officer who fired the CS canister at me. Compatriots were generally well-equipped for first aid treatment.

But it appears that the use of chemical agents against nonviolent protesters was swift and indiscriminate. Multiple media sources reported having been targeted both directly and indirectly.

“Can you tell me what was fired at me?” a photographer for a Detroit newspaper, who was prominently wearing an ID badge, asked an officer in a patrol car. “I’m covered.” The officer shrugged. The Free Press reported that numerous members of their team were subjected to violence by police.

Let me be unequivocal. The police decision to fire chemical agents at members of a free press, while not completely without precedent in this country, is extremely dangerous. Far more dangerous still is the precedent we’ve seen from protests around the country in which police are indiscriminately brutalizing citizens at protests aimed at that very brutality. (It’s a separate but related issue that it seems bizarre that the police would even consider using respiratory irritants during a global pandemic that predominantly affects the respiratory system).

The most shocking instances from the past 24 hours included the likes of a child getting pepper sprayed in Seattle. An NYPD officer in an SUV driving into a packed crowd. Another NYPD officer pulling a protester’s mask off for the sole purpose of pepper spraying him. A Houston mounted officer trampling a woman. A girl getting kicked in the face by an officer while sitting on the ground after being maced.

So, again, let me be clear. We– the citizens and the media both- are watching. And we will not stand by as our society is rended asunder by a police state. It is our job as members of not just the media but also, indeed, of a democratic society, to find out who these officers are and ensure that they are swiftly brought to justice. In spite of the prevalence of police departments callous reliance on the dubious crutch of qualified immunity, police officers are not above the law they are hired by the State to enforce. I have never used this blog to advocate for violence or looting, and I don’t intend that to ever change. I will certainly never advocate for violence against officers, nor for the destruction of police stations or Targets (much as I loathe the corporate economy).

But I fully intend to use this blog as a platform to advocate for justice and redress of the wrongs perpetrated against citizens brutalized by police, and against people of color brutalized, exploited, and enslaved for centuries by white people. I also intend to seek to the fullest extent of the law any rights I might have to demand action against the Detroit Police Department for their casual violation of nonviolent protesters’ civil rights.

ADDENDUM

I thank everyone for checking in with me and for their support during these arduous times. I’m fine. Thankfully. As my finals wrap up this week, I hope to getting back to writing. The Handbuilt City has lost a large chunk of donations during the COVID-induced economic pullback, something I hope we can recover from as we work to expand content production this summer. Please be safe out there and follow for future updates.

Riot control vehicles back up a line of riot police along Detroit’s Michigan Avenue at a protest on May 30, 2020. This photo was taken after the front line had pushed protesters back north across Michigan Avenue with tear gas, pepper spray, and batons. The Detroit Free Press reported that 15 arrests were made, compared to 60 the previous evening.
Protesters on Detroit’s Michigan Avenue at the May 30, 2020 protest against the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The smoke in this picture is from a smoke bomb ignited by a protester, not from tear gas. This crowd– including the two children pictured- dispersed when the police began using chemical agents. Faces have been blurred to protect the identities of participants.

IF YOU ATTEND A PROTEST

Know your rights as a protester. Protect yourself from eye injury and exposure to irritants. A respirator with cartridges specifically designed to filter organic vapor is a must. Reports of journalists being blinded by police-fired projectiles are tragic and, while these acts of violence must not be tolerated from a legal and civil rights perspective, we must work to protect ourselves against violence in future actions.

As of the time of posting Sunday afternoon, I have not heard a response from Detroit Police media liaison, Sergeant Nicole Kirkwood, or John Roach in Mayor Mike Duggan’s office. I will update this accordingly as receive responses.

A protester in downtown Detroit at the protest against the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin. May 30, 2020. Faces have been blurred to protect the identities of participants.

Nat Zorach

Nat M. Zorach, AICP is a city planner, community development professional, and MBA candidate at American University's Kogod School of Business, based in Detroit.

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