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City Of Detroit Counters Lawsuit From Black Lives Matter Organization

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Court ruling in 2021 may offer judgement of some protests in the past year. In Detroit, protesters want a restraining order against police, but Detroit sued them right back. Here's Eli Newman of WDET.

ELI NEWMAN, BYLINE: Lawsuits stemming from the year's protests are common. Groups in Minneapolis, New York City and Seattle are all suing their local governments. But in Detroit, something unusual is happening. The city is countersuing the protesters. The legal dispute started early last summer in the days following the killing of George Floyd.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: We are done kneeling.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: We are done kneeling.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: We are done running.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: We are done running.

NEWMAN: It's June 3, and hundreds are gathered downtown in Detroit's Hart Plaza. The city has an 8 p.m. curfew. And those protesting intend to defy it. Over the previous days, demonstrations stretching into the evening were broken up by police officers using tear gas and rubber bullets, injuring many people. More than 100 protesters were arrested. Tristan Taylor is a leader of Detroit Will Breathe, the protest group at the center of the city's police reform movement. He says Detroit's police chief acted too aggressively to stop the marches.

TRISTAN TAYLOR: Chief Craig has really dug in his heels, determined not only to rule over a department that can act with impunity but seeks to silence dissent about those very actions.

NEWMAN: Taylor, Detroit Will Breathe and other protesters sued the city, claiming that police unlawfully used pepper spray, sound cannons and chokeholds and violated protesters' First Amendment rights. In response, a federal judge issued a restraining order, prohibiting officers from using many of the tactics cited in the complaint. But Mayor Mike Duggan calls the police action justified. He says it was meant to prevent the type of upheaval that engulfed Detroit in the 1960s.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE DUGGAN: Most of the protesters don't remember 1967. The chief and I do. We wake up every morning not wanting to have the regret of acting too slowly and have to live with that with the rest of our lives.

NEWMAN: Despite those fears, large-scale property damage by protesters never occurred in Detroit. Still, city attorneys filed their own counter lawsuit just weeks after the judge's restraining order. They denied most of the protesters' central claims and allege the group Detroit Will Breathe conspired to disturb the peace and incite riots. In August, Police Chief James Craig ordered the arrest of protesters who had taken to a main street. He says while the marches have been largely peaceful, some actions would not be allowed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMES CRAIG: If you come to our city and you're going to be disruptive, you will be arrested. And I'm not talking about freedom of speech. We're talking about any effort to destroy property, injure officers and citizens. We will not tolerate it.

NEWMAN: But some are calling the city's countersuit an effort to chill free speech. Drexel University law professor Tabatha Abu El-Haj says Detroit's legal case seems retaliatory, comparing it to some civil liability cases from the 1960s.

TABATHA ABU EL-HAJ: When segregationist Democrats in the South tried to bring these kinds of claims against civil rights activists.

NEWMAN: The American Civil Liberties Union is urging the court to deny the city's counterclaim. Abu El-Haj says no matter who's to blame for allegations of violence at the heart of the case, it should not distract from a bigger political question.

ABU EL-HAJ: How tolerant are we in the United States going to be of certain kinds of lawbreaking which are inevitably going to happen, like people being out on the streets?

NEWMAN: A district court in Michigan could rule on that question and others related to such protests in the coming months. For NPR News in Detroit, I'm Eli Newman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.