Detroit Council approves $200K for Black Lives Matter legal battle

January 26, 2021, 2:40 PM by  Violet Ikonomova

A Detroit Will Breathe protest in the summer of 2020. (file photo)

Detroit City Council on Tuesday approved $200,000 in spending on a lawsuit seeking damages from largely peaceful racial-justice demonstrators who the city claims were part of a "civil conspiracy."

The contract with the Clark Hill law firm will go toward defending the city against an excessive-force suit filed by Detroit Will Breathe and supporting its counterclaim against the activist group.

The spending was approved in a contentious 5-4 vote, with councilmembers opposed arguing it could have a chilling effect on dissent and that a countersuit is not needed to prove whether demonstrators acted inappropriately.

"I truly believe this is a misuse of public funds and sets dangerous policy," said Councilmember Raquel Castañeda-López, calling it an "unprecedented and outrageous attempt to silence protesters."

The city has never previously sued in response to allegations of excessive force and police brutality, Corporation Counsel Lawrence Garcia said.

Council President Brenda Jones and Councilmembers Andre Spivey, Janeé Ayers, Scott Benson and Roy McCalister voted in favor of the contract. Councilmembers Castañeda-López, James Tate, Mary Sheffield, and Gabe Leland voted against.

Detroit Will Breathe in August sued the city of Detroit, Police Chief James Craig and Mayor Mike Duggan over police violence they say left demonstrators with concussions, broken bones and, in one case, a collapsed lung. The goal of the suit was to stop the department from using "less-lethal" weapons like rubber bullets and tear gas against demonstrators.

In response, the city claimed the demonstrators engaged in a "civil conspiracy to disturb the peace, engage in disorderly conduct, incite riots, destroy public property,” and other “illegal acts.” It seeks damages and a court declaration that the protesters engaged in the conspiracy and defamed the mayor and police.

Earlier Tuesday, Garcia announced the city would drop 238 of 245 criminal charges against demonstrators from the initial days of protests following the police killing of George Floyd in late May. Many were for curfew violations. A judge dismissed a first batch of those cases earlier this month after the city failed to provide evidence for the arrests.

Garcia said in a statement that the decision to drop the charges was made after the city's law and police departments studied video and other evidence from the events.

"The departments have also considered the discretion that was exercised during that week — where, for example, citations written on June 1 were never submitted to the court, and where many protesters were not ticketed at all, despite being out after curfew," he said. "In light of that review, the Law Department is dismissing the majority of misdemeanor tickets issued on May 31 and June 2."

A lawyer on Detroit Will Breathe's civil suit said the dismissal of the charges shows the city's counterclaim is baseless.

"(It) alleges that protestors engaged in some 'civil conspiracy' to break laws, assault officers, and cause mayhem," said Amanda Ghannam. "If the city can’t produce evidence of that in context of the criminal charges, we doubt they can prove it in the civil case either."

Joshua Valiquette contributed to this report.

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