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Detroit Police and the Occupy Movement

Police departments around the country could learn a few things from the Detroit police.   Many of these cities have had bloody confrontations with Occupiers including mass arrests, beatings and pepper spraying by police.  Meanwhile the Occupy Detroit group has enjoyed a unique, peaceful relationship with police.   During the five weeks the group camped out in Grand Circus Park in downtown Detroit there has not been a single arrest by that city’s Police.  And recently the Chief of Police, Ralph Godbee, praised occupiers “for working with DPD to truly maintain peace and exercise free speech in a manner we all should be proud of!”

Like similar groups Occupy Detroit engaged in their share of unlawful behavior.  For one thing, they shut down rush hour traffic across the Ambasssador bridge linking the US and Canada.  The bridge carries 10,000 trucks a day and OD demonstrators formed a human chain closing it on the Detroit side.  The police waited out the demonstrators and did nothing.  After an hour the demonstration ended with no arrests.

On another occasion the Occupiers staged an anti-foreclosure demonstration and marched, without a permit, to the downtown offices of Bank of America, shutting down traffic.  Police responded by blocking all on-coming traffic, allowed the demonstrators to occupy the street despite the lack of a permit and did not harass any of the 500 protestors, many of whom were UAW members

A few days later Occupy members marched to Wayne State University in Detroit’s mid-town area and protested the presence of Duncan Niederauer, CEO of Euronext and leader the New York Stock Exchange since 2007.  Neiderauer was in town for a video taping of a program, “Leaders on Leadership” at the University.  Detroit Police sat in their cars, watched the demonstrators and did nothing.    When two OD members in the studio audience asked Neiderauer why he had not been punished for “his role” in America’s economic crisis they were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, not by Detroit Police, but by Wayne State University police.  Outraged, the demonstrators laid siege to the University police station demanding the release of the OD members.

Later that same night Occupy Detroit demonstrators staged a spontaneous march through the streets of downtown blocking traffic, stopping at Detroit Police headquarters, Hart Plaza and Greektown, a casino and tourist area.   Again, there was no parade permit and no advance notice to police who initially turned out in large numbers.  And again, there were no arrests or other harassment.

Inspector Don Johnson, the police official in charge of handling Occupy demonstrations, was particularly incensed that some Occupy speakers were blaming the Detroit Police for the arrests earlier in the day.  He went to great lengths to explain to Lawyers Guild attorneys that Detroit police had nothing to do with the WSU arrests and that it was the University police who made that decision.  He was also upset that Detroit police were not informed of the march by OD demonstrators claiming that the demonstration created an unnecessary emergency situation that required police to be called in from various precincts and interfering with anti-crime efforts in the city.   He was also concerned with police liability should demonstrators be injured accidentally by passing cars when they seized a street.

Johnson vowed to clamp down on demonstrators in the future promising to bring felony charges for resisting arrest for anyone who refused police orders to leave the streets.

But some days later as Occupy Detroit and soon-to-be-laid-off city workers left city hall they again marched down Woodward Avenue, the city’s main thoroughfare, blocking traffic.  Several police cars were dispatched to stop the march and officers on foot tried to get people back on the sidewalk.  But the demonstrators ignored them and refused to leave the street.  After it became clear the situation would require a lot more police and many arrests, the police changed tactics, drove ahead of the march and escorted the demonstrators back to the encampment at Grand Circus Park.

The lesson for other cities is that calmness and self-restraint can go a long way toward avoiding confrontation and needless injuries and arrests.

Most police departments lack this experience while Detroit police have a history of dealing with labor and civil unrest.  During the newspaper strike a few years back, for example, a suburban police department where a printing plant was located overreacted to the presence of strikers and supporters blocking gates and began beating them, creating an even greater problem as each new demonstration became more and more violent and confrontational.  Detroit police meanwhile took a different tack.  There were arrests, but in almost every case the police knew in advance there would be civil disobedience or blockage of streets and building entrances.  Police generally allowed the demonstrators to do their thing and calmly arrested them.  The biggest problem with police in demonstrations generally is misperception of the threat and overreaction.

It also helps to have advance communication with police.  The police do not like to be surprised and do not react well when they feel threatened. In the Occupy arrests in New York or other places what you see is essentially a police riot with self-induced chaos.  Instead of calm self assurance on the part of the police there is anger that their authority is being challenged and a lashing out at anyone who happens to be nearby.

It’s also important for representatives of the demonstrators to communicate, in advance, with politicians and higher echelon police in an effort to avoid needless confrontations.

In the last analysis the police are like a domestic military force and like the military have been trained and paid to respond in the interests of the 1% rather than the 99%.  This is true even though they themselves are a part of the 99%.  However there is hope that there will be restraint and defections.  It’s interesting to note, for example, that in the last week or so when faced with a reduction in pay by the financially strapped City of Detroit, some police took a page from the Occupation handbook and conducted a sick-in, refusing to report for duty.  They were suspended as a result, but it’s just like being arrested, there’s a price to pay for standing up for your rights.

George Corsetti is a Detroit lawyer.


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