‘Respect our city’: tension among Detroit protesters as unrest grows after dark

Tom Perkins in Detroit, Michigan
Photograph: Matthew Hatcher/Getty Images

Tensions among protesters in Detroit have broken out contrasting largely peaceful gatherings during the day with violent unrest at night as the city is among many across the US dealing with seething anger at the death of African American George Floyd at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer.

Some activists in the city have contrasted the fiery speeches but peaceful marches led by local black organizers with a violent turn of events after dark when a majority-white group of protesters have clashed with police, especially on Friday night.

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The violence has created tension with some black residents in Detroit, a city that’s more than 80% African American, some of whom view the clashes and vandalism as the work of white outsiders. 

Police say the majority of the 60 people arrested on Friday night weren’t Detroit residents. Protesters threw rocks and glass bottles at police and vandalized several squad cars. In response, officers in riot gear swarmed protestors and fired tear gas canisters. By the night’s end, one protester was killed in a drive-by shooting, while dozens of protestors and officers were injured in the fights. 

The march’s organizers, Metro Detroit Political Action Network’s Meeko Williams and JoAnna Underwood, expressed frustration with the turn of the events, and stressed that black people in the city “have to deal with the fallout later”. 

“When you have provocateurs, outside folks who are egging things on, throwing bricks – I don’t deal with that,” Williams said. “Flat out respect our city and our city will respect you.” 

The situation in Detroit isn’t unique. Black leaders in several cities hit by the ongoing unrest have questioned the role of white protesters who they charge have in some cases co-opted protests and put African Americans in danger. In Oakland, Cat Brooks, co-founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project, wrote on Twitter: “White people DONT get to use Black pain to justify living out your riot fantasies.” 

Protesters raise their fists as they kneel in front of a police station in Detroit, Michigan, on 30 May. Photograph: Seth Herald/AFP/Getty Images

Brooks told the Guardian she’s not against property destruction, but said she is worried about “black and brown bodies that get funneled into jails based on white people’s actions. 

“If a black person decides ‘I’m going to set this building on fire’ … it’s self-determination,” she said. “But I don’t want a black person to be threatened with arrest over a riot because some white people decided to do whatever the fuck they wanted.”

The tension is generating a discussion on how white protesters can show solidarity with African Americans. Brooks said black protesters “need allyship, not leadership. 

“I need white people to ask black and brown people what they want them to do, then do that,” she said. “Don’t come with your own agendas – this isn’t about you, it’s about us.” 

Williams said those activists he works with in and around Detroit “don’t condone violence and we’re not a part of any violence.

“We never talk about burning buildings down – we’re more about protecting community and mutual aid,” he added. 

The conversation, however, is thorny and nuanced, especially as some debate police provocation. Detroit police accommodated protesters in several ways – officers passed out masks prior to the march and “allowed us in the street and let us take downtown Detroit”, Williams said. 

A lot of people of all races are tired and are reaching their breaking point but to call them all violent would be unfair to a lot of them

JoAnna Underwood

But Underwood also noted officers in some cases were “rude” and provoked protesters. Video from the confrontations later in the night appears to show police violently attacking protesters at different points. 

Underwood also stressed Detroit organizers appreciate “white allies” and weren’t accusing everyone who arrived from out of town to march of using the protest as an excuse to fight with police. 

“A lot of people of all races are tired and are reaching their breaking point,” she said, “but to call them all violent would be unfair to a lot of them.” 

While many of those involved in Detroit’s Friday violence were white, some were African American. Reports and video from other cities show racially mixed groups taking part in vandalism and clashes with police. 

Wiliams also asked that all those making their voices heard in Detroit “control their emotions”.

“The common enemy is violence, not each other, and we have to make sure everyone in metro Detroit heals,” he said. “We’re finally bringing everyone together but we have got to do it right.”