Detroit lawsuit demands right to public protest

Some of the protesters outside Chase Bank, Feb. 27.WW photo: Kris Hamel

Some of the protesters outside Chase Bank, Feb. 27.
WW photo: Kris Hamel

A lawsuit largely initiated by the Michigan American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of the Moratorium NOW! Coalition to Stop Foreclosures, Evictions and Utility Shutoffs and Women in Black-Detroit demands the right to demonstrate in downtown Detroit. It has prompted the city of Detroit Corporation Counsel to draft an agreement purportedly aimed at protecting free speech and the right to assemble.

The suit stemmed from the role of security firms owned by billionaire Dan Gilbert, who has been given dozens of foreclosed buildings downtown. Gilbert, who heads the Detroit Blight Removal Task Force, is championed by the corporate media for his efforts to further drive out African-American and working-class residents from the financial district and throughout the city.

Fund housing renovations, not demolitions!

Federal Hardest Hit Funds given to Michigan five years ago, purportedly to provide assistance to people facing foreclosure, have not been adequately allocated to those in need. More than $100 million has been given to private contractors to demolish so-called “blighted homes,” many of which could have been rehabilitated.

Moratorium NOW! Coalition efforts to declare a “state of emergency” and a halt to foreclosures, evictions and utility shutoffs have been vigorously fought by the banks and their surrogates in Michigan’s local, county and state governments. The banks’ role has caused Detroit to lose more than 250,000 residents since 2000.

The Moratorium NOW! Coalition led rallies, demonstrations and leaflet distributions throughout the financial district from 2012 to 2014 designed to expose and oppose the imposition of emergency management and bankruptcy in the U.S.’s largest majority African-American city. While targeting the banks and other financial institutions for aiding in Detroit’s destruction, the Moratorium NOW! Coalition advanced the slogan “Cancel the debt: Make the banks pay!”

Privatized police try to quash protests

Gilbert’s firm hired private police and security guards who monitor the political activities of Moratorium NOW and other organizations. These police agents traveled in vehicles, on bikes and on foot telling activists in 2014 that Campus Martius and other downtown areas were privately managed and that all leafleting and protests were prohibited.

Although the city of Detroit was not named as a defendant in the Michigan ACLU’s suit, it has a vested interest in setting guidelines for the use of public parks and space there. If allowed to continue, the private security firm’s and city police’s aggressive actions will only escalate tensions — and consequently spark more demonstrations and conflicts with authorities.

A Michigan ACLU press release on city guidelines reads: “These new rules represent a victory for the free speech rights of Detroiters. … [We] filed the federal suit in January against the privately owned Detroit 300 Conservancy nonprofit which manages Campus Martius and the privately owned Guardsmark security firm that patrols the downtown park.” (April 8)

‘Parks belong to the people!’

The release continues, “Public parks belong to the people, irrespective of who manages or secures them. We’re very pleased that the City of Detroit has acknowledged the fundamental right of people to gather and express themselves in public spaces and that it is working with us proactively to ensure that the right is respected throughout the city.”

This release stresses, “In 2014, Moratorium Now members went to Campus Martius to pass out fliers and gather petitions opposing Detroit’s bankruptcy. But moments after they arrived and began soliciting signatures and distributing fliers near the southern end of Campus Martius by the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, they were approached by a Guardsmark security officer who ordered them to leave the park or risk arrest. He told them that petitioning and leafleting were not allowed in the park.”

The ACLU notes, “The suit has not yet been dismissed, however. … [The] ACLU will continue to monitor the implementation of the new rules and stands ready to litigate the case if, for some reason, the Detroit City Council does not make the interim rules permanent by incorporating them into an ordinance.”

Uphold the right to dissent

The principal issue in this struggle is whether dissent will be tolerated that opposes plans to remake the city in the ruling class’s image and further facilitate the underdevelopment and forced removal of the majority population. Moratorium NOW members have welcomed the lawsuit’s progression, and will test the city of Detroit’s willingness to uphold the right to freedom of speech and association.

The organization is mounting a campaign to win an indefinite moratorium on 62,000 property tax foreclosures. The Wayne County Treasurer granted a six-week suspension of foreclosures on March 31.

An April 16 demonstration at Detroit’s Michigan State office building will demand the release of the remaining $251 million in Hardest Hit Funds to pay off delinquent property taxes and keep people in their homes. A coalition of organizations has participated in the campaign. It hosted an emergency town hall meeting in March and organized a series of leaflet distributions and mass demonstrations outside the downtown office of the Wayne County Treasurer.

For the Detroit agreement and other documents related to the case, visit