Commissioner’s Arrest Shows Democracy, Detroit’s Poor Under Siege

Editor’s Note: Tina M. Patterson, a Detroit native and an attorney is the president and director of research at The PuLSE Institute, where she brings a strong commitment to social justice, equity and democracy and the need to give voice to the plight of those who feel economically marginalized by society. She was previously a federal government attorney with the Social Security Administration. During her stint at the Social Security Administration, she wrote legally binding decisions for administrative law judges throughout the United States and Puerto Rico.  She advised judges on legal sufficiency and analysis of social security regulations as well as applied specific federal circuit precedent to cases. For submission inquiries contact Bankole Thompson, the editor-chief of the Institute.

“The vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men.” – President Lyndon B. Johnson

By Tina M. Patterson

The inherent importance and power of voting has been the epicenter of some of the most prominent social movements and struggles in the US, as oppressed groups fought valiantly to earn the right to vote. Most notably, the suffrage movement lead to women’s right to vote through the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, and the civil rights movement during the 1950s and 1960s culminated in the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act, granting African Americans the right to vote 100 years after the emancipation of slavery. 

These painful and deadly struggles gave us the freedom to choose elected officials to represent us in shaping policy to meet our needs and interests. This system of democracy has never been perfect, but it is a cornerstone of our society, and too many lives were needlessly taken during the struggle for us to abdicate or ignore our power and civic duty to vote. Furthermore, our elected officials must be allowed to exercise their power in ways that reflect the needs and interests of their constituents, particularly the most vulnerable among them who have the most to gain from effective political leadership. Lately however, political leadership in Detroit does not seem to understand these basic principles, as it continues its consistent, intolerant, and willful ignorance to meet the demands of the poor and most vulnerable in Detroit. 

In a disturbing and indefensible move, duly elected official Willie Burton, a commissioner on the Board of Police Commissioners, a body of civilian members with broad supervisory authority over the Police Department, was arrested by that same Detroit Police Department after the newly sworn chair of the commission, Lisa Carter, ruled Commissioner Burton to be out of order. Commissioner Burton was escorted out in handcuffs before the July 11 meeting began, which means he was deprived from his opinion regarding a crucial vote on the controversial use of facial recognition technology by the Detroit Police Department. While this practice has been banned in other cities across the country, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and Detroit Police Chief James Craig have steadfastly endorsed the troubling technology, which studies have shown may include inherent bias against dark skinned people.

Yet commissioner Burton’s police encounter and exclusion from his duties is not a misnomer in Detroit. Just recently, Detroit Charter Commission vice chair Nicole Small faced similar scrutiny from the chair of The Charter Commission, Carol Weaver, who claimed Small assaulted her during a meeting. The claims were investigated by the Detroit Police Department, but were later determined to lack probable cause and no charges ensued.

It cannot be overlooked that these duly elected officials are black, and when voicing their claims of legitimate discontent on behalf of their mostly poor and black constituents, they were met by the hands of law enforcement in efforts to quell their voices. In contrast, a white legislator in Pennsylvania, the Senate Majority Leader no less, was allowed to engage in an immature and disrespectful rant on the house floor while his fellow colleague read the testimony of a formerly homeless man in an effort to protest cuts to funding for the state’s neediest residents. Not only was the man not arrested, he did not even so much as have his mic cut off, as his yelling audibly obstructed the entirety of the message being delivered.

Commissioner Burton, on the other hand, did not even get the chance to exercise his elected duty to voice his concerns during the meeting. This same voice that represents so many mired in poverty in Detroit was shut out before a debate could begin.

What happened to commissioner Burton in that meeting was an inexcusable assault on democracy in Detroit and a direct attack on the poor to uphold the status quo. I have personally attended many community meetings with Detroit elected officials, including the City Council and Mayor Mike Duggan. Every time, the voices that appear and speak during public comment at those meeting are the voices that do not have any other access to the powers that flow through City Hall.

I hear senior citizens pleading for help for much needed repairs to keep their homes afloat. I hear vulnerable workers pleading to their leaders to help broker meetings with some of the city’s most powerful employers to form unions. I hear disabled citizens laying out their concerns for the need for investment in the public bus system. And yes, I hear block club and other active community members asking for community policing to make their neighborhoods safer and increase response times when emergencies arise.

How, then, can we allow the police to be used by elected officials as a tool to punish their fellow colleagues who were likewise elected to represent the voices of the people? Where were the other ten members Board of Police Commissioners? Why did they allow the new chair to begin her tenure by having one of their own arrested for daring to challenge her? How did the Commission allow that to happen and go about conducting business as usual? How could they believe this incident was in any way acceptable?

These are the questions begging for answers, none of which would be suitable because this should have never been allowed to occur.

Every member of that Board of Police Commission should be ashamed of themselves for allowing this to happen. Every single elected official in the city of Detroit, including the entire City Council and Mayor Mike Duggan, should be ashamed of themselves for allowing another duly elected official to be escorted out of a meeting in handcuffs, not for a violent or threatening offense, but because he dared speak up for those he was elected to represent.

No elected or public official has spoken out about commissioner Burton’s reprehensible arrest so far, but Detroit Police Chief James Craig gave a response on Friday that is unbecoming of any law enforcement official that claims to respect the Constitution.

In response to the arrest, Detroit Police Chief James Craig defended the actions of his officers, remarking that “We vehemently support the constitutional right of free speech — but there comes a point during a meeting where it exceeds what’s defined as free speech, and it becomes disruptive.” 

Craig stated “We don’t want to arrest anyone,” but then continued his defense, explaining “we will arrest when it’s lawful to do so, when it’s necessary. Our primary objective is that these meetings are conducted in an orderly fashion. It’s OK to have a differing opinion, but you can’t become disruptive.”

Craig’s remarks are callous and evident of a lack of greater understanding of police relations and basic first amendment rights. He spoke as if Commissioner Burton was a random individual who shouted “fire” in a crowd. The disregard for not only the right of free speech, but an elected official’s duty to address issues concerning constituents, is appalling.

I grew up in a household with a father who was a senior law enforcement officer who respected the Constitution and the civil rights of blacks in relation with the police. His own indelible encounter with police brutality at the hands of the Detroit Police during the 1967 riots largely informed his perspective about the need for officers to respect the rights of citizens.

Chief Craig’s remarks are unfit for anyone with fidelity to the Constitution and insulting to the intelligence of Detroiters like myself. Taxpayers like myself cannot continue to fund the salary of a police chief who justifies what I believe to be Gestapo tactics that took place at the commission meeting. If this is the type of tone deaf and thoughtless defense Craig stands by as head of the police department, then he is unfit to be the chief and he should consider stepping down right away.

This extremely disturbing arrest also speaks to the larger issue of the voice of Detroit’s poor continually being ignored in favor of more lucrative interests, and with police involvement, this environment harkens back to an ugly time in our city’s history

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously remarked that a riot is the voice of the unheard, and in the summer of 1967, Detroit yelled out loud and clear that it was tired of the mistreatment at the hands of the police. The 1967 riots didn’t just occur overnight. The actions that lead up to that seminal event in Detroit’s history had been brewing for years, but political leadership failed to act toward just resolution.

Similarly, in the current day and age, Detroit’s political leadership continues to stay silent on the issues and needs that matter most to the residents in the communities. Now, that leadership has crossed a new line in using the police to arrest their own for daring to use their freely elected political power to speak for those whose voices are shamefully ignored.

Detroit, we’ve reached a new leadership low with what just happened at the police commission, but only if we allow this type of behavior to pass in silence. The resolute voice of Dr. King calls out to remind us once again that, “our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

Silence that threatens democracy and oppresses the masses can never be accepted. Today is not the day to remain quiet, but to loudly proclaim that this is not the type of leadership we will stand for in the City of Detroit.

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