Detroit activist on her fight against police brutality: ‘We have to continue to protest’

By: - May 29, 2022 3:44 am

Nakia Wallace, co-founder of Detroit Will Breathe | Ken Coleman

On May 29, 2020, hundreds of protestors demonstrated in Detroit after George Floyd, a Black man, was killed in Minneapolis by local law enforcement, sparking nationwide outrage over racism and police brutality.

Nakia Wallace, 25, a founding member of Detroit Will Breathe (DWB), an anti-police brutality community action organization, spoke last week with the Advance two years after the organization’s birth. Its early members had participated in the protest rallies held in Detroit just after Floyd’s killing on May 25, 2020.

“A few of us made the decision that we were going to form an organization because we needed to be able to fight against trumped up charges against us,” said Wallace about police arrests of several people who helped form DWB. 

The day after the Floyd killing, Detroit NAACP President Wendell Anthony characterized it as a “cold-blooded murder.”

“The mayor of Minneapolis [Jacob Frey] and the police chief [Medaria Arradondo] did the appropriate thing. These men should have been fired. However, to fire them without charging, arresting, providing a trial, and affording them justice for this crime would be an even greater injustice,” Anthony said.

In 2020, DWB called for Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and then-Police Chief James Craig to resign because of their response to anti-police brutality demonstrations and for demilitarizing the police. The organization also sought to disrupt Craig’s GOP gubernatorial campaign announcement in Detroit on Sept. 14, 2021.

In April 2021, former police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the death of 46-year-old Floyd.

“I know that it had an impact,” Wallace told the Advance moments after the verdict about the 2020 demonstrations. “But we have to continue to protest.” 

In this interview, the Wayne State University-educated activist talked about how DWB was formed, the work that it has carried out, her take on Craig, and how police killings have helped to shape her life.

“I know that it had impact,” said Nakia Wallace, a Detroit Will Breathe co-founder, about post-George Floyd death spring and summer long-demonstrations in 2020. “But we have to continue to protest.” | Ken Coleman

Michigan Advance: When did Detroit Will Breathe officially form?

Wallace: Really, the creation or assumption of Detroit real brief came about because it became clear to us that one, we were in direct confrontation with the state the type of attacks and retaliation, that the mayor [Mike Duggan] and the Detroit Police Department, and really all over the country was handing down on protesters was the type that we need organization to resist and to fight against.

So, to make it a little bit clearer, after June 2, which was the date that the curfew was imposed, and that we opposed, there were 120 arrests, remember that? They charged Tristan Taylor [Detroit Will Breathe co-founder] with inciting a riot. He’s questioned by the FBI. And that night, a few of us made the decision that we’re going to form an organization.

Michigan Advance: Talk to me about the June 20, 2020, tribunal that Detroit Will Breathe hosted.

Wallace: You know, it’s just so interesting, because I’m a person who really, really loves to see Detroit. Love this city more than I love to breathe in. But to come to terms with the fact this city was using every resource at his disposal to try to squash us or stop it, and still is right, we’re still fighting.

Michigan Advance: We’re two years after the George Floyd killing but police brutality isn’t new. Black opposition to police brutality also isn’t new, right?

Wallace: Detroit has been pivotal in the history of Black revolutionary struggle. And that’s just a fact. Like, there has always been struggling against oppression from Black Detroit. The League [of Revolutionary Workers] in the 1960s. I mean, even go as far back as the [1833] Blackburn case.

Deonte McCoy at the Detroit protest of George Floyd’s killing, May 29, 2020 | Ken Coleman

Michigan Advance: How have the Detroit police killings impacted your life? I’m thinking about the Malice Green killing in 1992 and Aiyanna Stanley-Jones in 2010 in particular.

Wallace: The murder of Malice Green [trial] was a major victory for the city of Detroit and for Black people across the country. One, it came so close to the Rodney King murders. They were like, we just can’t actually have cities burn the way they did then. But also, by then, people had had a better sense of the organizing to be done. 

I was in seventh grade when Aiyanna Stanley-Jones was murdered. One of her cousins was a friend of mine. We went to school and were in science class and she was just crying. We’re all trying to figure out why she’s crying. Someone in my class said that the girl that was shot was her cousin. I’m 12 or 13. I understand that Jones was seven years old. And she’s the cousin of somebody I know and she’s very real to me. And it just becomes very, very clear to me at this moment. That not only am I not safe, like are we not safe. But we couldn’t help but feel like targets. It’s this overwhelming feeling.

Michigan Advance: What’s your reaction to James Craig being thrown off the ballot because he didn’t have enough signatures and the determination that some of the signatures [he submitted] to run for governor were fraudulent? You called for the resignation of Craig as Detroit police chief in 2020. 

Wallace: Now, with the opposition to James Craig, a lot of people are like, oh, he’s running as a Republican. That’s ridiculous. But the truth is James Craig’s ideology and rhetoric has been the same forever. He was the Democratic Party’s guy. Mayor Duggan was deeply vested and involved with him. And not only James but police chiefs in Atlanta police shootings and in Chicago all had the same lines. They all were acting on the same narrative working under Democratic mayors. 

Mayor Duggan got on TV every single day with Chief Craig. They were bonded by blood. It was clear then to everyone watching that James was credited on what he believed. I mean, he took a lot of helicopter [ride] with [GOP U.S. Attorney] General [William] Barr. There was no major opposition from the Democratic Party. He was still their guy. 

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman writes about Southeast Michigan, history and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on Black life in Detroit.