Hundreds of peaceful protesters marched on the streets near Wayne State University and staged a “die-in” during the Noel Night festivities on Saturday to express outrage over the recent deaths of black men at the hands of white police officers.
It was the largest protest yet in Detroit since grand juries decided not to indict the officers who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York City. A racially diverse crowd of protesters gathered at 6 p.m. in front of the Detroit Institute of Arts on Woodward and marched south, blocking traffic as they chanted, “No justice, no peace!” and “Whose streets? Our streets!”
For the next two hours, protesters marched through the streets just west of Woodward. Some held up their hands, while others clutched signs that read, “Black Lives Matter” and “Jail Killer Cops.” They chanted and demanded justice.
Some drivers honked in support. No road was blocked for long because the march zig-zagged through various streets adjacent to Wayne State.
Police were restrained and even friendly, shutting down traffic ahead of the marches to protect the participants. Even when protesters chanted and shut down intersections for a few minutes at a time, the officers from Wayne State and Detroit police departments stood by passively.
Protesters responded in kind and never escalated the act of civil disobedience beyond marching on the streets.
“They shoot us down, we shut it down!” protesters chanted while blocking the intersection at Cass and Canfield.
Organizers encouraged the crowd to keep the peace, and DIA security had no trouble getting protesters to clear the stairs when the museum closed at 10 p.m.
At 8 p.m., the growing number of marchers met in front of the Detroit Institute of Arts for a “die-in,” a haunting exhibition in which participants utter, “I can’t breathe,” while lying on the ground to simulate the last minutes of Eric Garner’s life as a New York City cop held him in an illegal chokehold.
Throughout the night, protesters staged at least three die-ins, drawing crowds of curious and even supportive on-lookers. Young children were sprawled on the ground with their family. During the few minutes of silence that represented Garner’s death, some demonstrators cried silently or clutched the hand of the person next to them.
The marches continued until about 10 p.m. and rarely held up the festivities that drew thousands of people for Noel Night. While some people debate the effectiveness of the protests, one product of the demonstration that can’t be dismissed is the camaraderie among protesters.
One of the most indelible moments came at the end when an African American woman was moved to tears when she heard a group of white men loudly joining in on the chant, “Black Lives Matter! Black Lives Matter!”
Shirley Jackson, of Detroit, approached the young men and hugged each of them.
“You have no idea,” she told them, fanning her teary eyes.
Check back with us for updates on the next protests and reactions over the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown.
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Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.