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ACLU of Michigan seeks accountability from Detroit police after Rouge Park incident

Alexis Chingman-Tijerina and Antonio Cosme watch Jefferson Ballew perform an Indigenous welcome song in Rouge Park.
Russ McNamara
Alexis Chingman-Tijerina and Antonio Cosme watch Jefferson Ballew perform an Indigenous welcome song in Rouge Park.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan is calling on the Detroit Police Department to engage in restorative practices with local Indigenous communities.

The ACLU of Michigan sent a letter Monday urging greater understanding of Indigenous culture and to make steps toward preventing violations of religious rights in the future.

In February, DPD interrupted an Indigenous ceremony in Rouge Park. Members of the Detroit Sugarbush Project had a sacred fire going to celebrate the start of the sugar maple harvest. Some officers were rude and forced an end to the ceremony. The group didn’t have the proper permits, and DPD says the officers did nothing wrong.

Speaking Monday in Rouge Park, ACLU attorney Bonsitu Kitaba-Gaviglio said part of accountability is acknowledging a mistake.

“We are calling on the Detroit Police to recognize that they have engaged in actions which violate the constitutional rights of the native peoples here and to rectify those wrongs by engaging in a restorative justice practice and additional training and understanding of what these practices means to the native peoples here in Detroit,” Kitaba-Gaviglio said.

Members of the Detroit Sugarbush Project were celebrating the start of the sugar maple harvest. Multiple officers were caught on video being disrespectful. Detroit Police responded to the ceremony with about a dozen officers. The Detroit Police Department maintains that the officers did nothing wrong and did not face punishment, while agreeing to meet with members of the Indigenous community and do more diversity, equity and inclusion training.

The ACLU of Michigan wants to help facilitate the healing and education of the DPD when it comes to Indigenous people.

“Contrary to what many people believe, the ACLU does not enjoy suing people and we would much rather have those who have violated the rights of others acknowledge the violation and act quickly and promptly to correct the errors that have been made,” said Mark Fancher, an ACLU attorney.

Antonio Cosme is with the Detroit Sugarbush Project. He says his group – and members of the Indigenous community – have a list of demands.

“The City of Detroit must permanently recognize the Sugarbush Project and ultimately work towards land back,” Cosme says. “Land back is the concept of returning lands to the original peoples who were stewards of those lands prior to European invasion and colonization.”

The group would also like the city to formally reprimand the officers involved in disrupting the sacred fire and honor treaties affecting Indigenous rights.

A spokesperson for Detroit Police said the Indigenous groups asked for time to heal following the incident and that there’s no timetable for a meeting with people at the ceremony.

Russ McNamara is a reporter and host of All Things Considered for 101.9 WDET, presenting local news to the station’s loyal listeners. McNamara has been working in radio since he was 17 - and in news since 2012. He also worked as play-by-play announcer for Wayne State University basketball for seven years. Born in the Upper Peninsula, McNamara is a lifelong Michigander. He is a 2002 graduate of Central Michigan University’s Broadcast and Cinematic Arts Program.